“Two centuries ago, in the early years of the Romantic movement, there was a hope expressed in some quarters that religion, having died as a dogma, might be reborn as art. In a notebook of about 1804 William Blake has left a vivid—if unpolished—example of this idea. He writes as one for whom the poetic imagination is a numinous world-building power that can never be supplanted or dethroned, either by the mockery of rationalist critics or by scientific theories:
Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau!
Mock on, mock on— ‘Tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again
And every sand becomes a gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.
The atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s particles of light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.
—Don Cupitt, from After God (1997)
Jack Hirschman earned a controversial Round One win over Robert Penn Warren when rumors circulated that refs and judges tampered with results in a way that favored the Southern Agrarian/New Critic/Twice Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner in both Fiction and Poetry (the only one to do so). In the firestorm which followed, Warren dropped out, and Hirschman advanced to Round Two with “The Painting.” Here are the opening lines:
So there it is:
a painting of the late black heroic
mayor of Chicago
in woman’s underwear
in the name of artistic iconclasm
and free expression
In his poem, Hirschman argues the painting should be taken down:
We are partisan, Mr. Make-It Curator,
and you, Mr. Make-It-New-Artist,
we’re at war
with art as privilege,
with the kitsching up of soul,
with the gooning of the truth
about those who help working people see
how beautiful the reality
of their imagination as a class
in motion actually is.
Do we acclaim the removal of the painting?
Stephen Dobyns has clearly got the stuff to handle Hirschman’s in-your-face play. Here’s a passage from “Allegorical Matters:”
Gently she presses her breasts against your eyes
and forehead, moving them across your face.
You can’t get over your good fortune. Eagerly,
You embrace her but then you learn the horror
because while her front is young and vital,
her back is rotting flesh which breaks away
in your fingers with a smell of decay. Here
we pause and invite in a trio of experts.
The first says, This is clearly a projection
of the author’s sexual anxieties.
Before we relate how Hirschman, like a man possessed, put in 3 point shot after 3 point shot, and took a 51-32 half-time lead, we might ask: do these two poems reflect a vital speech-making, a 20th century leap into honesty and truth-seeking, or rather a road to hell, in which mere rant becomes the norm, due to Emerson’s emphasis on “argument” as the crucial movement of the poem? If Hirschman believes the highest morality is the dignity and justice for the working class, should the poet—always paying attention to words—ask all sorts of questions of Hirschman: How do you define the ‘working class?’ Isn’t free speech a friend of the working class? etc, thus exposing the shallow message and the bankrupt reasoning of the poem, in terms of the logic of its words and phrases (never doubting Hirschman’s sincerity) or, should Hirschman’s poem be allowed to stand as it is, an opinion welcomed for just that: its opinion? But if Hirschman’s poem does not persuade us with its message, doesn’t it fail? How can a poem like this be allowed ‘to stand as it is?’ Either we are won over by its argument, or not, and it stands or falls based on the logic, or success, of its argument.
On the other hand, why can’t Hirschman’s argument simply exist as drama—without its success as an argument having anything to do with its success as a poem?
And yet, Hirschman’s poem explicitly denies another work of art, “The Painting” of the title, this consideration: “The Painting” of Harold Washington, the mayor of Chicago, is a bad argument, Hirschman claims, an attack on something which is more important than itself, and thus it needs to be censored.
Thus we defend the poem on a principle which the poem itself denies.
But on the other hand, if we do not defend Hirschfield’s poem; if we reject the poem, we do so violating the very principle (freedom of speech) we are supposed to defend.
If the argument were in an essay, we’d be asked to accept the argument, or not. But because the argument is in a poem, we cannot accept or reject its argument as an argument alone: but does the poem itself argue that there is more to it than its argument? No, the poem seems to only be about its argument. But the argument of the poem rejects free speech in the name of art, so the argument of the poem as a poem is an argument of the poem against itself as a poem; it argues for itself as an argument, not as a poem. But if we reject its argument, does that mean we have to accept it as a poem?
Or can we accept it as a poem, but still reject it aesthetically? Accept its right to exist, but still reject it in terms of taste?
But what does it mean to ‘accept-but-reject’ something? Can we remove a painting if our taste rejects it? Or can we only remove a painting if we reject its argument? But why? Why can we remove a painting if its message offends—if it offends argumentatively, but not if it offends aesthetically?
What if “The Painting” (of Harold Washington, mayor) which the poem rejects pleases us, only because we get a secret thrill from “The Painting’s” pure iconclasm, a rush purely because some line is being crossed, so that it is neither aesthetics, nor argument, which is at the heart of the matter, but merely an emotional thrill? In this case, we care not whether the poem aesthetically pleases us, or whether we agree with the argument of the poem (we may get a further thrill from disagreeing with the poem)—we enjoy it beyond all that, for reasons the poet (who believes in his message) never consciously suspected.
Can we conclude, then, that argument as the external key to any poem is extremely problematic? The very nature of an argument is that it never stands still; the artist is never really in control of an argument; it always slips out of his hands and runs away to the opposite wall; artistic control requires materials that do not slip away and run, and return and come back, and then run to the other side again.
In his poem, Stephen Dobyns seems to intuit this very theme of an argument slipping away:
But never mind, he says. Perhaps I’m mistaken;
let’s forget I spoke. The author lowers his head.
He scratches under his arm and suppresses a belch.
He considers the difficulties of communication
and the ruthless necessities of art. Once again
he looks for the ant but it’s gone. Lucky ant.
Next time he wouldn’t let it escape so easily.
Will the counter-revolutionary Dobyns get the best of the revolutionary Hirschman?
If you had this feeling, your feeling was correct, dear reader.
Hirschman barely misses two three point shots at the start of the second half and doubt creeps in.
Dobyns gains confidence as Hirschman’s first-half fury turns to second half fear. Momentum swings. Hirschman’s big lead slowly dwindles, and finally, Dobyns prevails, 99-94.
You knew this would happen, didn’t you?
You were certain that mystery– and doubt—would triumph at last.