POETRY AND THE POLITICS OF AIRY NOTHING
by Robert Klein Engler
During the waning days of the Republic, with so many political scandals in the news and the advent of a fundamental change in America advanced by a fabricated president, it may seem trivial to ask, “What is the role of American poetry in the 21st century?
If we believe Shakespeare in his Midsummer Night’s Dream, one role poetry has is to give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. In the case of American poetry, many poetry critics only wish poetry were simply an airy nothing, rather than what American poetry has become at the beginning of the 21st century–propaganda for the progressive state.
Just as we learn from history the change that took place in Latin poetry as Rome moved from Republic to Empire, so we may learn from American poetry how poetry in the United States has moved from pomp to propaganda.
Is it safe to say in academia what anyone who reads poetry knows and feels; contemporary poetry has come up against a brick wall? If you’ve read W. Jackson Bate, you knew this wall was coming. You knew that the motive and inspiration for poetry in the modern age would wear itself out. Bates writes in “The Burden of the Past, “When we turn to our own era, we have to admit that the transition to a new poetic idiom of the early and middle twentieth century was almost as rapid (as other shifts), and that it was analogous to the neoclassical transition…
Nevertheless, the transition of modern poets made to become spokespersons for progressive propaganda was hardly neoclassical. Instead, it was a transition into the dregs of Romanticism. In 2015, the dregs are gone, now. Not even the fumes remain. We are left to slam and read Maya Angelou.
Perhaps the collapse of poetry into propaganda for the progressive state was bound to happen. Artists are often more liberal than the general population and easily believe that the unicorns of their imagination are found somewhere in the real world.
But beyond that, we may also argue that a decay in the art of poetry after the the art is similar to W. Jackson Bate argued happened to Romanticism. “…we are now facing once again…(a time) like those great animals we find in the prairies and jungles of Africa and parts of the Americas, still able for a while to roam and graze free, but inevitably doomed…”
This collapse and decay we see and hear nowadays couldn’t be more evident than what we find in popular music. The creative output of rock-n-roll artists in the 60s is over. The popular music of the 21st century is derivative, and is only saved from being dull by rap. Nevertheless, rap has its root the civil rights and victim metaphor that is the ruling metaphor of contemporary poetry. Add to that the fact that rap is an abuse of the classical English iambic pentameter line, and we appreciate why the barbarians could never master the subtle of Latin poetry in its golden age.
Some say that any talk of a golden age decaying into a Brass Age is reactionary criticism. Contemporary American poetry seems so varied and there are so many American poets, or at least so many claiming to be poets, how can there be a unified way of talking about contemporary poetry? American poetry reflects the complex freedoms of the present, not the royalty and stratification of a bygone age.
Complexity is often a mask to hide the underlying reality that there is no standard by which a contemporary poem can be judged good or bad. Nowadays, poets are free, free with the freedom of a runaway slave. When form, meter and rhyme were elements of poetry, at least one could say the rules were followed, in spite of a moribund content.
What standard is there, today, that we may apply to understand why some poems are published or some poets become poet laureates? The standard is that there is an overriding metaphor that distinguishes acceptable American poetry of the last century. That metaphor is the grand metaphor of civil rights and victimhood. It is this metaphor that is used in service of progressive state. We have raised up a generation of poets that does not know what the word agitprop means.
In his review, “America’s Most Prominent Emerging Poets Respond to the Obama Administration,” Anis Shivani, a fiction writer, poet and critic makes the claim that in Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days (University of Iowa Press, 2010), “The first thing to note is the overwhelming uniformity of the political ideology behind these poems.”
“Among these 100 stars, there is hardly a poet who reveals himself/herself to adhere to anything other than a strict middle-of-the-road Democratic politics…There’s not a Republican, not a conservative, not a libertarian, not a radical of any sort here…there isn’t…anything different than what you might expect from a bunch of Democratic party functionaries…”
This complaint about contemporary American poetry was echoed in Ron Charles’ Washington Post essay, “Why is modern Poetry So Bad?”
Not to be undone, Seth Abramson mounts a liberal defense of Charles’ essay. He writes in the Huffington Post that one reason modern poetry is so good is because, “We elected to office (Obama) a man who writes poetry, reads poetry, and invites poets to his House to read their work.”
Few Obama supporters know that two of Obama’s poems had been published in the New York Times in 2008. Obama’s poems received critical attention then, not only from those in academia, but also from those on the political right.
