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political standardsI recently reviewed Leo Yankevich’s latest collection, and only just read an interview with Mr. Yankevich given by the publisher, Counter-Currents. I stand by what praise I gave the volume, in spite of Mr. Yankevich’s own admission that “One of the central themes of…Tikkun Olam is the destructiveness of Jewish power.” Such connotations never once occurred to me, and without getting too couched in politically correct apologies, I am not an anti-Semite, and I enjoyed the poetry as much as I reject its apparent anti-Semitism.

The point to be made here is that one can reject the politics of a poet—even of an individual poem—and still admire the art.

Mr. Yankevich claims that “all art is propaganda whether its creator intends it to be or not.” This is not true. Mr. Yankevich is (ironically) buying into on the central tenet of the Marxist theory of literature, as laid out by Walter Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Mr. Benjamin asserts that art has one of two functions: the ritual, or the political. In the modern world, “instead of being based on ritual, [art] begins to be based on another practice – politics.” Communism and Fascism, he supposes, were the first two political movements to embrace the politicization of art: “[The] situation of politics…Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.” In other words, Fascism aestheticizes politics; Communism politicizes aesthetics. What Mr. Yankevich posits is, in fact, this supposed Fascist theory of art, which is practically indistinguishable from the Marxist.

That is not to say we need to take Marxists exactly at their word. For Walter Benjamin, there was only one religion—Kabbalah—and only one politics—Marxism. While Kabbalistic art is purposefully religious, Western art has long since drifted to and fro the central axis of Christianity, with such devoutly Catholic poets as T.S. Eliot praising and admiring more ambiguous, and perhaps sacrilegious, novelists like James Joyce. But the wider point, perhaps, is this: Art can either serve political ends, or it can serve some other ends.

What those ends are is the topic for another conversation. But let us be clear: Poetry very certainly should serve that “other purpose,” if only because, as a political medium, poetry is useless. I detected no anti-Semitism or Semitophobia whatsoever in Mr. Yankevich’s verse, and certainly did not come away from the book feeling privy to a secret “Jewish power” conspiracy. I would not call myself an anti-Communist so much as a non-Communist: I do not oppose Communism anymore than I oppose other systems I think are erroneous; and yet Tikkun Olam is a self-declared piece of anti-Communist propaganda.

In fact, Mr. Yankevich’s collection convinced me of nothing but his merits as a poet.

But lest we should think this is more a reflection on Mr. Yankevich’s poetic talent, consider the legacy of Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier.” It is a famous little sonnet that starts,

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England.

soldier_poetsI quite like the poem, in part because of my supposed Anglophilia and in part because I am fond of World War I poetry in general. But a professor of mine, lecturing on First World War sonnets, read the poem from start to finish; paused; and said, “I’m Welsh.” That was enough. Never mind that the tens of thousands of Australians, Canadians, Indians, or even the hundreds of thousands of Americans who also died in World War I. Welsh nationalism had stuffed the poem up for this acclaimed and brilliant young Shakespeare scholar. “The Soldier” is a beautiful piece of propaganda, but it is one that can easily be disliked and dismissed if one rejects the politics. Whether that is the fault of the poet or the reader is irrelevant, though I suspect it is not exactly “blameworthy” at all. The point is this: Someone predisposed toward a certain political, religious, or philosophical position may enjoy or take heart from a poem like “The Soldier,” but it is not going to change any minds. A convinced pacifist-internationalist isn’t going to pick up Brooke and become a hawkish nationalist. Nor, really, should they: We would hope such a tremendous change of heart would be informed by practical and moral considerations—even above aesthetic ones. Without a doubt, any practical point we have to make about politics is better said in prose than poetry. Better to read a logical, well-constructed essay on the pros or cons of entering the First World War than Brooke or Siegfried Sassoon, respectively.

