Line Break: Poetry as Social Practice


Line Break is the major work on poetry as social practice and a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary criticism or poetry. For many years, James Scully, along with others, quietly radicalized American poetry—in theory and in practice, in how it is lived as well as in how it is written. In eight provocative essays, James Scully argues provocatively for artistic and cultural practice that actively opposes structures of power too often reinforced by intellectual ...
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Line Break is the major work on poetry as social practice and a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary criticism or poetry. For many years, James Scully, along with others, quietly radicalized American poetry—in theory and in practice, in how it is lived as well as in how it is written. In eight provocative essays, James Scully argues provocatively for artistic and cultural practice that actively opposes structures of power too often reinforced by intellectual activities.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"James Scully's essays, like his poems, refuse to soothe or simplify, to shortchange either poetry or the imperative for social revolution. His fiercely demystifying intelligence is grounded in hope and realism for poetry in itself along with other forms of dissident engagement."

—Adrienne Rich

"Scully's brilliance is mesmerizing, radicalizing, a power plant producing synapses in the 'mind politic' that may well allow Americans, finally, to write and discourse with our kind around the globe. If American poets have a role to play in preserving free speech in the 21st century, this book belongs in our every backpack."

—Linda McCarriston

"Line Break is a powerful and internally consistent argument that literature, that poetry in particular, can and must fulfill its ancient duty to register and judge the conduct of human beings. Line Break extrapolates and updates Plato: a poem that does not examine life critically is not worth writing."

—Robert Bagg

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781931896184
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2005
  • Pages: 180
  • Sales rank: 928,581
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

For many years, James Scully, along with others, quietly radicalized American poetry—in theory and in practice, in how it is lived as well as in how it is written. He was born in New Haven, CT. Professor Emeritus of the University of Connecticut, he has won numerous honors, including a Lamont Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in San Francisco.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Adrienne Rich
Prefactory Notes
Remarks on Political Poetry
In Defense of Ideology
Demagogy in the Musée
The Dream of an Apolitical Poetry
Scratching Surfaces
Poetic Freedom and "Cuba"
Line Break
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First Chapter


poetry as social practice

Curbstone Press

Copyright © 2005 James Scully
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-931896-18-4

Chapter One

REMARKS ON POLITICAL POETRY excerpts from a talk

My first response to the symposium topic is to wonder what brings us to this pass, where we have a meeting about "politics and poetry." Not about kinds of politics, or kinds of poetry: just "politics" and "poetry." The issue, so defined, is so undefined it's quite crude. Not that we're to blame for this. It's remarkable that there even is such a meeting. Ordinarily "political poetry" is considered beneath comment. Nonetheless, if we look at the historical record, at the poetry that has been kept and revered, it's astounding that there are any reservations whatever about the viability of political poetry.

Of course there is a truth behind the assertion that poetry and politics don't mix, but one so warped it turns on itself. The truth is that much of what is called political poetry, or poetry that deals with politics, is hackwork. From this comes the generalization that politics destroys poetry. Yet isn't that an arbitrary conclusion? Most of any kind of poetry is hackwork, is slipshod, undemanding of itself. The work of idle hands that are maybe not idle enough. When you come upon an inept love poem you aren't likely to conclude that love and poetry don't mix. You may think the poet a bad poet, or even a callow person. And you may pass judgment on the work. But you won't jump to generalizations about the incompatibility of love and poetry.

There's a tendency to separate aesthetic quality and political poetry into mutually exclusive categories. Yet clearly anything we do has aesthetic quality (even wrapping a package: you do it well, or better, or poorly). Assertions that poetry and politics don't mix are not disinterested statements but political interventions in their own right. They presume not only that "poetry" and "politics" are autonomous categories, but also that there is such a thing as disinterested observation. Which is why, when one runs up against that particular pervasive bias, the result is seldom a discussion. There's nothing to discuss. Or so it's supposed to seem. In fact the attempt to dismiss, denigrate or suppress poetry that deals openly with political matters, or that has discomforting political implications, is just another version of the ongoing campaign-essentially a sociopolitical one-to determine what is or is not permissible in poetry. Not in poetry only, but in all expressive modes, from journalism through academic scholarship to cinema and pop music. (In one country the governing institutions call for "political" poetry. In another, the established consensus screens out all but "apolitical" poetry. Superficially they seem opposites, yet each has the same function: to block the mouth of poetry and/or cut off the view.)

