HOW THE LEFT HURTS POETRY

Uhhh…excuse me…ahem….can I ask just one more question?

As enlightened as we know ourselves to be, we may as well admit it: the Left hurts poetry.  (Doesn’t perfectionism always let us down?)

But does the Left really hurt poetry?

Let’s begin with ideology.

Ideology turns poetry into rhetoric, but this is really not the issue, for if ideology presents bias, so does love, and the lyric and love can walk hand in hand.

We might say Modernism has been unkind to romantic love and Romantic poetry, (when is the last time you heard a contemporary poet praise Byron?) that hard-headed Modernism has sought to escape the feverish, the romantic, the emotionality of bias, and this might be true, but rhetoric and ideology of all kinds has not only persisted, but expanded, in poetic expression in the modern era.

The great drawback, one might say, is that ideology requires explanation, and poetry has less time than prose for explanations.

But this, too, is a thin objection, for poetry, and art in general, is perfectly capable of explaining things; we just expect it to do so with greater art or greater concision.

If Marxism, or Leftism, is a legitimate subject, or a legitimate philosophy, for mankind, and for the poet, why shouldn’t it work as material for poetry?

Before the whole matter is settled, however, we turn back, almost nonchalantly, like Columbo, for one more small clarification.

Poetry is no longer a popular art form; it merely breathes on life support in college, and even then, in its fragile state, in forms most people no longer recognize as poetry.

And this couldn’t make the Marxist poet, or critic, any happier.

The reason for this is quite simple: The Leftist equates the good of popularity with the evil of “market forces,” and so any chance for poetry’s mass appeal is killed in the cradle by those who believe bohemian martyrdom is preferable to bourgeois triumph: obscurity is preferable even to democracy, and the self-fulfilling prophecy of Marxism therefore, condemns poetry to appeal to the few.

Leftism hurts poetry, but it has nothing to do with ideology.  It has nothing to do with Leftism as a set of ideas or beliefs.

The problem lies in the Left’s tendency to apply the term “market” (a bad) to what is basically poetry’s audience (a necessity).

Poetry has been a Leftist activity ever since “make it new” (ironically popularized by a fascist).  Modernism, or as it was once called, Futurism, makes change paramount, and since the progressive (in terms of politics) also makes change paramount—for different reasons, perhaps—change, whether driven by right-wing Futurism or left-wing Progressive-ism has become the ruling animus of poetry.

Poetry has defaulted heavily to Leftism ever since WW II found the “make it new” poet disgraced, and on the losing side.  But almost as proof that change is the real issue, (not Left or Right) Pound is still worshiped as a Modernist poet—since change for its own sake is the true high god.

The market won, Pound lost, and poetry, progressive not only in politics, but in everything, forces change as the constant issue.

Desire for change inevitably finds opposition in whatever resists change, even if what resists change is democratic, or is grounded in common sense.

Poetry itself has no opinion, one way or the other, on change, nor do poetry’s origins have anything to do with change, per se.

The war for change being fought by progressives takes place outside of poetry’s walls—and this is not an anti-progressive statement, but merely a matter-of-fact one.

When the market becomes the enemy, all that is democratic and popular also, in quiet and hidden ways, then becomes the enemy, too.

Poetry can be anything it wants, and it can be a shouting match if it wants to be, and it can be a hectoring force ushering in change for all the standard and visible causes: race, women, gays, the poor, and the environment.  As we pointed out above, the issues themselves are not the issue.

But just as Marxism hinders poetry by making popular appeal a bad thing, so do all sorts of ideological issues—which feature ‘struggle for change,’ for these have the tendency to make poetry renounce pleasure, immediacy, and accessibility for things so complex that rhetoric itself breaks apart in attempting to comprehend it.

Again, it is not the issues, nor the ideology, nor the complexities themselves which are a bad thing; the damage to poetry is done indirectly by forces or circumstances which inherently foster obscurity—that makes a democratic art (whatever kind of art that might be) impossible.

There is no going back.  We don’t think poetry can simply drop these issues, or should.  Poets will just have to figure out ways to be true to their ideals while working harder to be popular.

