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I can't remember at what point during the evening I first registered a feeling of pity for the panelists who participated in a recent forum in New York, "Brit Lit: New Writing from the UK and Ireland." Some of the panelists seemed unsure of the purpose of the evening, half-expecting to read from their work or perhaps the work of others. It's a pretty safe bet that none of the panelists was prepared to have a discussion about 9/11, Amiri Baraka, George Bush, and Iraq. Nor was I prepared to hear one, given the program's title. To the best of my knowledge, neither Mr. Baraka nor Mr. Bush enjoys much of a readership in the UK.
But there we were, audience and panel, being led through a bizarre series of questions and prompts by the program's moderator, Todd Swift, who appeared only half-conscious himself of the evening's purported topic. Mr. Swift's almost autistic preoccupation with the terrorist attacks, the impending war with Iraq, and all things political generated some rather cranky responses from a panel more interested in poetry (imagine that, their being poets). Furthermore, it was often difficult to tell whether Mr. Swift was leading a panel or an interrogation. After an awkward silence broken only by a few huffs and sighs, Paul Muldoon finally attempted to puncture some of the pretensions of the moderator, claiming that "poets may willy-nilly reflect society," but ultimately, dumping a lot
of political content into poetry is no substitute for good writing. His fellow panelists concurred. Mimi Khalvati suggested that "a poet's first responsibility is to poetry itself," and Simon Armitage added to the sentiment by stating that poetry "starts with language," not a strongly held political conviction.
Having failed in producing the desired dialogue, the petulant Mr. Swift took another stab at subjecting the panelists to a political discussion, suggesting that taking an apolitical stance is itself a political decision, and that perhaps all this privilege given to craft (read here: skill) just gets in the way of free, "democratic utterance." I'm not entirely sure what "democratic utterance" is shorthand for, and apparently, neither were the panelists, for they were as nonplussed as I was. If one were to venture a guess, I suppose Swift was invoking the simple concept of privileging content over artifice, that in effect, everyone is a poet with something to say (as long as it's the right thing). Funny that we never speak of "democratic carpentry," or "democratic airplane pilots." But everyone, alas, believes himself to be a poet.
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Suspending judgment momentarily on the merits or demerits of this aesthetic (or lack thereof), it is useful perhaps to remember that this argument among poets of left and right, of means and ends, of rights and order, has raged since the beginnings of Romanticism, and by no means can one say that political conservatives and artistic conservatives are one and the same group across time; in fact, there are many cases where poets with conservative, or even reactionary, sentiments advocated rather progressive or novel approaches to poetry, while those poets of liberal political convictions often adopted conventional poetic techniques. But at any rate, these divisions within the world of poetry grow starker and more defined in times of political upheaval where there is a lot at stake.
Bearing this in mind, one can see a kind of parallel between the War on Terrorism and the Napoleonic Wars that raged through Europe at the beginning of the 19th century. Napoleon's ultimate defeat at Waterloo presented Europe's masters--and Europe was all that mattered in 1815--with an opportunity to redraw the continent. But more was at stake than mere lines on a political map. The rising liberal order had tied its horse to Napoleon, viewing him as the continent's last best chance to erase the
ancien regime (Napoleon's tyranny, it would seem, counted less than other tyrannies), and Waterloo had effectively ended such wishful thinking. Much vitriol passed between British poets in the periodicals, some supporting the reigning conservative order and others supporting "radical" democratic ideals.
With a few centuries of hindsight, we now know the political "winner" in the long-term battle between aristocracy and democracy, and in the long run, many of the revered poets of the day were on the losing side of the political argument (of course, at the time, the progress of democracy was hardly inexorable). To be sure, the political choices of the time were not so black and white, and it was not uncommon, particularly later in the century, to adhere to both constitutional representation and monarchy (as some still do). But as is so often the case, when political trenches are laid down, the middle position--the position that weighs and balances the arguments from both sides--quickly becomes a no-man's land, receiving deadly fire from both sides.
Moreover, poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge offer delicious contradictions for the literary biographer. Their concern for the working poor doesn't seem to square, at least at first glance, with their devotion to the powers of Empire. It might assume too much to label them imperialists, or perhaps not, as I am sure the term would not have the baggage for them as it does for us. But in any event, it is clear, especially when held up to contemporary models, that their political poetry was an almost wholly individual enterprise, that their opinions were their own, were the product of their individual experience, and were, in fact, quite apt to change over time. In short, their convictions were idiosyncratic ones, made perhaps too tidy and compact by the pens of literary historians (or online poetry reviewers).
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Looking at the current poetry scene, it's difficult to see that kind of individual vision in today's so-called political poetry, whether it is avant-garde poetry or garden-variety academic poetry. There is a sameness, a staleness, to the language and the assumptions that underpin the language. And this charge goes far beyond a poet's decision to employ rime royal or to forego the use of punctuation. It goes to the poet's ability to synthesize the full range of human experience, or as Paul Muldoon stated it during the panel discussion, "[to]
make sense of oneself in one's society." One imagines that the practitioners of "democratic utterance" are too busy uttering to pay much attention to the "still, sad music of humanity."
And this is too bad, for poems are often composed long before they are written.
As the evening's panel discussion progressed, more or less affably, the gulf between panel and moderator was as wide as ever, and this tension was more interesting than anything that was actually said. Simon Armitage summed up the evening most aptly, adapting Edmund Burke to poetry: "Every country gets the poetry it deserves." Sadly, I left the auditorium fearing he was right.