Richard Poirier taught English at Rutgers for some forty years (he died last summer), and he often argued that teaching students how to read, as distinct from teaching them how to be good citizens, or political activists, is the only thing literature professors are really good for, or qualified to do. In an essay he wrote in 1970, he suggested that “literary study can…be made relevant to life not as a mere supplier of images or visions, but as an activity; it can create capacities through exercise with the language of literature that can then be applied to the language of politics and power, the language of daily life.”
To place literary study at the crossroads of politics, the everyday, and high art has become standard practice. It is what we call cultural criticism, and everyone does it. But Poirier was one of the first, and also one of the best. I was reminded just how good he was while reading the latest issue of Raritan, the quarterly he founded in 1981 and edited for two decades (it is now edited by the historian Jackson Lears).
The current issue includes essays by regular contributors like Leo Bersani and David Bromwich, as well as poems by Richard Howard and Frederick Seidel. It also includes a remarkable folio of six “Editor’s Notes,” republished here for the first time, which Poirier wrote during the early eighties. One of the “Notes” is a prospectus describing the new magazine; another is a rebuke to Susan Sontag (for glibly equating communism and fascism); a third, from the summer of ‘82, is about watching the nightly news during the Israeli bombardment of Beirut; the last pays homage to George Balanchine.
Poirier didn’t think of himself as a public intellectual. He thought of himself as a reader, and supposed that expertise in reading that gave him the credentials for commenting on everything else. He held that a serious interest in academic theory—deconstructionism, Marxism, discourse analysis—should go with an equally serious interest in popular culture and contemporary life. Raritan always resisted the pull toward specialization. It became a general interest quarterly where you could find Edward Said interviewing Daniel Barenboim, Anne Hollander writing on fashion, or poems by Gerard Malanga. No one was allowed to use footnotes.
In this sense, Raritan can be thought of as the intellectual bridge, or missing link, between those heroic organs of the past like Partisan Review (which Poirier edited in the sixties) and contemporary little magazines like FEED, The Believer, or n+1. There is a clear line of descent from Poirier’s famous essay “Learning From the Beatles” to Mark Grief’s “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop” (both of which begin by complaining that our conventional ways of analyzing art do not help much when the subject is rock music). And Poirier’s “Notes” include the best description I know of the magazines’ shared sensibility, one that Poirier took to be typical of a certain strain of American intellectual: “They write like immigrants twice over: to the realms of thought and to the communities of ordinariness… They write theoretically in opposition to theory; they delight in learned allusions veiled in common idiom; moving along the lofty road of speculation, they suddenly take a detour into slang or obscenity.”
I’ve always felt that Raritan was an especially good name for Poirier’s magazine. The word makes you think of rarity, and the rarified, but it also denotes a borough of Somerset County, a river, and a line on the New Jersey Transit. That is, in addition to naming a state of mind, or set of tastes, it also names an actual community (and says how you get there). What is remarkable about Poirier’s vision for his magazine is that it did not finally accept the distinction between the realms of thought and “the communities of ordinariness.” Firmly ensconced in the one, Poirier never gave the impression, in his writing, or in his editorial sensibility, that he had ever left the other. The audience he imagined was simply the community of readers—an “ordinary” community that Poirier addressed from the inside, as a reader himself. This sense of belonging did not lead to comfort or complacency. Instead, it gave us a magazine that for thirty years has published some of the best, most challenging American essays and poetry you will find anywhere. The community of readers, a demotic neighbor of the republic of letters, is in this sense the most open and also the most exacting of communities. Anyone can join, but no one can get comfortable. As Poirier remarks at the end of one of his “Notes,” “The best reader may well be the common one in all of us.”