On the other hand, we have profoundly Conservative poets who’have undoubtedly established themselves as canonical. That this continues to occur in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in notable cases such as Eliot’s, means their poetry has convinced a predominantly left-wing circle of academics and critics. While Eliot himself wrote a number of famously anti-Semitic poems (notably “Gerontion” and “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar”), our progressive and Marxist literati—many of whom would officially support Mr. Benjamin’s theory of political poetry—have not even tried to blacklist Eliot. This is, of course, because, regardless of his political views, Eliot was a matchless poet. The same is true of Pound, an ardent Fascist and Yeats, an aristocratic elitist. Though this may yet change, as it stands Conservative poets are not persecuted for their political views. (The exception that proves the rule is Roy Campbell, an outspoken South African Francoist.)

Likewise, I think it would be self-evidently ridiculous to reject the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Louis Macniece because they were left-wing. Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” is a terrible poem. It’s a mangled tract for bourgeois degeneracy written in choppy, artless prose. Lord Alfred Douglas’s “Two Loves” is also more or less a tract for bourgeois degeneracy, but as a poem it is far better constructed. I admire Lord Douglas, and I do not think his themes would seriously alienate a Conservative reader.

We do not have to feel at all threatened by the political views of a poet, nor do we have any evidence whatsoever to say that, (a) a great poem’s right-wing politics is alienating to a left-wing reader, or vice versa; or (b) poetry goes very far toward effectively articulating a certain political view. It would be as silly to judge a poem by its politics as it would be to judge Das Kapital by the quality of its prose. Their aims are entirely distinct. (Some exceptions being the didactic poetry of Dryden, et al.)

So what, then, is poetry’s relationship with politics? That, too, is probably a topic for another conversation. But if we can agree that the poetic and the political are at least distinct, we should also acknowledge that they need noy(and perhaps cannot) be entirely divorced. The poet definitely should not rely on how correct he thinks his politics are, as it won’t compensate for any shoddy poetics. Rather, a poem dwelling on political themes should be held to the same standard as a poem dwelling on nature, or love, or religion: the poetic standard; that is, the execution of poetics. What this entails is, again, too lengthy to be discussed here. But as readers, academics, and critics, we should be careful not to prejudice ourselves for or against a poem or poet because we agree with their philosophy. Anyone primarily interested in religion should write and critique theology; anyone primarily interested in politics should go directly to politics. Poetry, when not addressing its own medium, will frustrate the reader, the writer, and the poem itself.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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12 replies to this post
  1. It is impossible to understand poetry abstracted from the politics of the poet, not to mention the faith of the poet.

    That literatti and the academia in general propose to do it is only a testimony to the fact that they have been unable, as of yet, to destroy the significance of certain poets for national consciousness, and on the road to this destruction, they have chosen a means: seperate the poem from the poet, seperate the thoughts and beliefs of the poet from his words. Thanks to this, the academia has succeeded in making it seem as if poetry is accessable only to them, not to the nations, and then only to those of the academy who do not take poetry seriously.

    Even the most dissattached or universal poet is always expressing an attachment to place, time, people, history – to a locale of the cosmos. The literatti and academics, themselves striving to be dissattached because it is easiest to feign wisdom at a distance, incapable of ever writing Great Poetry, try with all their might to dissect the Great National Poets and dismember the bonds of faith, place, individual and poem.

    They will and have failed. The Great Poets endure in national consciousness – the academics and literatti end up with their little pamphlets, studies and working papers where they belong: in the dustbin of history.

    • Dear Mr Rieth,

      Thank you for your comment.

      When you say, ‘The Great Poets endure in national consciousness’, that’s absolutely true. But what do we mean by that? Of course, not poets being dragged out occasionally to read a few lines at an inauguration, anniversary of war, etc.; and then being forgotten until they’re needed again. Great poetry can only really be said to endure in the national consciousness when that nation is, (a) literate, and (b) recognizably in continuity with the national culture that spawned the poetry in question And as we’ve seen with the Soviet Union et al., not only does a nation’s culture not necessarily change at the beck and call of the State, sometimes the State is in fact *unable* to detach a nation from its cultural roots.

