Death and Life are in the power of the tongue...
— Proverbs 18:21
poetry and politics
President John F. Kennedy is reported to have said once, "When politics corrupts, poetry cleanses." Evidently, his words were not heard in Chicago. Chicago may have some of the most corrupted poetry and public art to be found anywhere. One reason for this is the Democratic politics that permeates the air, land and water of this city by the lake. Because of this politics, the daily life of many working people in Chicago is more like life in Budapest before Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika than it is like life in George Washington's Philadelphia.
As in Communist China, most public and private art and poetry in Chicago is subservient to the concerns of the state. In Chicago and around the state of Illinois, political preliminaries are put before poetry and art. Camile Paglia also wonders about the doubtful politics of much contemporary poetry. In the introduction to her new book, Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems, she criticizes the "ranting politics (people good, government bad) that looks naive next to the incisive writing about politics on today's op-ed pages." This ranting poetry also looks naive next to many of the hosts on talk radio. If you haven't heard the poetry of Rush Limbaugh when he's on a roll, then you've missed some of the best political performance poetry around.
In one way or another, poetry has always been involved with politics. The poet Dante Alighieri was banned from Florence for political reasons. Yet, it has only been in recent times that American poetry has been a form of politics. That form of politics is the politics of moribund liberalism. For many ordinary citizens today, poetry and liberalism are synonymous.
Consider the posters that are on display at the Roosevelt Road station of the L. " It used to be that when someone said they were a poet, we suspected sexual irregularities. Now, if we hear someone is a poet we are assured they voted for Senator John Kerry. How this shift from sex to politics happened is anyone's guess? Maybe it is because Senator Kerry's presidential campaign resurrected a line from one of Langston Hughes's poems, "Let America be America again." That the shift happened is worth discussing.
poetry makes nothing happen
Let me throw out two anchors so that we may have something to hold on to as I make a few logical leaps. One anchor is Aristotle, and the other is the poet W. H. Auden. Aristotle is important because I subscribe to his idea that art is not an action, but an imitation of an action. Many artists today, however, especially performance poets and other artists inspired by liberal politics do not believe this.
Art as an imitation is not politics, either although many say politics is the art of the possible. I agree with the poet W. H. Auden when he wrote in his poem "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," "...poetry makes nothing happen." This is the poetic line that shows us where the two sides of our debate separate from one another. The rest of Auden's poem continues:
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still.
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its saying where executives
Would never want to tamper...
Auden would not have written this if the debate about poetry and politics was not raging around him, especially in the career of Yeats, who was intimately involved in Irish politics. Nevertheless, Auden believed there is a difference between being a poet and being a politician, even though they both use words. Certainly when he wrote in the memory of Yeats, Auden must have remembered Ireland after Cromwell and the laws that prevented the Irish from learning to read of write.
Now that we see there is a dividing line between those poets who believe that poetry makes nothing happen, the conservative poets, and those poets who believe poetry is a form of action, even revolutionary action, the liberal poets, we may ask what is it that the liberal poets want to have happen? The answer to this question is that they want change instead of philosophy.
Liberal poets want to change the world, not to understand it. Not only that, they want to save the world with a materialistic and universal doctrine of art as self-expression. Every minority shall be raised up and given witness by the politics of poetry. This witness is one interpretation of the statement by the historian David Levering Lewis when he called the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s "art as civil rights."
the great divide
There are other ways we can categorize modern poetry and its commitment to liberalism besides art as civil rights. For my purposes I will ask you to entertain also the idea that there is a dividing line between two groups: those who believe that God chose a people, and from that people he chose a man to redeem us, and those who do not believe this. Furthermore, that nation which is the United States of America counts itself as a purposeful part of this dual tradition. Add to that a most audacious literary claim, there is a book unlike any other book, and it's easy to understand why sparks will fly between believer and nonbeliever.
Among those who don't believe in revelation are those who believe in the art of poetry. They are citizens of an imaginary world. They believe that poetry and art can make something happen. In short, they see poetry as a way to change the world, even redeem it. Not all poets on the other side of this line are revolutionaries, however. There are those who believe in the poem supreme addressed to emptiness. Their work is another story and not the focus here.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., claims that some time in 1772, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley "became the first book of poetry published by a person of African descent in the English language, marking the beginning of the African-American literary tradition." Later in her life, after the American Revolution, Phillis Wheatley wrote the following short poem:
On Being Brought from Africa to America
'Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land,
Taught my beknighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Savior too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their color is a diabolic dye."
