Saturday, June 06, 2009

Texas poet laureate returns to first love: writing poetry

From the Houston Chronicle:

So Ruffin, a professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville and editor of the Texas Review, has returned to the form where he first found success.

And if at first it was simply pragmatic — what writer would say no to the offer of a new book? — he has taken fresh pleasure from a field often criticized as unwelcoming to the casual reader.

“Contemporary poets got so obscure that poetry kind of fell out of favor,” Ruffin said.

No worries about that with these new poems, taken from themes he had written about in a weekly column for the Huntsville Item: A consideration of Amelia Earhart’s final flight, or the fictional saga of a 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy impregnated by a security guard. Another offers instructions for eating chicken backs.

None of which is to say that Ruffin takes poetry lightly.

“I always want my poems to be understood by a general audience, and then I want there to be more there.”

Ruffin himself is equally multilayered, an educator who belongs to the National Rifle Association and feels at home whether running a literary journal or tangling with balky plumbing.

“It’s a rare thing for a college professor, and especially an English professor, to be a conservative and a member of the NRA, or to be able to change the oil in their own car,” he said. “I’m a Renaissance man.”

More here.

Okay, I have no idea who this guy is. I've never read any of his poetry. For that matter, I'm not much of a fan of poetry, generally. But I really, really, really like his attitude about poetry, which I extend to all the arts.

Throughout the history of Western civilization, artists have always occupied a social space somewhere outside the mainstream, being in essence, as they are, commentators on the societies in which they live. But at some point in the nineteenth century, artists, no doubt spurred on by the Romantics, greatly upped the ante on this sense of social exceptionalism. That is, artists began to believe that they were more enlightened than, more emotionally sensitive than, in many ways simply better than the great mass of regular ordinary people who do not have the scholastic background to fully appreciate their art, which by the early twentieth century was becoming increasingly weird and off-putting to those who are not in the club. In short, serious artistes of all varieties have become elitist snobs who are far more concerned about the reactions of club members, which include other artists, critics, and effete dillitantes, than the reactions of plain folk.

It took decades, but the net result has been to render serious art meaningless to the lives of most human beings in the West, especially in America, where its citizens, by their very nature, tend to distrust and disdain elitist snobs. This both infuriates and saddens me. I'm infuriated that this elitist art culture persists in the face of its own social irrelevancy. I'm saddened because art is one of the most marvelous innovations in the history of humanity, and most of my countrymen couldn't care less about it, and really, I don't blame them, given the negative attitude thrust on them by so many artists.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

Serious artists, if they give a shit at all about the relevancy of their work, ought to shun the serious art institutions, serious art social circles, and elitist serious art attitudes that have placed a massive cultural barrier between their work and the people. Indeed, artists would well serve themselves by coming out of their ivory towers, Soho studios, Lincoln Centers, and cocktail party/art openings at expensive galleries to mingle with their "inferiors." They might learn a bit more about what it means to be a human being at the dawn of the twenty first century.

This guy, Texas Poet Laureate Paul Ruffin, appears to have lived his entire life this way, making himself a role model for what relevant art ought to look like. Maybe I should buy his new book.