Poetry and Politics
France's Defeat at Diên Biên Phu
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Poetry and Politics
by Tim Scannell
Politics kills poetry. Reading/writing poetry since 1958, I am increasingly disgusted – not angered -- by the ideological coilings which throttle it: Political Correctness, Affirmative Action, Polyculturalism (and their myriad of academic, legislative, regulatory or bureaucratic garottings we have come to call 'social engineering'). Politics, opportunistic and equivocal from audience to audience, is surely not a hero with a thousand faces, but rather, is most assuredly a totalitarianism employing a thousand devices.
Obversely, both writer and reader of poetry are individual -- and eternal. Stevens's "Sunday Morning" will not, given another readership and another era, transform itself into the poem, "Tuesday Afternoon." Individual poets -- millions of artisans of past and future -- abhor 'party' and 'faction' and 'societal swarm' of any description (at least, the best among them have and will). Furthermore, Robert Frost was right: A poem's single resonance within all the universe is to "…cry out on life, that what it wants / Is not its own love back in copy speech, / But counter-love, original response." Politics, being Pavlovian and capriciously Machiavellian, is unnecessary to poetry which is solely of Mnemosyne and her nine yakking daughters – "continuous as the stars that shine" (William Wordsworth).
An objective, observant human being recognizes that the fount of modern politics is at the 'lie-and-scream' level of societal retardation, whether through the manipulative divisiveness of the Clintons (age, color, sex, wealth) or the more monstrous 7-decade-long thuggism visited upon the Soviet Union by its ideological tyrants, now mere criminals. Consider the troglodytic mindlessness of Taliban Buddha-statue-bombers [See Articles, May 2001. Ed.], Algerian internecine butchers, Bosnian parochials (withdraw K-4 and see what ensues). Now, imagine it poetically. Or just consider one moron and one action: that of actually burying spikes in a tree which another single solitary human being, a logger, will cut down. It beggars the mind how to figure that a poet could have any recourse whatsoever but to damn politics with every word, phrase, line or stanza.
Yet, the true mystery of our era is the tragic and appalling absence of furious uprising by individual poets and commentators (erstwhile 'guardians' of our 'minor' art) against this mephitic political bane. All of God's green earth is now politicized, music, film, and novels, as fully so as economics, law and religion. One would think that at least one raggedy scrap of human activity/expression might be nurtured and protected. Sadly, no. The cunning and unnecessary invasion of ideology/politics (derived from Aristotle's Rhetoric) into poetic expression (Aristotle's Poetics, however incomplete), has been neither monitored nor denounced by poets/commentators.
Foolishly, our sentries fret over 'small potatoes': Edmund Wilson (1934) signs poetry's death certificate, citing what he perceives as an inevitable drift of poetry to prose. Randall Jarrell (1960) bemoans poetry's death, saying potential readers are at once starved and stuffed by the media's universal mediocrity ("television, radio, movies, popular magazines, and the rest"). Joseph Epstein (1988) opines that poets hang themselves by fleeing to universities and college writing programs; and Dana Gioia (1991) says that poets are errant hermits, withdrawn from poetry's 'natural' adjuncts (music, dance, theater).
These whispered alarms regarding history, sociology, institutions or lifestyles have nothing whatever to do with the source of poetry qua poetry – nothing! The fount of poetry is pre-historic, pre-societal, etc. The unawareness of these well-read individuals for what is right before them is troubling. Moreover, it is dangerous to suppose that the art of poetry is immune from despoilment by ideological/political rhetoric: it is not. Those who conclude that, "Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story / of that man skilled…", as mere formality to 'get things started,' are surrendering all that makes creation and eternity and life believable – and worthy of human toil!
Politics kills poetry. Robert Mezey recently released his collected poems (1952-1999) through a university press. [See Review, May 2001. Ed.] Included on its jacket are blurbs from two of his contemporaries, Donald Justice and John Hollander. These are their respective comments: "absolute classics of calm and beauty" and "an unyielding poetic integrity that is itself like a beacon against a darkening literary horizon." Now, between them, Justice and Hollander have released 115 books. They have been roundabout a good, long while, and it was incumbent upon them to cite the ideology informing Mezey's poetry. Out of his 200-poem collection there were a dozen good poems, but score after score after score were skewed politically. Is this an example of classic "calm and beauty"…, of "a beacon against a darkening literary horizon"?
I make a lot of money and have a perfect tan;
I've conquered everybody from Peru to Hindustan
Um…, all these terms of debasement: sounds very Politically Correct to me! Um…, all this historical revisionism: sounds very ideological to me! Um…, taken altogether, this item (screed?) strikes me as an instance of pristine 'social engineering.' Its author has abandoned poetry for rhetoric…and so, must be evaluated that way (ethos/pathos: the speaker's moral character/the audience's own emotions, respectively).