Remember Christians; Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join the' angelic train.
This poem by Wheatley was much maligned by liberals and revolutionaries in the later part of the 20th century. Because of this poem, Phillis Wheatley was to be branded as a race traitor. It was with this brand that finally we see how in order to abolish racism, liberalism has become itself racist.
What is the major difference between "On Being Brought from Africa..." and the later poems of Gwendolyn Brooks? The difference is a fundamental belief in the American Revolution. Phillis Wheatley is proud to be an American, Gwendolyn Brooks would rather be African. Furthermore, when Phillis Wheatley's poems were judged, artistic standards were applied to them. Today, when liberals judge a poem they apply political standards. Would the editors at Tai Chucha Press publish Wheatley's poems today, or would they think of her as an Aunt Jamima?
Writing in the African American Review, Sheila Hassell Hughes says that: "Despite what either of these latter critics or the 1950 Pulitzer Prize might suggest, however, (Gwendolyn) Brooks never wrote directly or explicitly for a white audience...when she adopted the Black Arts credo that 'true Black writers speak as blacks, about blacks, and to blacks' (Report 195), she heightened awareness of her social location and political position, rhetorically situating herself and her readers in a new way." At the same time, Brooks placed herself on the liberal side of the line that separates poets today. Brooks in fact denies the grace that Phillis Wheatley thought so important.
By the time we reach the inauguration of Bill Clinton as president of the United States, the separation of poets into liberal and conservative camps was complete. At Clinton's inauguration, Maya Angelou recited her poem that said flat out America is "wedded forever to fear, yoked eternally to brutishness." This of course was a result of her Marxist claim that American history was nothing more than "armed struggles for profits."
Maya Angelou's poem, "On the Pulse of Morning" is a most bizarre piece to be read at a presidential inauguration. I suppose that those assembled there could have cared less about art anyway, so what difference did it make? What was important to them was that the right person was the artist, not the work of art. In an ironic twist of Gibbon's statement about religion in the Roman Empire, the assembled liberals echoed the idea that the people think all poets are crazy, the philosophers think all poets are liars and the politicians think all poets are useful. So Maya Angelou said,
"A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Mark the mastodon.
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor..."
When I first heard the words, "The dinosaur, who left dry tokens/Of their sojourn here," I could not help but think of coprophiles, or petrified, dinosaur turds. Even today, I ask myself what are turds doing in an inaugural poem. So far, no critic has an answer.
In the course of 200 years liberalism has morphed now into its opposite. Instead of valuing men and women because of their immortal souls, liberals nowadays ask whether any of us are distinctly human with immortal souls to begin with. Look at a section of this poem by John Berryman from last century. Written before 1971, "The Moon and the Night and the Man" was chosen as one of the best 100 poems of the 20th century by Mark Strand.
On the Outer Drive there was an accident:
A stupid, well-intentioned man turned sharp
Right and abruptly he became an angel
Fingering an unfamiliar harp,
Or screamed in hell, or was nothing at all.
It seems in this poem that John Berryman can't figure out what human beings are, or that they are moral agents. George Washington did not have this problem, nor did Phillis Wheatley. They did not think of a man or a woman as "nothing at all." Furthermore, they rooted their understanding of what it means to be human in a revelation of what is meant by the divine.
To hold the liberal belief that poetry makes something happen is to believe in art as a type of revolution that leads at best to salvation and at worst to the impossibility of it. For those on the other side of this line of belief, for the conservatives, the work of grace and salvation has already happened. Furthermore, it was not art that brought this about. Many conservatives believe that the mercy referred to by Phillis Wheatley brings all artists from their pagan land into the promised land.
poetry and disappointment
American liberals suffered a profound disappointment with the election of President Bush. Many now realize that their art is not making anything they want happen. So what will they do? Like some fanatics, they will double their effort after having forgotten the goal. Others will steer their disappointment into entertainment instead of conversion. This will mean there will be more poetry as standup comedy or more of HBO's DEF Poetry Jam.