But just to give one example of how complex the problem has become:

Eileen Myles, the lesbian poet, on twitter, attacked the film about two young lesbian lovers, “Blue is the Warmest Color,” calling it a “hate crime” against lesbians, and the resulting conversation by lesbian poets, mostly supporting Myles’ remarks, featured a great deal of graphic sexuality, along with how a lesbian relationship does or does not resemble, favorably or unfavorably, a heterosexual relationship.  Eileen Myles is politically astute, if nothing else, and one could easily call a discussion like this political, and most poets writing on this subject, no matter how sexually frank, would still think of themselves as making “progressive” contributions of a political nature to society at large.  But it was really difficult to tell, for example, what Myles’ political objections to the movie were, besides a feeling she had that it did not depict the lesbian lifestyle as a universally happy one.  But what “lifestyle” is universally happy?

The question here is not that ‘lesbian sex’ will never be a popular, or a popular topic for poetry; the only case we are making here is that we should not, on Marxist principles, or any other principles, condemn popularity for its own sake; for a democracy, after all, resides in the popular will.

But homosexuality, as a “progressive” topic, does have its pitfalls; it will lead us into obscurity and away from the popular taste, and will have a great deal of trouble in making itself accessible and meaningful, in either a political or an aesthetic manner.  Homosexuality, looked at aesthetically, inevitably becomes Rabelaisian, as any sexuality would, whether or not the topic is “progressive,” or not.

And now Columbo needs to make one more little point of clarification, if possible…

What sort of political influence does poetry have?  It has none. 

Pound’s broadcasts from Italy in support of the Axis powers during the war were of little consequence, according to Pound apologists.

The right-wing character of Eliot/Pound Modernism and Southern Agrarian/New Critic Modernism dominated poetry in the first half of the century; some like to point to Robert Lowell, who was influenced by Ransom and Tate, as an important Leftist: Lowell opposed the Vietnam War—and Lowell also, in a personal way, reconciled highbrow, “cooked” poetry with the “raw” poetry of the Beats, but this was not seriously on the nation’s radar screen, and truly, the confessional-ism of poets like Lowell and Ginsberg was more Modernism swerving back toward the excitement of Romanticism than anything political.

So there you have it.  Poetry, as a study and a practice, right now in the United States, may be Leftist, but Leftism in poetry is actually of very little consequence, except in the manner outlined above, and from that very important standpoint, Leftism has hurt poetry.

Perhaps the whole question lies closer to the issue of the sacred versus the secular, and poetry finally residing closer to the former as an art form—but that discussion is for a future time.

We point out this issue with Leftism, not as any form of censorship—but only as a warning, and a challenge.

14 Comments

  1. drew said,

    March 14, 2014 at 10:00 pm

    Poets and potentates:
    do what’s RIGHT to save what’s LEFT !
    Power to the PEOPLE.

    (whoops – got a bit carried away there.
    Guess I should read the post first, huh…)

  2. drew said,

    March 15, 2014 at 12:46 am

    • Diane Roberts Powell said,

      March 15, 2014 at 11:06 pm

      I’m starting to worry about you. Are you the same person who loves Anne Coulter and Ted Nugent? And the same one that mentioned the possibility of civil war breaking out in America, comparing that possibility to Franco’s fascism? Now you post something about Marinetti, who, besides Ezra Pound, is the most famous fascist poet ever. You NEED to study fascism.

      Lowell was a leftist? Don’t make me laugh.

      What is this crap lately, Tom? Complaining about women, homosexuals, and now leftists. Who in the hell are all of these leftists you are writing about? A few liberal poetry professors?

      • drew said,

        March 16, 2014 at 12:46 am

        I do love Coulter and, to a lesser degree Nugent, yes. They are flamboyant pundits and I often agree with what they say. But I see Marinetti and Pound more as creative crackpots who aligned themselves with an evil ideology. Futurism is still interesting, but I am not endorsing the fascism it celebrated. I just thought the graphics were lively and complimented Tom B’s post. I have studied Fascism – and I am certainly not a fan.
        But I am no PC leftist either.

        Are right -wing poetry lovers not welcome at Scarriet?