Dust off the ol' Port Huron Statement. Submit the tub-thump to Mother Jones. Lend it as manifesto to our WTO urban terrorists. Give it (from among a myraid), to Hollywood's Oliver Stone! It's not poetry: Mezey's 'beauty/integrity' is about as far away from the plinth as Stephen Hawking's astronomical musings are from Pac Man and Donkey Kong. If Justice and Hollander choose to remain silent, shame on them!
It behooves us as both writers and reviewers of poetry to get back to basics. First, the fount of poetry are the Musae -- Mnemosyne (Memory) and her nine yakking daughters -- each and all concepts, and none in any way congruent with or allied to politics. The first through last word of any poem must show, weep, propitiate, titillate, laugh, laud, sing, dance, and record all inspired topics coming to them in word-analogues representing, respectively: Urania, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Erato, Thalia, Calliope, Euterpe, Terpsichore, and Clio. That Greek had it right: poetry from Aristotle's Poetics, politics from his Rhetoric! And let us be clear that all of these 'daughter-concepts' derived from Memory predate the 'political animal' (and more than 400 Greek constitutions/states) by thousands of seasons, hundreds of human generations. In short, a poet may choose to deliberately insert the rhetoric of politics into his poetry, but there is nothing whatsoever natural, destined or necessary in the entanglement of the two.
Second, the choice of a poetical topic and theme is derived from the poet's trust in a private persona, tone and voice. Personally, I do not tamper with any of the triad, but leave it to Memory to sound/speak an initial word or phrase: I am not structuring a 'public address.' It may turn out that the poem is about a bird or snowfall, laziness or love, or a satire/sarcasm about modernity, yet the topic of a poem is never, of necessity, politics.
I couldn't care less what academe and its present-day, politicized minions think: Deconstruction-ers, Political Correctness-ites, Affirmative Action-ists. I was among them over 20 years, the air of the teacher's lounge logorrheic with second-hand mouthings of social engineering by this person's favorite politician, that person's selection of media (see the rest of Randall Jarrell's, "A Sad Heart at the Supermarket", cited above). The blather was so person-specific and repetitive regarding political affiliation/media loyalty that I am certain it gave rise to the coinage of summative inference – and dismissal: "Whatever..."
Third. Politics is rhetorical ploy -- propaganda -- and serves only ideological interests (Caesar's variegated corruptions). Tedious, current hothouses of political pseudo-poems are Central and South America and Africa (over 80 countries and not one democracy among them). Send them guns, but do not analyze their bathetic political verse under the delusion that they are poems. An oft-cited poet was and is Pablo Neruda (1904-73). In his "Letter to Miguel Otero Silva, In Caracas", the persona bemoans the "garbage, and depression" of life in the mines, and orates to others about it. The local police force
...showed disgust, left off saying
Now, Neruda may choose to entwine politics into rhetorical address (with stanzaic patina, etc.), but not from necessity: The choice expresses Neruda's public ism. Scores of other Neruda poems are entirely devoid of 'politics,' celebrate sensual topics/themes of the marketplace, seashore, mountains, neighbors, lovers, etc. If his politics elicits pathos, then that audience should: 1) join up, and 2) accompany him fully-armed to kill his political opposition. But do know that your action/cause are in no way poetic! We fought our 8-year Revolution before its 'political' construction in a Constitution (6 more years, 1783-89, to cobble that into shape).
We are the only nation to have founded itself on two documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. While I believe in both, I also recognize that, for all their beauty and import, they are formed of rhetorical words, phrasings, lists and structures, not poetry. The natural human being (poet or not) knows that "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are God-given endowments, not the talking points of some man-made political 'oversoul' or ideologically-driven program of social engineering. Mnemosyne and the Musae precede such obvious intrusions of the political state, political animal by millennia.
Fourth, finally (and in fact, most importantly), we have recourse back to the origin of poetry qua poetry, its immutable plinth among the Musae: wordwonder, wordwail, wordprayer, wordlove, wordlaughter, wordlauding, wordsong, worddance, and wordhistory (once again, metaphorical analogues). These preoccupations of mind and emotion which thrive in all human beings, at all times existed long, long before any ideology or political leader's ism which so dishonestly divides us by gender, age, color, creed, status or wealth -- when we are foolish enough to assent to the division -- or seeks to manipulate us (fools again) through poll and vacuous 'focus group.'
Forty-six thousand years ago the people of the cave placed one of their dead kinsmen in his grave on the cave floor of their time, setting his body on a bed of woody branches and flowers - grape hyacinth, yellow groundsel, hollyhock and yarrow...red ocher...offerings of meat.