Isn't it self-evident, as the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton put it, that whatever fits into life fits into poetry? If we accept this in theory, why not in practice, where theory counts? Think what's at stake. Politics is not simply one more field or subject. The political dimension is not just another facet of life. It saturates and ramifies back into the most intimate areas of our lives, including whether we have jobs or don't have jobs, where we live or don't live, whether we have babies or don't have babies, and so on. We breathe it, we live it. It is more species-specific, more significantly human, than eating or sleeping or even procreation. How pretend that it doesn't exist or matter, or that it's off limits?

Earlier I made an analogy between political poetry and love poetry. In some respects that analogy, like any other, is misleading. Not all poetry is love poetry, but is there a poetry that is not political? An apolitical poetry? Well, yes and no. I mean, the very terms are up for grabs. There's poetry that's consciously political, and poetry that is unconsciously so; and either may be explicit or implicit in its politics. But the bottom line is that all poetry is political insofar as it bears a set of assumptions about the organization and priorities of life, and carries with it a whole network of lives interpenetrating it, just as it interpenetrates life. Even its silences—sometimes especially the silences—have political content. As used ordinarily, however, "political poetry" is not applied to work that goes along with the ruling ideology of a given place or time. At the mention of "political poetry" no one is likely to think of Eliot, say, because his ideological coloration blends so well with that of the cultural stratum where his work is honored and preserved. The term "political poetry" is reserved for work that goes against the dominant ideological grain. It refers only to poetry that exhibits a certain kind of politics. Were we to use a more honest language, we might call this "dissident poetry," because that's what it is: the poetry of political dissidence.

By rights we should distinguish dissident poetry from protest poetry. Most protest poetry is conceptually shallow. I think of the typical protest anthology: poems in opposition to the Vietnam War or to the coup in Chile, ecologically concerned or antinuke poetry (with a few devastating exceptions, mainly Japanese), even poems sympathetic to workers (notably those that focus on workers' oppression, a symptomatic issue that leads to poetic moralizing while ignoring the exploitation that necessitates the oppression). Such poetry is issue-bound, spectatorial—rarely the function of an engaged artistic life, but compensation for a politically marginalized one. It tends to be reactive, victim-oriented, incapacitated, lacking the theoretical and practical coherence that could give it muscle and point. (Look at the endings of protest poems.) But the telltale characteristic of protest poetry is that it seldom speaks the active rage or resolution of people on the receiving end. I mean oppressed and exploited people. The real subject is the poet's own tender sensibilities, not what is actually, systemically going on. Dissident poetry, however, does not respect boundaries between private and public, self and other. In breaking boundaries it breaks silences: speaking for, or at best with, the silenced; opening poetry up, putting it in the middle of life rather than shunting it off into a corner. It is a poetry that talks back, that would act as part of the world, not simply as a mirror of it. Obviously such a poetry rules nothing out. Dissident poetry does therefore observe connections—say, between social empowerment and valorization and human definition—that the dominant ideology declares that 'poetry' must ignore or suppress.

Most major poetry is consciously political, and always has been. 'Where do we want to start? With Aeschylus? Virgil? Dante? Can you imagine looking Dante in the face and saying poetry and politics don't mix? And these are 'canonized' poets: Milton, Blake, whoever. Do I have to mention Dryden? And then there are those "others"—like Spenser, whose reputation was made in one of the bigger con games in literary history. This is someone who's presented as a "pure" poet, a poet's poet! But when you look at what he wrote, and why, and at what he did, it's clear he was as consciously politicized as one may be. Aspects of those politics gave his language some regional grit, but mostly they were servile, vicious—in fact murderous. Yet, mean as they are, they still in some ways strengthen his writing (for instance, the political and career concerns that shadow and deepen the "Prothalamion"). Who's to say something similar doesn't hold true for poets such as Yeats-or Pound, whose politics were potentially more lethal? Or Akhmatova: an explicit political frame of reference made her work larger and more resonant than it had been.