        I hope you are not one of those who label every conservative as a “fascist”…

        • Diane Roberts Powell said,

          March 16, 2014 at 1:05 am

          I hope you aren’t one of those who label every progressive or liberal as a “commie” or “leftist.” No wonder your friends and family show concern about your political interests. Perhaps you could share your views with some of the older folks in your family, so they can try to talk some sense into you.

          You need to STOP listening to Coulter and Nugent, and START listening to Mae Brussell and Sherman Skolnick!

          • drew said,

            March 16, 2014 at 1:29 am

            Thanks for the tip !

            Now give me a moment before I tell YOU what you need to start and stop doing…☻

  3. noochinator said,

    March 15, 2014 at 11:02 am

    Blue is the Warmest Color is currently available at Netflix streaming. Thanks for telling us about it!

    • drew said,

      March 15, 2014 at 4:56 pm

      Noochinator – I don’t get your comment.
      Was this in regards to Marinetti ?

      • noochinator said,

        March 15, 2014 at 6:09 pm

        Tommy mentioned above Eileen Myles’ pan of the lesbian-themed film Blue is the Warmest Color.

  4. powersjq said,

    March 15, 2014 at 5:33 pm

    Tom,

    Provocative, as always. Lots here, so I didn’t aim for concision this time.

    * It’s easy to forget that because Marxism made very few inroads into U.S. culture, we have an impoverished sense of its potentialities. When it makes one its rare appearances in the histories we tell ourselves, it’s either as a footnote or (more commonly) under a pseudonym. The French, on the other hand, really embraced Marxism, forcing it to evolve and diversify. The so-called Situationists, for example, were an elitist group that paradoxically envisioned the universal integration of art—including poetry—into democratic workaday life. One interesting example among a great many variants. Marxism has _strong_ alliances with art.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Situationist_International

    * “The great drawback, one might say, is that ideology requires explanation, and poetry has less time than prose for explanations.”

    Just so, ideology (in its original Marxist meaning) _dies_ when it’s explained. The “ideo-” in the word “ideology” does not refer to “ideas” in the sense of “thoughts,” “notions,” or “concepts.” (The word “ideology” is nowadays casually, and incorrectly, used as a synonym for “philosohy” in the sense of “doctrine” or “school of thought.”) Rather, it refers to “eide,” in the sense of “appearances,” “aspects,” “looks.” Ideology is the mask that makes a rigged or gamed material system appear natural and inevitable. Marxist critique aims specifically to _debunk_ ideology.

    At the core of Marxism is a rage against injustice. Marx developed his ideas as a critique of the appalling conditions inflicted upon workers in the British industrial revolution. Truly, only the hardest heart would not find itself roused to righteous fury reading Engels’s descriptions of the Manchester working class. At bottom, Marxism is animated by the sentiments expressed in Blake’s trope, “[…] these dark Satanic Mills.” Visually, Peter Jackson’s depictions of Tolkien’s orcs come to mind. Marxism aims to expose orcish brutality for what it is.

    * “What sort of political influence does poetry have? It has none.”

    Then why did Plato exclude poets from the Republic? The poets articulate mythos, and since the Republic functions only under the aegis of the (mythic) Noble Lie, Plato cannot permit any further explortation of mythos, lest the Noble Lie be shown up as a contrivance. Writers of all stripes inevitably have a hard time under autocracy, because the practice of letters in general may be defined as the practice of _making shit up_. Just as we make up laws, governments, and politics in general. (There’s a reason the freedoms of speech, assembly, the press were mentioned first in the BoR.) The humanists understood this, and it is precisely for that reason that the study of poetry was included in the studia humanitatis—which comprised grammar, rhetoric, history, moral philosophy, and poetry. These five domains were collectively understood as the ground of civil society, because they induce a self-consciousness about the fact that a citizenry has both the power and the responsibility to review and renew the conditions of its own civility.

    * “The problem lies in the Left’s tendency to apply the term ‘market’ (a bad) to what is basically poetry’s audience (a necessity).

    As usual, Tom, you have your finger on the core of it, though in this particular case I think obliquely. These days, markets are discussed as though they were natural occurrences, or were exhibited a kind of natural intelligence. But markets are no more _natural_ than the laws that charter and govern them. Further, they are autistic. Perhaps exchange happens “naturally,” but a market is a deliberate formalization of the practice of exchange. This is a basic truth, and poetry undoubtedly has the power to show up the supposed “naturalness” of our current markets as flim-flam that serves the few at the expense of the many. (Note: it’s not the markets that are flim-flam, it’s the supposition that they are “natural.”)

