Monday, January 07, 2013

Imagination and Population

"Though shalt not sit with statisticians." (W. H. Auden)

A stray thought:

When statisticians like Andrew Gelman and Nate Silver write about politics we consider it the most natural thing in the world. After all, they know about populations, i.e., "the people". But when poets like Ezra Pound or Peter Dale Scott write about politics, we're just as likely to dismiss them as cranks. After all, they are only experts of the imagination.

The comparison isn't perfect. Pound is long dead. Scott is 84 years old this week. Gelman and Silver are much younger men. But is there a poet their age today that is writing seriously about politics (I don't mean that they might be writing political poetry), and being taken as seriously as a statistician?

None comes to mind as I write this. But it's one of those questions that you put out there and then someone immediately gives you two or three names that makes everything okay again.

I don't begrudge the statisticians their fame, by the way. But I am saddened by the irrelevance of imagination in political life. The status and function of poetry is a symptom of this.


Andrew Shields said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Shields said...

Reminds me of this old post of mine about the absence of poems as intellectual reference points:

Andrew Gelman said...


I'm not young. I'm middle-aged.

Thomas said...

@Andrew Shields: yes, the question of whether intellectuals refer to poets is part of the issue. But the other part is that of whether poets themselves enter the discussion with their expertise about imagination. Andrew has a natural authority to correct, say, Tucker Carlson when he says something wrong about how rich people vote for democrats. But when a pundit is simply unimaginative, poets have no authority to intervene.

@Andrew Gelman: sorry about that. I was looking for an economical way of saying it. I've corrected it now.

Andrew Shields said...

There's an occasional commentary by a poet on the opinion pages of the NYT; it would be interesting to look at what kinds of opinions they tend to write.