A critic of Obama’s poems, Dr. Eowyn, claims, “One (poem) is the cringe-worthy ‘Underground,’ about ‘apes that eat figs.’ The other poem, ‘Pop,’ is much more interesting, biographical, and disturbing.” Eowyn believes “Pop” is disturbing because it deals with a man-boy relationship.
To discover that contemporary American poetry may be not only about man-boy relationships, but also blatant propaganda for the progressive state is to raise the question, why is this so? One reason for poets support of the progressive state may be because there has been an influx of women poets into the literary world.
These women poets temper the metaphor of civil rights and victimhood to mainly discuss three topics: family, home and nature. This tempered use of the metaphor is evident in Natasha Trethewey’s poem, “Pastoral.” Beyond that, the themes of nature, family and home mix with progressive politics to earn Trethewey a place as a US poet laureate.
Does it happen by chance that when the United States has a so-called mixed-race president, the country also has a mixed-race poet laureate? “As the child of an illegal mixed-race marriage in (Gulf Port) Mississippi, born on Confederate Memorial Day, Natasha Trethewey grew up in the shadow of Jim Crow, in what she called ‘the most Southern place on earth.’”
Beside the emotional attachment to the metaphor of civil rights and victimhood at work in the poet’s mind, there is the psychology of creativity itself. Poets live often in an imaginary world. Many poets forget that their imaginary world cannot be brought over to the real world. Poetic dreams may have local habitation and a name on a page, but the dream is still an airy nothing. Reality forces everyone, even poets to ask, “A bird may love a fish, but where would they live?”
In his essay, “The Literature of Politics,” the poet T. S. Eliot asks, “But how, in the end, does a mere writer affect political life?” Today, the mere poets who never read Eliot anymore, can be said not to affect politics, but to reflect it. Perhaps the poet W. H. Auden had it spot on when he wrote, “Poetry makes nothing happen,” except perhaps in the mind of the poet and the reader.
Poetry may not make nothing happen, but the politics of metaphor may do otherwise. Even when we attempt to speak metaphorically, or off the cuff, we are often confronted with critics who only allow certain metaphors and not others. Unless the metaphor plays into the gran metaphor of civil rights and victimhood, we are censored by progressives who want a pure language of social justice.
Recently, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, spoke about a swarm of immigrants invading his country. Right away he was criticized. The metaphor of a swarm was claimed to be “incendiary” and “irresponsible, dehumanizing language.” Cameron’s comment wasn’t even a poem. Imagine if such words were to appear in Poetry Magazine.
This political tempest in a teacup demonstrates in miniature the argument put forward here. If Aristotle is correct in his claim that the essence of poetry is metaphor, then in our time there are only certain metaphors allowed in the progressive state. These are the metaphors of civil rights and victimhood. Any poem that does not admit to this will be censored. Critics will swarm over a poet who writes otherwise, and in so swarming, induce him fall to death from the heights of Mount Parnassus.
So, we can say of the progressive poet enthralled by the metaphor of civil rights and victimhood what T. S. Eliot said of J. B. Shaw, “…one is compelled to admire…such verbal agilities not only to conceal from his readers and audiences the shallowness of his own thought, but to persuade them that in admiring his work they were giving evidence of their own intelligence as well.”
Beyond that, no matter how much poets wish their poetry would bring about fundamental social change, all that contemporary poetry does is offer confirmation that the poet is a member of the same political tribe. When politicians and poets do mix, they do so only at progressive cocktail parties.
To be fair, the politics of American poetry is not always left leaning. Ted Kooser was chosen as the US Poet Laureate in 2004. That’s when George W. Bush was President of the United States. “And Kooser is from the Midwest. (Billy) Collins suggests that Kooser’s appointment is ‘an intentional pick.’ He says, ‘The middle section of the country needed greater poetic representation.’”
But notice the rational for the selection of Kooser. It’s an “intentional” pick, not based on the quality of his poetry, but on politics. “The middle section of the country needed greater poetic representation.” Affirmative Action has come to the artist in the corn belt.
Now that the middle section of the country got its due, it’s time to get back to the real purpose of poetry, civil rights and victimhood. For many years, the airy nothing of contemporary poetry has served well as propaganda for the progressive state. Ironically, this is no different from the function of official poetry in the old Soviet Union or the poetic arts practiced in Communist China, today.
