I often find myself reflecting on Julien Benda’s The Treason of the Intellectuals and Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals, volumes which yield a sober conclusion: intellectuals as a class, including the literati, with only a few resonant exceptions, are a deeply corrupt breed. “The cult of success,” writes Benda, has led to the polluting of their vocation, as “politics mingled with their work as artists, as men of learning, as philosophers.”
This is broadly true of the literary community in the West, and certainly in my own country. Canada is a big little country, the extent of its land mass in inverse proportion to the reach of its mindscape. In my own chosen discipline, we have an extraordinary number of people publishing poetry, but almost no poets to speak of.
In our day it is the reign of political correctness and ovarian sentimentality that has helped to produce the debilitating infection we are witnessing. Our poets — test cases for intellectual and literary decay — can be relied upon to espouse the cultural orthodoxies and therapeutic causes that have descended upon us like the mothership from Independence Day. Their willing compliance may be owing to a deficiency of native intelligence, the inability to arrive at convictions independently, a lack of courage, or the temptation to reap the rewards, monetary or status-related, that sinuous complicity assures.
Making sure to keep in good standing with the progressivist consensus, such poets are given to parroting the bromides of the time, showing themselves as socially conscious, profoundly sensitive, right-thinking caryatids of the Temple of Social Justice. Put another way, they are for the most part fellow travelers, trimming their sails to the prevailing zephyrs of the mawkishly virtuous.
And this is one salient reason why their work is so dismally bad.
We note the nebbish attitude they affect in the maunderings of influential Carcanet publisher Michael Schmidt, who in a recent interview mourns the “unexpected and traumatic” Brexit vote as a “Trumpish decision.” Liberating the nation from the dead hand of the Brussels commissariat and enabling it to reclaim its independence of action are, apparently, bad for poetry, erecting a wall “between us and our dear friends.” Schmidt ludicrously refers to himself and his associates as “we Mexicans [who] will get over the wall.” Let’s hope his Spanish is up to scratch. His petulant salvo, I suspect, has more to do with dividends, gratuities, and reputation than with poetry. We are obviously meant to understand poets as dedicated insurgents speaking for the disinherited of the earth, engaged in a heroic struggle for “social justice.” That their melic efforts are chiefly mediocre is surely a form of poetic justice.
Here is a typical example of the drivel I am flagging, recently posted on Canada’s Parliamentary Poetry site, currently occupied by that avatar of diversity George Elliott Clarke. I’ll spare the guest author the indignity of exposure:
This declaration of possibilities,
it is the way of metaphors,
weighing, reforestation like antlers.
this bush camp’s sweat,
hewing out of solid wood
Or being up at five in the morning
and preparing to take
the woodpecker by surprise.
All sounds without fury–
I am hardly at rest
by Trapper Lake
Believe it or not–as I am pigeon-holed
a prairie poet by Revenue Canada.
I am prouder yet of my heritage,
and those who came and listened,
the Lakehead University scholars–
Who have eased the anger
out of me since the beginning,
now find me mellow
Like Suknaski’s disdain
with harmonica strumming,
he being less Ukranian.
I succumb for a while—
this style being all
I am left with
Eager as I am to read on;
my dialect’s best–
even as I pretend.
The poem is a bizarre combination of non-sequiturs and quaggy diction. Logically, the lines cannot be parsed as sentences, or even as lines; the grammar is confusing and the sequences discontinuous (what has Suknaski’s being “less Ukrainian” got to do with the writer’s “succumb[ing]”?); the “way of metaphors” seems strangely devoid of metaphors, though it does feature a couple of clunky similes; and the conclusion fades into the realm of the inchoate, befitting the overall sense of semantic obscurity. Call it standard fare. You can’t light a fire with punky wood — and there’s a lot of that around in the Great White North.
As David Goldman correctly remarks in an erudite article for PJ Media, “What Is Poetry, and What Does It Do?”: “Poetry elicits powers of mind more intense and elevated than quotidian thought.” This is why this exemplar, like its manifold cognates, is not poetry. What it is I cannot say, a self-indulgent diary scrap, perhaps. Admittedly, the scholars of Lakehead University, a rather undistinguished institution, may wish to disagree.
I am not saying that there is not a modicum of good work to be found here and there, but that a temper of ingratiating self-election, a sort of psychic Wintel stack, has become the rule. It is increasingly the case that you have to write and think inside the unoffending box if you want to get anywhere. A personal episode may be worth recounting.
Some months back an article of mine appeared in one of the country’s respectable literary journals, in which I argued that politics and music generally form a toxic mix, especially when the music is a form of political advocacy. My example was the musical garbage dished out by the hard rock group Stick To Your Guns in praise of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and their “suffering families.” I also pointed out that far from being innocent victims, as the band proclaimed, Martin and Brown were violent malcontents who had brought their demise upon themselves.
The reaction was instantaneous. Within days I found myself completely ostracized by Canada’s literary/poetic community, leading to my poetic disenfranchisement and the loss of many craven, fair-weather friends.