    Now, poetry cannot debunk myths the way that Marxist analysis does. Poetry _creates_ mythos—and in doing so, it shows that we do not have to play _by_ the rules, we may play _with_ the rules. I think the Critical Left wants to harness this _application_ of the power of poetry, to use poetry to prosecute a campaign against injustice. The disconnect is that poetry can never function as a truly critical tool except obliquely. Poetry can articulate a vision of justice, but as a tool of either complaint or critique it is hampered by its inherent idealism, by the fact that it trucks in symbols and archetypes. To be effective, critique must be particular. Poetry is universal. Poets who don’t realize this will write good poems only by accident.

    * Sidney’s comments on the difference between Plato’s _Republic_ and More’s _Utopia_ seem germane, though not entirely in line with either my position or Tom’s.

    http://www.bartleby.com/27/1.html

    • drew said,

      March 16, 2014 at 1:21 pm

      [Marxism has _strong_ alliances with art]

      Yes, the left is better at using art to serve their agenda, agreed – although the Nazis were pretty good at it too.
      The Futurists and Surrealists come to mind as examples on the Right and the Left respectively.
      Regarding the situationists:
      Debord was interesting. The Rock’nRoll producer Malcolm McLaren took Debord’s Marxist ideas and applied them to Pop music and culture:

      …another brave Frenchman, some guy named Debord
      a bespectacled Marxist (who missed all the marks)
      made the medium’s message a radical bore
      dialectically fading the lights into darks.
      Indirectly disrupting pop-culture with Punk
      and other anarchic phenomena-junk,
      he too chose to leave with a nihilist bang –
      while we whimper and suffer down here with the gang.
      The old situationist’s last situation:
      an agit-prop funeral short on elation…

      So to French de-constructor-philosopher-ravers
      and all who rejoice while society wavers
      I offer these lines, like a quick coup-de-grace
      and be warned – they’re now viewing the Good Lord en face.

      • powersjq said,

        March 17, 2014 at 2:48 am

        Drew,

        “Yes, the left is better at using art to serve their agenda, agreed.”

        Not really what I meant. Art serves only Beauty, which no doctrine or school of thought can ever possess. I was just trying to point out that we USians are ignorant by default when it comes to Marxism. It may be that the Critical Left in the US ends up hurting poetry not because it doesn’t understand poetry, but because it doesn’t understand Marxism.

        Futurism was _way_ more interesting artistically than anything the Situationists did. But that’s not surprising, since Futurism was an artists’ movement, while Situationism was an intellectual stance.

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 16, 2014 at 2:44 pm

      Powers,

      I think “anti-authoritarian Marxism” and “anti-commodity fetishism” sums up pretty well the American Left as it exists today in academia and the art world. It has a kind of pervasive practical existence: I see it in my own household—I have no authority against my kids’ endless appetite for commodities: toys, video games, movies, etc.

      Of course Marxist attempts at social justice have been ruthlessly commidified in university settings and elsewhere.

      According to Sidney, what poetry can do best is “entice” ordinary people to be “good.” And I think I would agree with him. The answer is never truth alone.

      If one thinks of that epic battle for men’s souls: capitalism versus socialism, the winner will undoubtedly use poetry to win.

  5. powersjq said,

    March 17, 2014 at 3:01 am

    “Marxist attempts at social justice have been ruthlessly commidified in university settings and elsewhere.”

    Yes. And indeed, an academic career in critical theory or lit. theory has become practically the apotheosis of this ironic commidification. Making a living publishing intellectual indictments of the system that pays your salary–I just don’t see how one’s soul can remain whole.

    “If one thinks of that epic battle for men’s souls: capitalism versus socialism, the winner will undoubtedly use poetry to win.”

    Well, I agree wholeheartedly that no winner in a battle of wits wins without poetry, but I don’t see capitalism and socialism as strongly opposed to one another. At the very most, theirs is a minor struggle for the hearts and souls of policy wonks. As long as Profit is ruler absolute, it hardly matters who his courtiers are.


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