Literary Repression in a Liberal Culture

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.

Such verbs,

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.