One of these, the publisher of the aforementioned journal, posted a blogpology in which I was effectively accused of “systemic racism.” My article immediately disappeared. Another friend and former editor wrote requesting me not to couple his name with mine, lest his employment billet come under scrutiny. The publisher of yet another journal that was about to print my essay on translation emailed to say that he was, quite suddenly, appalled by my use of the phrases “in drag” and “higher transvestism” as metaphorical correlates of the art of translating. Of course, he was merely seeking an excuse to drop an innocuous article on an interesting subject so as to have nothing more to do with a literary felon like myself.
Meanwhile, my new book of poetry, Installations, vanished from the national radar: no reviews, no readings and no forthcoming invitations—indeed, a number of pending invitations morphed into disinvitations. Thus I have ceased to exist, having become a vocational pariah.
The second edition of my Reflections on Music, Poetry & Politics, which includes the article that provoked my fall from whatever grace I may have once pretended to, had to be published on Amazon — a first for me.
And so it goes. Our literary colony would happily sing along with Sting’s disgraceful performance of the Arabic song Inshallah at the Bataclan club in Paris, on the very anniversary of the jihadist torture and slaughter of 90 innocent concertgoers. It’s a story, Sting intones, about a migrant family on a small boat; he then urges us to “show empathy,” to “imagine ourselves on one of those boats, with our children and the loved ones.” Another stunted mind at work. “Where is Sting’s empathy,” asks FPM commentator Mark Tapson, “for those innocent French citizens who were butchered a year ago in the very venue in which he was performing? Why didn’t he write a song in solidarity with them and their children and loved ones? The true sentiment of Sting’s performance of ‘Inshallah’ at the Bataclan,” Tapson concludes, “is not empathy but submission. Not righteous anger but cowardly self-righteousness.”
Had I written thus the fallout would have been no different. To display any degree of skepticism concerning the bona fides of society’s designated marginal, victim, or special interest groups – Muslims, aboriginals, “the poor” (rich by Third World standards), LGBTQs, “survivors” (invariably female), BLM supporters — is the kiss of death. I do not, however, believe my troubles are unique. There are others in the same leaky boat. A true friend, an award-winning poet who has refused to wear the manacles of political correctness and has taken a principled stance against the ideological collusions of the time, now finds that his career has stalled and his job opportunities severely diminished. I am sure there are other stalwart souls in other countries whose poetic careers are now going nowhere.
As James Piereson explains in Shattered Consensus, in the revolutionary ‘60s “the work of artists and intellectuals came to be viewed as diversions from direct political action; in order to be worthwhile, such work had to be politically ‘relevant.’ By the end of the 1960s, authors like Robert Frost who celebrated America we now judged to be well outside the mainstream of liberal thought.” (A literary acquaintance once referred to Frost as a “fuddy-duddy.”)
The mainstream of liberal thought has opened up a field of activity in which entertaining the right social causes and political shibboleths allows for a vastly expanded opportunity for self-promotion at the expense of solitary commitment to the craft, of composing in such a way, as Irish poet Thomas McCarthy commends, that “the ink trail that pain leaves on the page” overrides the quest for perks and cultural approval. Indeed, as the ink runs off the page, some of my erstwhile bardic friends are now doing quite well for themselves, reaping the favor of left-liberal organizations.
McCarthy writes, “There is, of course, the post facto politics of published texts, the world of reviews and awards, yet this world is but a distant rumble of thunder barely audible in the realm where poems get written. So often one meets very new poets who are obsessed with the ‘politics’ of poetry and its trivia: they make the heart sink because you feel that they may never arrive at that point of repose where their deepest work will get written. The place where poems get made is much quieter than the place of fame.” And it is much quieter than the place of obsequious chattering and vacuous solemnities in the preferential sweepstakes of “poetical” politics.
As most poets know from bitter proving, poetry is a great occupation but a lousy job — unless you can leverage the craft of communion with the gods into the trade of commerce with our cultural authorities, that is, in our era, commerce with the sodality of the left — the SJWs, the media pontificators, the benighted academy, the granting bodies and the rest of “the whole sick crew” (to quote Thomas Pynchon) disbursing perks and employment opportunities for ideological docility and bleating empathy with the progressivist cause.
It is to be expected that some offended readers and, in particular, the poets I’m alluding to, will charge me with harboring whole vineyards of sour grapes, of being consumed with envy or native biliousness. That’s a perfectly understandable reaction and I feel no need to defend my character, insights or intentions. My message to fellow poets in this country, wherever the sandal, moccasin, or sneaker fits, is this: so long as your presumptive talents hew in the direction of our slavish and now-ubiquitous cultural norms, it has no chance of improvement. Given, few of us can aspire to write what St. Augustine in his Letters called “the sublime psalm of the vicissitudes of this world.” My point is that the work should not be merely one of these vicissitudes.
True poets will have to find other means of advancing their work in a decadent milieu, perhaps circulating their manuscripts privately as did the 17th century Metaphysicals, or even self-publishing. All in all, we seem to have fallen on samizdat times.