This example from R. S. Solecki's Shanidar is the ancient and abiding truth, this poetic – Hesiodic -- event in a Neanderthal cave (Iraq). Nearly 50,000 years later, blessed by the startle of waking yet again, happy with coffee and Dunkin' Donuts sweet roll, I still feel the emotive, imaginative force of their unspoken words, their placement of a corpse, their choice of flowers, propitiary dusting with ocher. In that rudimentary persona, tone and voice, I hear and see and love a 'song' and 'prayer and 'dance' of apolitical, unsocially-engineered daily living. I read the preliterate wonder surrounding all of the worthy poetic topics we labor over still today: man versus man, man versus himself, man versus nature, and man versus the gods. Their act of propitiation and praise -- a nanosecond in humanity's development -- is wholly poetical manna to me (in that cave and in that dirt and in that moment), a lyric of raw existence.
Neither the slightest moment's meaning of life, nor the most ephemeral of poems, is ever attached, intertwined or controlled by some necessary taint of ideology or ism. Let there be some benighted poets and commentators who deem politics important, but I will not be among them. Best for poet and poem to "cry out on life." Don't tax the reader with political rhetoric.
(Tim Scannell writes frequently for the magazine. He lives in Washington State.)
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France's Defeat at Diên Biên Phu
Diên Biên Phu has a fairytale sound and seemed like a science fiction-type battle when I heard it on the radio day after day as I came home from school, aged 15. It reminded me of names I had heard on the radio when I was even younger in 1945. Then, the Red Army and the Eighth Army were closing in on places such as Berlin.
It was like broadcasting a huge game of chess. I had had no idea what these strange Gothic terms represented. Now my grandmother said, "Diên Biên Phu: I am sick of hearing it twenty times a day." It meant the collapse of French imperial power--which most of the English would never be too sorry about.
Allies in war are not always your friends, and as cracks started to appear in our own colonial empire, in Malaya and Kenya, there was a touch of dog-in-the-manger or 'There but for the grace of God go I' about English attitudes to the French plight. While some were aghast at the prospect of one of the world's four great armies surrendering to a gang of ragged Asian thugs, others would think the French had always been too ready to throw in the white towel.
Seven years after Diên Biên Phu, the U.S. forces under Kennedy were heavily embroiled in Vietnam, facing the same General Giap. History would soon repeat itself. In England, they always say glibly--even now when the IRA has prevailed--that terrorism never works. This is whistling in the dark. Look at Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Vietnam, Cambodia, Aden (Yemen), Cuba, Algeria. A guerrilla army is undefeatable because you cannot find it. It lives everywhere and nowhere on nothing and its time is unlimited.
By 1954, the French had 400,000 troops in their former colony. Officers were killed off nearly faster than the war lords could graduate them from military academy. France's Vietnam War cost 7 billion dollars, and left 92,000 dead and 114,000 wounded. The end came in May of that year at Diên Biên Phu, where, though initially believing themselves to have the advantage, French forces were outategized, surrounded, then pounded and starved by Giap's ruthless attrition, until after many months of siege,16,000 surrendered, a profound humiliation for France, and a condition that led directly to a compounding of errors at the Geneva Conference, the creation of North and South, and the arrangement of a similar fate for their American successors. ["In my end is my beginning." -- T.S. Eliot. Ed.]
Later, I lived in France in a southern village. The wife of Claude the grocer had got into a ménage à trois with René the haberdasher and his own wife which had gone on for some months.
One night, the grocer drunkenly telephoned the mayor to warn him of his intentions of revenge. The mayor went back to bed but lay awake thinking, Will he do it or won't he? Yes he might. So he called out the local police.
By the time the mayor arrived, the grocer had harmlessly emptied his sporting rifle--firing at but missing the house where the haberdasher lay secluded with the two women--and had fallen down drunk.
The mayor said to the haberdasher, "You are in danger. Claude was a rifleman in Indochina." The haberdasher responded: "Sir, if he's typical of our men, then no wonder we lost at Diên Biên Phu."
(Patrick Henry is a contributing editor to the magazine. Currently, on extended tour in Australia, he lives in Yorkshire, England.)
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I was born in '57 when Eisenhower was President. Even though he didn't tell anyone, we were already in Vietnam exercising our collective control issues. When I was in elementary and junior high school, during Kennedy-Johnson, I saw the war every night on the news. I will never forget the sight of a North Vietnamese prisoner executed. Shot in the head as matter-of-factly as lighting a cigarette.
When Nixon was President, the war was winding down, but I and every guy in high school knew we had draft registration breathing down our necks. In 1975, during the Ford administration and my freshman year of college, I went to my student admission office to do the "right" thing. I was told that the Selective Service had instructed everyone to throw all registration material out. There was no more war, no more draft, and no more registration. I couldn't believe it. Suppose it's a mistake? Suppose they come get me? "Let me know if you get arrested," said the lady behind the desk. "I'll testify!"
In 1980, Jimmy Carter reinstituted draft registration for 18- to 20- year-old's. By then, I was 22. I can only assume that somehow I had hired some high-powered attorney on the astral plane and arranged a pre-incarnate agreement. I was lucky. I was in a five-year Pax Americana bubble and "Alice's Restaurant" was not an ugly signpost to my future.
(Paul McDonald contributes frequently to the magazine. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.)
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