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Sunday, February 04, 2007

87. From: Poetry and Ambition by Donald Hall

From: Poetry and Ambition by Donald Hall
(Every paragraph in this essay is quotable)

.... If the word "ambitious" has mellowed, "fame" has deteriorated enough to require a moment's thought. For us, fame tends to mean Johnny Carson and People magazine. For Keats as for Milton, for Hector as for Gilgamesh, it meant something like universal and enduring love for the deed done or the song sung. The idea is more classic than Christian, and the poet not only seeks it but confers it. Who knows Achilles' valor but for Homer's tongue? But in the 1980s—after centuries of cheap printing, after the spread of mere literacy and the decline of qualified literacy, after the loss of history and the historical sense, after television has become mother of us all—we have seen the decline of fame until we use it now as Andy Warhol uses it, as the mere quantitative distribution of images. . . . We have a culture crowded with people who are famous for being famous. ....

..... The United States invented mass quick-consumption and we are very good at it. We are not famous for making Ferraris and Rolls Royces; we are famous for the people's car, the Model T, the Model A—"transportation," as we call it: the particular abstracted into the utilitarian generality—and two in every garage. Quality is all very well but it is not democratic; if we insist on hand-building Rolls Royces most of us will walk to work. Democracy demands the interchangeable part and the worker on the production line; Thomas Jefferson may have had other notions but de Tocqueville was our prophet. Or take American cuisine: it has never added a sauce to the world's palate, but our fast-food industry overruns the planet. ....

"Poetry and Ambition" was originally delivered as a lecture at a meeting of the Associated Writing Programs, then turned into an essay with the addition of material from another lecture given at New England College. It appeared in the Kenyon Review, n.s., 5, no. 4 (1983), and was reprinted in Pushcart Prize IX: Best of the Small Presses, 1984-85, and the AWP Bulletin, Feb.-Mar., 1987. Published in 1988 in Poetry and Ambition: Essays 1982-88 by Donald Hall.


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