Arts & Culture

Ars Boretica

It occurred to me halfway through listening to Elizabeth Alexander’s narcoleptic and thoroughly "bureaucratic" verse, as Adam Kirsch so aptly put it, that there is in fact one area in which a celebrated golden age lies behind, forcing us to … Read More

By / January 22, 2009

It occurred to me halfway through listening to Elizabeth Alexander’s narcoleptic and thoroughly "bureaucratic" verse, as Adam Kirsch so aptly put it, that there is in fact one area in which a celebrated golden age lies behind, forcing us to inhabit one of so much rusty aluminum. Poetry is not what it used to be:

When Horace produced his Carmen Saeculare at the command of the Emperor Augustus, as part of the festivities for the Secular Games in 17 B.C., he was happily placing his gifts at the service of the new imperial regime, much as Virgil did when he wrote the Aeneid. So, too, with the Elizabethan poets, who poured their lyrics and masques at the feet of Gloriana. In a monarchy, there is no shame for a poet, or for anyone else, in being the monarch’s servant.

And there is usually no shame in the poetry produced at court; truth gets spoken, if only whispered, to power in subtle yet unmistakable ways. "You knelt a boy, you rose a man / And thus your lonelier life began" was the closing stave of the ballad John Betjeman was commissioned to write to mark the occasion of Prince Charles’s investiture in 1968. Can you imagine a similar chord of caution or pessimism being struck by a democratic flatterer in the hope-besotted coronation of Barack Obama? (It was the new president himself who sounded gloomiest.)

I’ve only just learned, courtesy of Steven Isenberg’s hilarious essay in the American Scholar about his lunches with famous poets, that upon meeting Queen Elizabeth in Northern Ireland, Philip Larkin told an Irish joke, "which he said was sort of a triple faux pas—telling the Queen a joke, an Irish one, and doing it in Northern Ireland."  Yes well, the "quintessentially English" poet of the postwar years was nothing if not a self-saboteur of his own reputation. Larkin also effectively prevented his favorite prime minister Margaret Thatcher from naming him poet laureate because of all the dour bawdy he’d written, particularly "This Be the Verse" ("They fuck you up, your mum and dad…. Get out as early as you can / And don’t have any kids yourself.").

Part of the problem, I would venture, though I claim none of Kirsch’s expertise in the matter, is that poets today are not actuated by extreme politics or extreme metaphyics as their forebears once were. George Orwell noted in a characteristically shrewd essay that in the early decades of the 20th-century, in order to be a writer of note in any genre, one had to be a communist, a fascist or a Catholic. Slightly before him, Edmund Wilson hit upon the same theme, observing that T.S. Eliot’s imagination was trapped in a world of "seventeenth-century churchmen," John Dos Passos (though a novelist) was the bard of "an army of workers, disinterested, industrious and sturdy," while Ezra Pound — who provided a fine example of immature ideology gratifyingly seconded by immature poetry — bethought himself a troubadour in medieval Provence, speaking in a Babel-like hodgepodge of unintelligible tongues. Modernism, in other words, was a wild oscillation between the distant past and the distant future; that’s why it resounded in the immediate present.

But bureaucratic verse is firmly rooted in a bureaucratic present, and so it is ungripping and banal. Alexander’s is the poetry of warm consensus–stock thoughts and stock emotions workshopped into a pureed nothingness. The following wasn’t her inaugural doggerel, but it’s a fine example of decline all the same:

I dreamed a pronouncement about poetry and peace. "People are violent," I said through the megaphone on the quintessentially frigid Saturday to the rabble stretching all the way up First. "People do violence unto each other and unto the earth and unto its creatures. Poetry," I shouted, "Poetry," I screamed, "Poetry changes none of that by what it says or how it says, none. But a poem is a living thing made by living creatures… and as life it is all that can stand up to violence."

If she’s shouting and screaming through a megaphone, there’s small chance that what she has to say will endure–although it certainly can capture the moment of a platitudinous campaign rally, or a scripted anti-something protest. This is the postmodernist’s laboratory of reanimated dead imagery. Alexander’s main sentiment in the above extract is a third-rate imitation of one that emphasizes poetry’s superficial fecklessness but then concludes that maybe it does have a certain contradictory or rebellious quality. Thanks, but I knew that already:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives In the valley of its making where executives Would never want to tamper, flows on south From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, A way of happening, a mouth.

A modest proposal for Obama 2.0: Hire Christopher Plummer or Ian McKellen or Frank Langella (if it must be an American) to recite some Auden or Yeats at your next big do, and get on with the prose already.