The final irony of clinging to the metaphor of civil rights and victimhood when aspiring to be a poet is that it is not in the interest of white males to do so. Nevertheless, many white males still wear the wool of civil rights in an attempt to be accepted by the flock. They do not realize that where the dead metaphor of civil rights and victimhood prevails, white males are no longer wanted.
In his essay, “The Future of English Poetry” (1913), Edmund Gosse could be writing about the poets who survive nowadays in academia. Little did Gosse know of their politics or that they would promote the metaphor of civil rights and victimhood. But all the same, he writes as if he did know. The “…minutest analysis and microscopical observation of one’s self…should not be the year-long habitation of any healthy intelligence.”
A hundred years has passed since Gosse attempted to predict the future of English poetry. His predictions did not fare well. The same could be said for other warnings about poetry. Barbarism has a life of its own. In spite of W. H Auden’s warning in “Under Which Lyre”, “Thou shalt not sit/ With statisticians nor commit/ A social science,” there is now little difference in academia between the departments of sociology and English.
Who may predict the death of a metaphor? If a metaphor dies because it is no longer popular, then it no longer joins two worlds in the imagination. Beyond that we can agree with Aristotle that metaphor is the essence of poetry. If the metaphor of civil rights and victimhood is dying, then it is taking contemporary poetry with it. There is just so much poor-little-me-ism a person may put up with, both at parties and on the page.
Even making the poetry of civil rights and victimhood popular has not infused new life into what some see as a dying art. If anything, readers are weary of suffering in all the arts. “According to the latest numbers, poetry is less popular than jazz. It’s less popular than dance, and only about half as popular as knitting. The only major arts category with a narrower audience than poetry is opera…” And now, with same-sex marriage nation wide, we may likewise see the death of opera. Instead of going out to weep, opera queens will be forced to stay at home with their boring husbands. Adiós, Wagner.
The grand metaphor of civil rights and victimhood is the last stage in poetic development, the last stage of a worn out Romanticism. Poets now solve the creative problems and anxieties brought on by the weight of the past by abolishing the past. This abolition of the past is what we used to call barbarism. Now, it is called social justice. Just go to the once great Englewood neighborhood in Chicago. You don’t need a poet to see the metaphor of civil rights and victimhood writ large. Just use your eyes.
Perhaps it may be a 100 years or more before a scholar, from a new Southern Confederacy, will record the decline of American poetry, as he compares 20th century writing to what is popular in his own time. Looking back, he sees those civil rights poets not as the giant race before the flood, but as the flood itself.
By then, the great metaphor of civil rights and victimhood that dominated the 20th century will be dead. It will have been killed by progressive politicians who no longer need such poetry to advance their politics of chaos, victimhood and revenge.
Will a more conservative and Southern poetry then take the place of what the North wore out? Perhaps a 100 years from now we will recognize that after Auschwitz and Freud there can be no more art. Who knows the future planned in academia to fill the vacuum? Before a metaphor is buried it may be propped up like the poor, dead Mozell* and used again in a swan song.
*The Dead Mozell Cafe, once on Iberville near Dauphine, in New Orleans, is now closed, yet the story of the girl who bares the cafe’s name is an example of haunting and helplessness. Little Mozell was twelve when she became sick with what was probably typhoid. There was no doctor in the area to consult, so the family relied on the advice of a veterinarian. He recommended amputation of the arm. After that operation, Mozell acquired an infection and died. Prior to Mozell’s sickness, her parents had contracted with a photographer to take a picture of Mozell and their two other daughters. It took the photographer about a month to leave his shop and travel to the farm where the picture was to be shot. He knew nothing of Mozell’s illness. By the time he arrived on the farm, Mozell had already died. What were the parents to do? They very much wanted a picture of their three daughters together. They took Mozell’s corpse, dressed it in white, propped it up on a board and had a sister stand on each side. The photographer fulfilled his contract and a picture was taken. An enlarged copy of this photograph, showing two live sisters and one dead one, used to hang by a little altar in the Dead Mozell Cafe.
Robert Klein Engler lives in Omaha, Nebraska and sometimes New Orleans. Many of Robert’s poems, stories, paintings and photographs are set in the Crescent City. His long poem, “The Accomplishment of Metaphor and the Necessity of Suffering,” set partially in New Orleans, is published by Headwaters Press, Medusa, New York, 2004. He has received an Illinois Arts Council award for his “Three Poems for Kabbalah.” If you google his name, then you may find his work on the Internet. Link with him at Facebook.com to see examples of his recent paintings and photographs. Some of his books are available at Lulu.com and amazon.com.