The New Liberal Spirit of Poetry

By John Kaufman

For most of the 20th Century, the biggest political battle in the world of poets and poetry revolved around questions of craft: modernism vs. formalism, free verse vs. meter and rhyme. Sure, a few socially-oriented poets protested against our various wars and marched/wrote for civil rights for minorities while other, more academically-inclined poets preferred to remain cloistered and ambiguous. But generally the public discourse concerning the role of poets and poetry was a pretty marginal affair.

But the poetic argument over craft was also in some ways a political argument, and can be summed up quite nicely, almost poetically, in this verbal exchange between Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost:

“The trouble with you, Robert, is that you’re too academic.”

“The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you’re too executive.”

“The trouble with you, Robert, is that you write about– subjects.”

“The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you write about– bric-a-brac.”

Ironically, though Stevens and Frost were not at all poetically compatible, both were rather conservative in their official political outlooks. Frost, though, seems to me, was more an agrarian libertarian (at least in some of his poems) while Stevens neatly divides his modernist art from his mainstream, business executive Republicanism.

It was Frost who is said to have said, “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.” Which is a bit of playful hyperbole whose grammar would today be flagged as sexist, unless he was only referring to liberal men. It may be a clever, poetic line, but it lacks what we could call the liberal spirit. There are many things liberalism excludes and argues for and against (as Frost well knew), but you get the feeling from Frost’s poems that his objection to liberalism was a rejection of urban and urbane hubris–slickers too much involved with bric-a-brac, too much modernism removed from wholesome realities like nature and farms. In terms of their art, I prefer Frost, though there is much to admire and benefit from in the “supreme fictions” of Wallace Stevens.

Poets, being individuals, should not be grouped too tightly into political spheres, but perhaps the one American poet most  identified with the liberal spirit as displayed in the poetic work is Allen Ginsberg, author famously of the poem “Howl.”

Allen_Ginsberg_1978
Allen Ginsberg, Frankfurt Airport, 1978. By Ludwig Urning (Photograph by Ludwig Urning) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Here’s a few lines from the start of section II of “Howl”:

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!

If Walt Whitman was implicitly liberal (so broadminded he wrote “I contain multitudes”), Ginsberg went fiercely explicit. Ironically again, Ginsberg won the Robert Frost Medal, presented annually by the Poetry Society of America, in 1986. The award is for poetry, not politics. Frost won the Frost medal in 1941.

Now there is, according to the NY Times, a new liberal spirit in the poetry of our time. The Times quotes the poet Jane Hirshfield:

“When poetry is a backwater it means times are O.K. When times are dire, that’s exactly when poetry is needed.”

Ironically yet again, we can thank the election of Donald Trump and other Republicans for the sudden dire need for poems that speaks to people rather than to other poets or to modernist theories of art. I suppose it is possible to write a conservative poetry, but I can’t imagine a sincere “Ode to Trump” being anything but propaganda. Poetry is the most inherently broadminded of literary genres, the most liberal of the liberal arts. Poetry, good poetry, opens and liberates language/thought while cleaving most closely to emotional truth–the bleeding heart of sympathy so many Americans like to ridicule.

Conservatism has always struck me as a rationalism so narrowed by self-interest and worship of wealth that it quickly veers into the ridiculous and dangerous, the triumph of abstraction over reality. Under Trump/Pence, conservatism has reached a zenith of unmoored governing. A worthy poem, however, is an honest window into reality and compassion, and as such contains, implicitly or explicitly, a sense of justice tethered to the sense of earth.

Poetry, then, is the opposite of propaganda; if propaganda purposely obscures, poetry strives, like science, to reveal the heart of the matter. Poetry has always helped to promote and defend democracy, to tear down all the authoritarian walls. Now, here in the United States, we need to rediscover the beauty and liberal truth of poetry again.

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