Recently, an interview with the American poet W. S. Merwin, in Poets and Writers Magazine (July/August '05) offers an example of the disappointment some liberal artists feel because their art changes nothing. Merwin claims in his interview that, "I've realized since my twenties that I couldn't draw an easy, humanist distinction between our species and the rest of life."
It seems that after the bottom fell out of his youthful Presbyterianism, Merwin adopted a liberal pantheism that now supports his multicultural view of the world. This is a kind of liberalism that tries to be moral without religion. It is a liberalism that wants individuality without an immortal soul.
"This is the situation we've never had before," (Merwin) says, flaring with anger, "where you have all three branches of government in the hands of the same crooks and the same thugs, with the same rich white trash at the head of it, and you see their clones running through the Supreme Court and the media. It's really creepy."
W. S. Merwin is not the only poet opposed to the war in Iraq. His opposition is echoed by Robert Bly's new book of poems, The Insanity of Empire: A Book of Poems Against the Iraq War. In fact, to be a poet today often means to be a clone who echoes liberal propaganda against the war in Iraq. Even Paul Muldoon, writing in his introduction to The Best American Poetry: 2005, cannot help but soil himself when he claims, "The body blow of 9/11 is, for one of every two Americans, compounded by the self-inflicted wound of the continuation of the George W. Bush regime."
How ironic it is that Sadam Hussein would never have allowed to be published the poetry of those poets who now support him. This irony may go back as far as Ezra Pound, when he was awarded the Bollingen Prize after the Second World War. Some liberals insist to this day that Pound's anti-Americanism made him worthy of that prize. Others, like the poet Robert Frost, called Pound's award an "unendurable outrage."
liberal American poetry at a crossroads
Roger Kimball's essay, "George Santayana," makes an important point about the line that separates liberal and conservative artists. Kimball states, "The homogenizing imperative of liberalism has a psychological correlative in abstract moralism." This abstract moralism is to my mind exactly what happens when liberals worry more about what is far away than what is close at hand. Such is the poetry editor out protesting to save the forests, yet he will do nothing to conserve paper by accepting e-mail submissions. If they are liberal poets who happen to live in Chicago, then they worry and write more about starvation in Africa than government corruption in the very city where they live. You may hear a performance poem about a woman's right for abortion on demand, but hardly ever hear a performance poem about why it costs so much to ride the L to work.
This, then, is the gulf that separates poetry as an act of the imagination and poetry as an act of politics, or in other words, poetry as an act of writing and reading or poetry as a performance. So, we return to where we started. In Aristotle's words, poetry is an imitation of an action (can you write "Republican"), not the action itself (can you say "Democrat"). The political point made here from the perspective of Republicanism is to make the third world more American, not to make America more like the third world. Likewise, we want to make Chicago more a democracy like America, not America less a democracy like Chicago.
What else may be added to this back and forth about poets, poems, and politics? A few more ideas I suppose:
1. Most rich people, like most poor people, have bad taste in art and poetry.
2. Art, like politics, begins not in an abstract theory, but in the local and particular, and then aims for the universal. Liberalism reverses this trajectory, and in doing so obliterates history and memory by imposing from on high a public taste.
3. Poetry may be separated off from religion the same way sex may be separated off from love, but in their earthly perfection they both go together.
4. With perhaps the exception of opera and Country and Western music, liberalism has control of the arts in the U. S. This means that for the time being Republicans (many who are really Santayana's Classical Liberals) must wage a battle for hearts and minds.
5. To change the politics of art, Republicans ought to give more money to supports the arts.
Perhaps an example of political poetry can knock free some of that money. This poem begins in the local, life in Chicago, and ends by reaching for a universal: a desire for political reform and social justice in the city of my birth. This example is also a poem inspired by an Illinois poet who spent time in Chicago studying at the Art Institute. They say Vachel Lindsay, like many poets, ended his life thirsty and disappointed, so he drank a dark bottle of Lysol. Perhaps, like Lindsay's poetry, the poem below imagines a future free from power and open to either self-reflection or madness.
.DA MAYOR WALKS AT MIDNIGHT.
(In Grant Park, Chicago)
It is a wonder and a thing born too late
That here at midnight, in our city park
A dumbfounded figure paces back and forth
Near the mirrored "Bean" that bares his mark.
