“Should Poetry Be Ethical or Otherwise?”


In recent years there has been a good deal of important work on the relation between poetry and ethics. Not surprisingly, one conclusion to be drawn from this material is that the relation between poetry and ethics is highly conflicted, not simply because of the conceptual instability of the terms in question—“Ethics does not exist,” says Alain Badiou (Ethics, 28)—but also because any effort of conjunction threatens to limit the autonomy that opens the practice of poetry to its multifarious futures. (On my desk, as I write this, is a copy of TLS containing a review, entitled “The Poetry of Ethics,” of Geoffrey Hill’s Collected Critical Writings. The reviewer, Adam Kirsch, notes that ever since his first book of poems, published in 1959, “Hill has been concerned with the ethics of poetry. What, if anything, makes it morally acceptable to write poetry in an age dominated by suffering and evil?” The word “barbarism” has had poetry under surveillance for at least the last half-century.) Like the effort to link up poetry and the political—the critical mandate from the 1970s whose force is still felt both in and out of the seminar room—the articulation of poetry and ethics carries with it—certainly with the best of intentions—an attempt to provide poetry with a justification that it neither wants nor needs. The ghost of Aristotle spooks the whole project. But what if poetry, at least in some of its versions, only gets interesting when it is in excess of its reasons for being?

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