Jan/Feb 2016 • Vol. XXXVIII No. 1 Nonfiction |

Who Know in Singing Not to Sing: Poetry and Decorum in the Fallen World

Once upon a time, it was common to talk about decorum in art. These days, not so much. Neither the literary nor the social applications of the term sit well in an age that must, at minimum, give lip service to ideals of democracy. Decorum suggests a kind of secret handshake, a set of proprieties used by those in power to enact their superiority. It presents privilege as achievement—as if the habits of the well-off were emblematic of distinction—and serves to walloff opportunity from those whose different cultural habits therefore suggest some kind of depravity. Definitions of the word, whether in literary or cultural contexts, consistently involve words like "propriety" and "polite," neither of which leaves any room for pushing back against or imagining value independent of a society in which power continues to aggregate in the hands of an elite that invests first and often and immorally in the underpinnings of its own elite status—even if it now knows enough to be wary of the

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Jonathan Farmer is the editor in chief and poetry editor of At Length and Critic at Large for the Kenyon Review. He has written about poetry for publications that include Slate.com, Literary Hub, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Poetry Foundation. He teaches middle and high school English and lives in Durham, NC.

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Sparrow Needy

By Kenneth McClane

Once upon a time, it was common to talk about decorum in art. These days, not so much. Neither the literary nor the social applications of the term sit well […]

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