He sees a figure in the curve of polished steel,
Who lingers where the tourists come to play.
"Is it me, or just my father's ghost?" he asks,
Then curses loud to make it go away.
A portly, balding man, with coat of Gucci black,
That drapes across his shoulders like a shawl.
He looks the sad politico that men despise:
A shyster lawyer, come to prey upon us all.
He cannot sleep next to his chiding wife tonight,
So out he goes, looking back at every crime.
He made the council do his will and toe the line.
Breathe deep. He only ruined one life at a time.
His head is bowed. He thinks of men and kings.
"I would be one of doz lost royalty," he sighs.
"I make da system work for me and mine.
They feed me votes. In turn, I feed dem lies."
The sins of all the Democrats warm his heart.
He sees black tanks and battleships upon the main.
If only they were mine, he thinks, I'd show dem all.
Then round and round he goes, illusions in his brain.
And so he circles up and down until the vertigo
Of power that seeks its own increase takes hold.
His thoughts detach, his eyes search out the void.
"I am DA mayor," he yells, then shivers in the cold.
It breaks my heart that politics must muddle still,
That all his hours of bluster were just for fame.
And now he fumbles for the heart's white pill,
Then sleeps in common ground despite his name.
If I were a young poet looking for a voice, I would wonder at an art anchored in liberalism. How much more can the mush of multiculturalism absorb? Is there something new beyond the voice of one minority after another? Will the whole art world be stuck in the 60s, where fifty year old, balding men wear ponytails and move from one oasis of liberated women to another, like Beduins trekking an ocean of sand? Even the gift of technology, MP3s and webpages, cannot make up for the emptiness that haunts the small presses and university editions. Lord help us if literature ends with chic-lit and a library of nonsense.
Angelou, Maya. On the Pulse of Morning. New York. Random House, 1993.
Epps, Preston H. trans. The Poetics of Aristotle. North Carolina. The University of North Carolina Press, 1943.
Gates, Jr., Henry Lewis. The Trials of Phillis Wheatley. New York. Basic Civitas, 2003.
Hughes, Sheila Hassell. "A Prophet Overheard: A Juxtapositional Reading of Gwendolyn Brooks's 'In the Mecca.'" The African American Review. 20.5 (Summer, 2004): 20-35.
Kimball, Roger. "George Santayana." The New Criterion 20.6 (February, 2002): 15-25.
Merrill, Christopher. "An Interview with W. S. Merwin." Poets and Writers Magazine (July/August 2005): 24-28.
Muldoon, Paul, ed. The Best American Poetry: 2005. New York. Scribner Poetry, 2005.
Paglia, Camille. Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems. New York. Pantheon Books, 2005.
Strand, Mark, ed. 100 Great Poems of the Twentieth Century. New York. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005.
Robert Klein Engler lives in Chicago and New Orleans. He is a writer and artist whose work is sometimes characterized as politically incorrect. Born on the southwest side of Chicago, Robert taught many years at Richard J. Daley College, until he was banned by the chancellor. Robert holds degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana and the University of Chicago Divinity School. He has received 2 Illinois Arts Council awards for his poetry. Just google his name to find his writing on the Internet.
Michael Morgan writing in the Comstock Review says that Robert Klein Engler "...is a poet of the first rank." Another reviewer on amazon.com disagrees. This reviewer says that Engler's book, A Winter of Words, is trash and that "Engler is a conflicted, sad man who likes to sulk in his book." He then adds, "Mr. Engler you are a Eurocentric nutcase and need to go to a mental hospital."
Larry Winfield of Los Angeles, CA writes that "...I must admit my grievous lack of artistic judgment (sic) in publishing Engler's poetry in past issues of Liquid Glyph"...Engler is "the poetry scene's version of Dinesh D'Souza."
C. J. Laity, editor of ChicagoPoetry.com claims, "I too published this hateful bag of slime...little did I know I was helping to create a nazi monster who was bent on destroying me and all my friends...There are literally thousands of poets in Chicago who are better writers than Engler...he is simply a rotten human being that I prefer not to associate with." These comments are echoed by Ramsin Canon's assessment in Gaper's Block where Canon refers to Engler's writings as a "sublime banquet of bullshit."