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. Read More