Politically conscious poets tend to be more profound, not less. Look again at the record. In our own time the three most formidable poets, it seems to me, were intensely "political": the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet,Vallejo and Brecht (as poet). Political in the most explicit, concrete, partisan way. What's more, their aesthetic achievement is because of their politics, not in spite of it. The most credible, full, caring love poetry has been written by one of the most expressly political poets. I refer, again, to Hikmet. In part this is because he can, and does, write of the other—who is never merely an excuse for self-immersion, and who is not reduced, either, to the condition of a delicious ahistorical object.

Finally, the propaganda that poetry and politics don't mix has served to trivialize both poetic and critical production. Not surprisingly it also tends to trivialize poetry that would break through the bubble of conventional ideology (ideology that justifies or abets the going relations of power). Such poetry is also shaped—formed and deformed, if you will—by the pressures of its time and place. Meanwhile, what has been lacking is not mindless detractors, of which there are many, but a serious, constructive, respectful criticism. A criticism mature enough to be self-effacing. Of course there is a critical industry of an abstracted sort—some of it nominally political—but it seems to have no basis in life or literature. In fact the current critical depression presents, or is symptomatic of, a serious problem facing all writers. The pressure to break poetry off into isolate fragments—to disarm it, cut it off—has made for a rather pathetic scene. As hegemonic political terms have lost institutional stability, coming unglued, our poetries and criticisms have not become more audacious, as might be expected, but distracted, withdrawn, diffident to the point of piety and arrogance. They have become mincers of words.

Ultimately this question has to be viewed in the context of the larger society: the entire web, a multilayered webbing, of social relations. What happens with so-called political poetry—how it is or is not received—does not depend on the literary world alone. But nothing else does either. This makes it only more shameful that in the literary context the response to dissent seems to be a wall of red-baiting or a wall of silence, but a wall in any case.

Just one thing I'd like to add: about the assumption that aesthetic limitations or disabilities are simply personal, or that one is personally responsible for them. There's a truth to that, surely, but a half-truth. The most decisive limitations on what we do or do not do, on how far we go or cannot go, are not essentially within us-they are historical, they're social, they surround us. Most cultural production is debilitated morally, humanly, aesthetically by the class and even caste system we must function in. No one transcends this. Yet that same system is a social creation, after all. It can and must be changed, for aesthetic as well as for other profoundly human reasons.

[By way of conclusion I read a few poems. One concerned a friend of mine who is illiterate. The point was that his illiteracy stifles us, that without him—his access, his participation—whatever we write is disabled. The issue of poetries and criticisms cannot be considered apart from the social question.]


"Ideology" is becoming a socially degraded term. Wherever we turn, the guardians of cultural order are proscribing someone or something for being ideological—meaning, usually, that the offending party has a consistent, if not necessarily coherent, set of social and political ideas. Institutional intellectuals in particular seem intent on removing ideology from the realm of discussion. They manage this by reifying the concept of ideology. That is, by lumping it. Ideology goes on, but its degraded concept becomes a tar-and-feathers for certain classes of enemy who may be smeared, burned, with the epithet "ideological." In effect the bourgeois cultural apparatus tries to deny ideology by dehistoricizing it, by associating it with the perversion of ideas and "truth," and by dissociating it from the problematic and practice of power.

We have compelling reason to rehistoricize and socially resituate the concept of ideology, restoring it as an instrument of liberation. The alternative, which is no alternative at all, is to let it be conscripted by social silence and reaction.

the concept as a site of struggle

The concept of ideology is itself a site of ideological struggle. Here and now that site is appropriated and reappropriated, furiously domesticated, by the bourgeoisie and its cultural functionaries. Their obfuscation of it is a tactic in what Gramsci called "the war of position," the struggle to overturn, or to maintain, the ideological hegemony exercised by any ruling class (regardless of composition, and regardless of what metaphysical taxonomy that class conforms to or confounds) over the social formation as a whole. A war, we might add, conducted with comparable intensity in fields of race, gender and nation.

