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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

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The Public/Private Distinction in Larry Fagin's Verse
by Kirby Olson ||
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Larry Fagin is not a political poet, or not a public poet, but rather a private poet, celebrating moments of awkward urban perception that have no political bearing whatsoever.

     Poor lady
     with a baby
     but the baby
     doesn't know.

     (Fagin, 58)

     This then brings up a problem. If a private poem is meant to be published, does it not therefore make it into a public poem? Is everything that is published in some sense political? To what extent does a community have the right to critique that which is public, even though it is meant as private?
     The public/private distinction is rarely discussed in regards to contemporary poetry. Essentially a private art form, it is nevertheless public, in that it must be published, or read, in order for it to exist. For this to occur, there must be institutions for it to take place. Poetry must have a platform, and must exist in schools, in groups. While many poets dream of solitude, and when we think of poetry we think of it as a private format in which innermost thoughts can be presented, it is nevertheless, ironically, a public format, in that it takes at least two to appreciate a poem, at least the writer and a reader. For a long time the modernist poets thought that they needed to write for themselves, first, but what use is this? Pound cited Remy de Gourmont, to the effect that, "To frankly write exactly what one thinks, is the sole pleasure of the writer" (Pound, 47). In order for work to be disseminated, however, for people to hear that truth, it must have at least a publisher, a group of bookstores, and readers, all of whom must be supported by educational institutions, such as libraries, universities, and reviewers.
     It is my own intention to show the profound complicity between poets and institutions. There is a long and growing debate over whether poets should partake in schools, and whether or not schools are good for poets or not. It is my contention that poets can only form schools, and without the school, there is no poetry.
     Liberal universities have certain protections against personal abuse. For instance, tenure is supposed to be a protection of the individual against the encroachment of the collectivity, so that if a professor has something unpopular, but true, that they would like to publish, they will not be fired. It is supposed to be a guarantee against personal prejudice, and against petty infighting, and scapegoating. A university is a dynamic place, or should be. It should be a place in which dissension and rivalry are not only permitted, but encouraged. It rarely is.
     I first met Fagin at Naropa University in 1977 where he worked as a poetry professor. Since then and before that he ran aspects of St. Marks. His own work is permeated by those institutions and by the people he worked with. Is poetry the place that publicly guarantees a place for the private? Is Fagin's poetry made of institutional stereotypes, or iconoclasms? To what extent does he escape stereotypes? It is the constant clash between stereotypes and iconoclasms that strikes me as interesting in his work.
     If poetry is private, it doesn't need institutions. If it becomes public, it immediately becomes political. St. Marks is thus political (like all institutions). The liberal west took several thousand years to develop a distinction between the public and the private. In western law, such private matters as marital choice, place of residence, and occupation have been considered an individual choice for hundreds of years. In many Asian societies, by contrast, marital choice, occupation, and place of residence are decided by an elder. In spite of Buddhist influence on contemporary American poetry, we are still individualist in relation to our institutions.
     Fagin writes:

     After insipid poetry reading
     Light up your fantasy
     Lilies lips and sandal-wood!
     O fantasy of Betty Codell!

     (Fagin, 28)

     The poetry reading is public, but the part afterwards is generally thought to be private. However, it arises only in relation to the institution of the poetry reading, which provokes poets to record their phantasms.


Fagin, Larry. I'll Be Seeing You: Poems 1962-1976, Full Court Press, NY,      1978.
Pound, Ezra. "Interview," Paris Review Interviews, Viking, NY, 1963.

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