      This isn’t even touching on the issue of disinterest. I’d hazard to guess most American students are either apathetic or antipathetic toward Shakespeare, and yet Shakespeare is so entrenched in the English language and Anglophone culture that he could probably endure for centuries after the last reader put him away!

      So it seems pretty clear that poetry’s relationship to the national consciousness has nothing to do with politics, either for better or worse. That isn’t to say governments might (and do) suppress certain poets for their political views, but but it probably means that those measures aren’t necessary. Is ‘Beowulf’ worse as a poem because it couldn’t fortify the Anglo-Saxon mind in cycles of honour and revenge? Or is ‘Paradise Lost’ inadequate because it didn’t prevent English Puritanism from collapsing? No, of course not. They both endure in the English canon—despite insurmountable political and religious disagreement and contradiction between them—because of the use of language and something relating to insights into the historical mind. (I’m sorry that statement is so vague; I have a tendency to make claims far larger than the confines of my thinking, and I don’t want to make any half-baked and ultimately indefensible statements.)

      On the other hand, to address your first comment, ‘It is impossible to understand poetry abstracted from the politics of the poet, not to mention the faith of the poet,’ all I can do is quote Eliot: In criticism, ‘… interpretation is only legitimate when it is not interpretation at all, but merely putting the reader in possession of facts which he would otherwise have missed,’ and, later, ‘Comparison and analysis need only the cadavers on the table; but interpretation is always producing parts of the body from its pockets, and fixing them in place.’ (From ‘The Function of Criticism’) We can say with confidence that the poet is referencing this-or-that phrase from the Latin Mass, and this-or-that battle in French history; but when we say what the poet *means* by those references is far more subjective and unscientific.

      Now, it’s very probable that a traditional, catholic Christian will find a great deal that’s personally enriching and enlightening in Eliot’s poetry, which of course do deal with heavily religious and philosophical themes. But does that give us any insight into the quality of the poetry itself? Is the virtue of a poem determined democratically—by how many people it can be said to have personally enriched? Or is there some criteria to be applied objectively? (I don’t mean that question rhetorically. The former claim is called Reader-Response theory. C.S. Lewis is a notable proponent.) I think the two—the subjective effect of poetry and objective criteria for judgement—would easily cooperate. I admit to liking James Joyce’s ‘Chamber Music’ as readily as I’d argue that it’s tripe. I find Sylvia Plath insufferable, though it would be wrong to deny that a number of her poems are technically quite good.

      But it *is* important to have that objective criteria, if only because it’s constructive for poets. Every young writer should have to read two essays on P.B. Shelley—one by a supporter, and one by a critic who thinks he’s generally a childish, rambling charlatan. Criticism is in many ways the Tradition or the History of literature: it gives us strong and oftentimes contradictory accounts of ‘what happened’ in the literary past, and allows us to analyze the decisions made under certain circumstances to inform our own choices.

      And so (if I haven’t lost your attention long ago!), I hope this clarifies what I mean by, ‘Rather, a poem dwelling on political themes should be held to the same standard as a poem dwelling on nature, or love, or religion: the poetic standard; that is, the execution of poetics.’ I don’t mean at all to imply that your excellent articles on Solzhenitsyn or the many articles on T.S. Eliot published by TIC are invalid or regrettable. You’re right: the political and religious implications of a poem are very often totally unavoidable, and we no doubt have something to gain from looking closely at those implications in depth. But what makes T.S. Eliot the poet worth discussing? Why do we even bring him up in that context? He certainly wrote some highly articulate essays on culture and civilization; but was it terribly groundbreaking stuff? I don’t think we’ll do too much damage by admitting that, had Eliot only written social criticism, he’d be rather a minor voice instead of the book-end opposite Burke in Kirk’s study of Anglo-American conservatism. And so, if Eliot’s reputation is inseparable from his reputation as a poet, we have to say that he’s a great poet who *happens* to be conservative, not a great conservative who wrote poetry on the side, like Enoch Powell. It’s Eliot’s merits as a poet that compel us to invoke him. His theology in politics weren’t revolutionary or groundbreaking; in fact, they were perfectly orthodox. What we admire is the language with which he articulates those views—which, as it happens, was revolutionary language. He’s already passed our ‘test’ according to the political standard; we give his conservatism the stamp of approval, probably before we’ve even seriously considered his work. But what brings him to our attention is is high *poetical* standard. That’s what separates Eliot from every other fogey who survived the Second World War. And that needn’t be an insult; we should simply face the fact that he simply wouldn’t be of any particular interest to us politically were he not so accomplished poetically.