A generalized, ahistorical concept of ideology only reinstates critical unconsciousness. It is itself ideological, helping to maintain the status quo while appearing not to do so. A historically situated concept, however, may be counter-hegemonic. It need not be an instrument of suppression.

the bourgeois (ideological) definition of ideology

Any capitalist system, no matter how sophisticated or crude, must turn what it touches into a commodity. Goods, tools, artworks and people are dehistoricized, stripped of human significance and shrouded in parody value ('exchange value'). Rather than being constituted as subjects, they are laid out as historical objects. They become the debris of history, not a compelling motive informing it. People are purged of humanity, but so too are goods, institutions, ways of being born and making love and dying ... as are 'intangibles,' concepts, including the concept of ideology.

Active and passive defenders of the status quo define ideology as bad or false political ideas. Yet they aren't the only ones to do so. Many leftists resent the application of this definition, especially as it is used against them. Nonetheless they go along with the definition itself, accepting "ideology" as meaning ideas that are clung to irrationally, superstitiously, like an amulet against the evil eye. To be ideological is to be dogmatic, numbskulled, willful. Eventually their fear of being labeled "ideological" slides over into a fear of ideas as such, especially ideas that demand enactment.

The ramifications are not always amusing. Anti-intellectual leftists may brandish the dis-articulated epithet "ideological" in the same way, for the same reason, that bourgeois rightists and liberals do—to dismiss communist ideas without having to contend with them. Slogans appealing to "workers" may be tagged and rejected as "ideological." Yet "worker" is a material, socially locatable category. At the very least a worker (occupational forms aside) is anyone who must live by the sale of his or her labor power, and who has no other life-sustaining resources. Yet those same leftists may direct their own slogans to "the people," though "the people" is an immaterial category used opportunistically, which is to say demagogically, by everyone from the KKK to the president to rightist and leftist protest groups. They conceive "the people" as a loose baggy monster, albeit a benign one. It may be plumped up with anything, with all kinds of indigestible contradictions crammed into it. The terrible thing is, under this evasive, stubborn, obfuscating regime any attempt at definition can only degenerate into a kind of mud-wrestling ... into the head-butting, sectarian arrogance that keeps the bourgeois left churning in place. A place, we might add, assigned to it by this wonderful system of exploitation with its fringe, its scattering fringe, of symbolic opposition.

The fundamental problem is this: a concept of ideology that reduces "ideology" to a metahistorical category of damnation may reinforce or stigmatize beliefs but it cannot critique them. Under it, empowered social values are unlikely to be considered ideological, whereas systemically subversive values assuredly will be. Yet the determination of what is or is not politically bad or false, or dogmatic, or "ideological," is power. Truth doesn't separate the non-ideological sheep from the ideological goats—power does.


Excerpted from LINE BREAK by JAMES SCULLY Copyright © 2005 by James Scully. Excerpted by permission of Curbstone Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Posted January 22, 2009

    essays by a poet on arbitrary walls and mistaken assumptions in society

    Scully says that in the eight essays he means to question the 'fetishes we find ourselves wearing like ankle bracelets...that enable cultural overseers to shut us up in a kind of house arrest.' Adrienne Rich remarks in her 'Foreword' on this poet's 'fiercely demystifying intelligence.' Yes, Scully fiercely, uncompromisingly, brings his hopes for a truly, thoroughly humane world into the light. Such hopes are often preceded by trenchant, riveting critiques on writings, ideas, and states of affairs and sometimes the hopes are bound in with these in a struggle. Such struggling especially is the sign that besides having a cogent moral sense and articulated vision, Scully is a consummate realist. He does not abandon common, inevitable life for promises, visions, or programs of a heavenly life. What he surely does bring to light is the true notion that 'ankle bracelets' need not be an inevitable or permanent part of life, nor be the defining attribute of it. The essays mostly and ostensibly about poetry, writing style, expression and all its sources and destinations are in a larger sense and ultimately about larger life than most are accustomed to, and than most can even conceive of. The essays packed with serious and reflective thought, earnest with teaching and persuasion, and buoyant with inspiration and possibility demonstrate once again that the best writing on politics, culture, and individual life and its choices usually comes from accomplished poets such as Scully. Essays of Seamus Heaney are another example.

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