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This article is taken from PN Review 223, Volume 41 Number 5, May - June 2015.

Liberals: Carl Dennis and Richard Howard Stephen Burt
When, in 1950, Lionel Trilling entitled a book The Liberal Imagination, he was answering the allegation that liberals did not have one: that in its room for many tastes and versions of the good life, its insistence that we focus on process and listen to reason, a liberal art would be largely bland, or boring. The liberal ‘vision of a general enlargement and freedom and rational direction of human life,’ Trilling worried, ‘drifts towards a denial of the emotions and the imagination’.

It’s hard to believe a better vision of sweet reason, on its own, would get climate-change deniers to come around, or that it could have won Walter Mondale more elections. But a better liberal vision of reason, one that would bring us together and calm us down, is exactly what some American political writers (Barack Obama in 2008, for one) work hard to present. That better vision of liberalism as such – more exciting, more surprising, funnier, more fluid versions of fairness and process, modesty and plurality – challenges writers who feel close to the Great Society and the New Deal, especially if they’re old enough to remember either. Novelists or screenwriters can answer the challenge by showing a lot of people together, learning – or failing – to negotiate difference. But how can a poet envision – without being boring – practicality, coalition-building, pragmatic patience, and a life that finds room for varying beliefs? Is there, now, within American poetry, anything like a liberal (not to be confused with market-driven, neoliberal) imagination?

There is, ...

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