      • “Is ‘Beowulf’ worse as a poem because it couldn’t fortify the Anglo-Saxon mind in cycles of honour and revenge? Or is ‘Paradise Lost’ inadequate because it didn’t prevent English Puritanism from collapsing? No, of course not.”

        No, but wait! Yes! Yes, Beowulf and Paradise Lost must be judged by a standard, and that standard also is sifted by the vocabulary of desolation and dust. The standard by which all things are judged is the souls lost. This poem, that soup, this algorithm, that garden, all are judged by the souls lost, which is turn is related to the culture and the various streams that fed into that culture, which in turn is related to other streams of the generations that came before. I have my part in helping the slim thread of hope in every age–well, in my age. Art, this is what I am trying to say, is not excused from judgement because the task is so impossible. Art is one of the key players in the great drama unfolding before us. Oh yes the politics matter.

      • Mr. Davis,

        I invite you to read Mr. Krzeczkowski’s argument on the subject of poetry and politics (when my translation of it hopefully goes up in the future) because it is a perfect rebuttle to your argument (by which I do not mean you are completely wrong, but rather I imagine that given your views of poetry and politics, you may find his argument interesting).

        Here, I will only put things this way: the criteria for judging a poem as good, like the criteria for judging politics as good, is beyond poetry and beyond politics: the criteria is religion.

        A good poem is a poem which fulfills its religious purpose (and remember, even the poetry furthest from God, when it is good, fulfills God’s purpose). A good politics likewise.

        The strangeness of our time is, to paraphrase Henryk Krzeczkowski, that we are even capable of distinguishing between “a religious poet” and a “poet who is religious”.

        If we really do take our faith seriously, in the sense of letting it shake us to the bone (and by ‘faith’ I do not mean “strong faith” – a serious faith can be weak or not at all so long as it is the authentic voice of conscience), then everything we say, do, let alone create as writing or art, flows from this faith.

        Finally, we sometimes have a static view of faith, rather than a dynamic, phenomenological view, and thus we often cannot see that a poet may be expressing a unique moment in his journey, not to be interpreted as a break with crusty dogma, but as an expression of his unique personhood which always teaches us something about God.

        Yet if we insist on methods of interpretation which shove the faith and politics of the poet aside, we will not see this, we will miss out on it. Eliot, to use your example, is distinguished from every run of the mill person who came through the world war by one thing: Eliot was gifted by God, like the prophets of the Old Testament. It was not Eliot’s poetic skill which painted such a vivid image of God, it was God who touched Eliot in a very unique way and clearly flows through his verse. To think otherwise would be to treat the faith Eliot cherished with lightness, thus to treat as unimportant that which the poet himself thought to be of highest importance.

        Finally, I recommend you take advantage of your location and seek out the Australian national poem Wimmera to encounter possibly the best argument regarding the relation between poet and the locale of the cosmos which binds him. Our modern yearning for universalism often makes us regard particularism as a jail which confines us from the universal, but even God, when He came into our world, fastened Himself into a moment, a place, a flesh. Why? Because there is no universalism but the particular – all else is the realm of the Devil.

  2. Lord Alfred Douglas was not “Lord Douglas”; that is, he was not a peer of the realm with a real title. “Lord” was merely a courtesy title, owing to his position as a younger son of the Marquess of Queensberry. Legally he was a commoner. He can properly be referred to as “Douglas” or “Lord Alfred Douglas”, but not “Lord Douglas”.

  3. Or, to put it another way:

    My favorite part of your excellent essay, sir, was your story about the patriotic English poem and the reaction of the Welshman.

    Yet you seem to suggest that your example dilineates the limits of particularism and ignores human universalism by pitting irreconcilable particularisms against one another.

    I do not see it that way. For me, what makes for the essence of human universalism is exactly the story you presented: the fact that someone is an Englishman to that extent and a Welshman to that extent.

    A poetry which pretends to a universalism that will see the Englishman and the Welshman view on another as displaced, disembodied abstractions, a poetry of the “universal man” – this is a poetry of mass graves.

    Mass graves, you will note, are perfectly universal: men and women of languages unknown, cultures unsung, names forgotten, equal in life and in death.

    The first step to this poetry is to dismember the politics and faith and place of the poet from his work.

  4. The comments alone are worth the price of admission.

    From the back of my pack-rat memory emerges something, which I am unable to quote exactly, to the effect that a tyrant is more afraid of a careless jest by a drunken poet than all the polemic of a revolutionary agitator.

    That surely is an argument for the political poet (however unintentional)?

  5. Dear Mr Rieth,

    I look forward eagerly to your translation of Mr Krzeczkowski. Thank you!

    To return to Eliot (I hope you won’t mind), from what I know of his faith, I don’t doubt that he would acknowledge and thank God for his success as a poet. Though I believe this would be more in the sense that we thank God, the First Cause, for everything in our lives, and not necessarily for a ‘deus ex machina’ direct intervention. I am—and Eliot was—strongly opposed to the Cult of the Poet. Like everything else, poetry is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. In Eliot’s case, that perspiration is deftly chronicled in Lyndall Gordon’s biography ‘An Imperfect Life’ and his (relatively) recently published juvenilia ‘Inventions of the March Hare’. Eliot wouldn’t have been the poet he was without his careful readings of Dante and the Metaphysical Poets; his reverend imitations of Lord Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ and Edward FitzGerald’s ‘The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’; his study of Henri Bergson and F.H. Bradley; or his willingness to write any number of mediocre poems, and then sit back down and try again. The 1% inspiration, on the other hand, I’d be more willing to attribute to (a) patience with the poetic process, (b) good taste in others’ poetry, and (c) a sense of modernity in its relation to history.

    The problem with considering poetry a total gift from God is twofold. Firstly, there’s the large number of atheist (Neruda, Paz) and agnostic/deist poets (Tennyson, Dickenson, Hardy)—not to mention the Muslim, Buddhist, and Pagan poets who we must then assume God has given prophetic gifts to. If, on the other hand, poetry is a non-prophetic charism, than we must admit that it’s one given without rhyme or reason (pun intended)—without consideration for sect or branch, faithfulness, place of origin, etc. At that point, to say that ‘The gift for poetry is a gift from God’ loses its critical importance. It’s akin to randomness as far as the human intelligence is concerned.

    I hope the above will also answer Ms Janet Baker’s comment.

    And, again, I’d like to recall that we’re not talking about the appropriate ends poetry is meant to serve full-stop; but rather, what standard we’re holding a poem to when we call it ‘good’. I’d still call a very conservative, Christian poet ‘bad’ if he were ham-fisted with his rhyme and metre.

    As to your other comment, Mr Rieth, I didn’t mean to say that ‘The Soldier’ is a bad poem because it’s too English. As I said, I like it very much as a poem *because* it’s so unabashedly English. The point I was trying to make there is that poetry, when written with such didacticism (consciously or not), can be just as alienating as political prose. That’s not to say that didactic poetry shouldn’t be written, but that propagandist poetry tends to be unconvincing, both as propaganda (owing to the relatively few convincing, concrete arguments that can be made within the confines of poetic form) and as poetry (because it will be unpalatable to those who don’t accept its politics).

  6. “I hope the above will also answer Ms Janet Baker’s comment.”

    I wish you had said how! I’m trying to puzzle it out. But listen: the one thing the modern world could give to man, this incredible linguistic ability, we seem to want here to ascribe to God. But that could be true of every single creative activity! Dance! Music, oh music! Pictorial art! If you started giving the good stuff to God, you’d just have to hand over the planet! No, he’s the general creator, and it all reflects His awesome self, but we, the artists, the poets, the dancers, and I’d like to throw in the equally talented recipients of these communications, the talented readers, for it is a talent, we humans are responsible. It is God-given, as a general thing. But its exercise is from us, and its misuse as well.

    Poetry is the queen. I’m thinking of e.e. cummings line, ‘noone, not even the rain, has such small hands’ the words that get down inside us and will not leave and change our whole lives. And there’s such a cost to the poet, and such a temptation. I don’t know about T.S. Eliot (but I’m thinking hard of his position vis a vis the civil war in Spain–because that counts too, insofar as our political–and spiritual, and metaphysical, and okay, even physical–it all ends up in the poetry so it all counts, it’s all moral) but I think Roy Campbell paid a price, I mean a spiritual one. He really cannibalized every experience. I think that’s how it is to be an artist. I wonder if that’s how it is to be a saint.

    Poetry has to be true. And have trippy words and arrangement. The first item is the tough one.

    I write poetry. Worse, my every experience is enmeshed in words. I am made out of words. My grandmother said I began speaking in full sentences at ten months old. And as you can see, I have not stopped. Btw, PBS has a documentary on human intelligence, which of course involves linguistic ability above all, in which they say, toward the end, ‘Human intelligence is so complicated in every dimension that scientists cannot account for it within the theory of evolution.’ I swear it. And of course! There’s not enough time, when you start running the maths.

  7. Mr. Davis,

    I owe my Christianity, in large part, to TS Eliot, whose poems introduced me to the faith when I was 14, and whose verses I would read over and over and commit to memory. I shudder to think what would have become of me had I followed up my reading of Eliot with Lyndall Gordon’s biography “an imperfect life”.

    As to 99% percperation: only in the outback on the road to Wal Wal, and then only in December, not in Europe.

    A pleasure to discuss this topic. I am quite curious of your reaction to Mr. Krzeczkowski’s theories.

  8. I first wanted to write “I agree and disagree”. Then I stepped one square back and reviewed what I thought were the omitted corner cases. Then I realized they were not actually “corner” (i.e. represented individual and independent factors rather than combinations of factors).

    There are poets who believe the subjects of their poetry (or even the exact words they use) are beyond their control. There are critics who adopt this rule to judge a poet of their choice, or any poet. This is, however, an extreme attitude to poetry (0% craft and 100% divine revelation); in practice, mixed attitudes prevail, meaning that most poets are free enough to consciously direct their expression towards topics of their choice. Hence, speaking out or staying silent on a particular topic becomes – to that extent – a moral choice.

    It seems easy to dismiss directed expression when the poet’s attitude is known or more or less predictable. This would, however, dismiss Whitman’s “O Captain!” or Akhmatova’s “Courage” as redundant. It also seems easy to dismiss the poet’s desire to be “the voice of the voiceless” as mere sin of pride; after all, it’s always a good idea to ask the voiceless if they need such a messenger, let alone this particular one. However, if protecting an orphan and a widow is a moral obligation, so is articulating a point of view that’s alienated, denied consideration or dismissed as a textbook fallacy without due process.

    In the very nutshell, Orpheus isn’t a Christian saint, or a servant to God in any broader sense, any more than Archimedes. Perfection in poetry isn’t service to God any more than perfection in engineering. Both are means rather than the end. Their subordination might be irrelevant to a poetry reader (which is the point of the article I strongly agree with – “whatsoever is sold… that eat, asking no question”!) but it’s intrinsically important to the poet him- or herself, and that point is missed as far as I see.

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