Thomas B. White


[A revised version of a paper read at the Second Annual Conference of Scholars and Writers on New Trends in American Poetry, West Chester University, West Chester, PA. First published in EDGE CITY REVIEW.]

I declare the poetic equivalent of war.

On one side are the forces of poetical correctness: those proud purists who refuse to compromise poetry's autonomy by yielding to external ideological and cultural demands no matter how noble or beneficial. Marshaled against them is a three-pronged enemy: the politically correct, the culturally conservative, and a larger adversary: America's poetically challenged, mediadrenched society and culture.

In defending the cause of poetical correctness, I argue that artistic integrity offers a perspective sufficiently militant and aesthetically defensible enough to champion poetry, its forms, and it modes of discourse. For poets, there must be no withdrawal from the battles raging at the bloody crossroads of literature, culture, and politics. And this poetically correct war is a just war, with no scorched earth policy. It is open – potentially – to peace negotiations.

Seeking a dialectical higher ground, poetical correctness, however, must refuse the low roads of aesthetic compromise or literary peace at any price.

"We Have Met the Enemy. . ."

Our tabloid attack culture is based on a language game of high impact "ballistics linguistics," utilitarian, pragmatic, with no redeeming literary values whatsoever. At a fundamental level, this language game's rules assume a mechanistic universe of cause and effect. Nothing is appreciated for its own sake. Everything – history texts, poetry, political positions, justice, even literacy itself – is assumed to have an underlying gimmick impelled by dark, devious, corrupt, self-interested or otherwise biased motives. Both the cultural left and the cultural right play the same game. The former unmasks the text as a deep, tangled mass of sex-, class-, and gender-based motives.

Such literary critics assume that the text is merely a utilitarian means writers employ to proclaim their sexual desires or political preferences. For a choice sample from the 80's, see these remarks on the writings of Alexander Pope: "Pope makes clear that the writer with his pen(is} seeks pen-etration and satisfaction:' (C. Douglas Atkins, Reading Deconstruction, Deconstructive Reading, University of Kentucky, 1983, p. 123) Only one example of countless assertions of its ilk that has nabbed tenure for nearly three generations of aspiring academics.

Cultural conservatives rejoin by simplifying all cultural ills, reducing them to the influence of a baleful leftist liberal cultural elite. (One of the "cultural consequences of [ the] leftward turn in our political life" has been the "decline of literacy in the schools. . ." Unsigned statement of editorial principles in The New Criterion, 1. September,1982.} All language, according to the hidden premise endorsed by both right and left, is a tool for concealing – or revealing – base or questionable motives. The game is to expose and attack one's opponent. But poetic language is not a means, cause, or tool for publicizing an ulterior agenda. It is prima facie innocent. As Auden said, the poem does nothing. What does it mean to assert that poetry's language is outside the tangle of causes and effects? How can there be a poetically correct war if poetic language is "useless"?

Poetry's language is illustrated by W. H. Auden's craft.

He declared war against the capitalist order and was influenced by Freud and Marx, yet did not allow his poetry's language to promote a theory of the unconscious or to be transformed into a screed against the bourgeoisie. The political and cultural wars of the 1930s left his poetry still standing. Auden observed that all artists secretly want their art to be "magic"– not political. Poetry is not an exercise in therapeutic self-revelation, and genuine poetry does not overpsychologize or overpoliticize by using language to hide or reveal anything ulterior or beneath itself. Poetry is the willing suspension of cynicism.

Imaginary and Epicurean Gardens: The Poet as Philosopher

Still, in the words of the old Peggy Lee song: "Is that all there is?" Is poetry merely superbly crafted linguistic bric-a-brac, precision-made from the poet's reveries, far removed from life's unaesthetic grubbier facts – the world well known to the poetically challenged? Marianne Moore conceded that those "interested in poetry" will demand the "raw material. . .in all its rawness:" A purely imaginary world, Wallace Stevens allows, "is eventually without interest." Between pure fancy and the "raw stuff," poetry's soul seems divided. As a genre, it seems to be at war with itself: virtually pure, structural, and formal, yet drawn toward the materialistic, the episodic, the unmusical, the fragmented, the confessional. Therefore, how can poetry wage war against external adversaries if these divisions exist within its own ranks?

To take the road not taken, poetry must go behind – effectively, wage war against – the bleak stuff of the everyday. The poet is a philosopher, albeit of a peculiar sort, who sees the reality behind appearances and then creates appearances about reality. Poetic virtual reality is like the ancient Roman philosophers' Epicurean gardens, in which seclusion from the world at large does not mask the perception of reality, but enhances it. Within the closed, self-referring, hermetically-sealed, imaginary gardens of their poems, poets must remain open to real life's joys, anxieties, terrors, and vicissitudes.

Poetry's quality of being both worldly and otherworldly is reflected in the extraordinary minds and careers of poets: warrior (Owen) and monk (Hopkins), recluse (Dickinson) and traveler (Bishop ), lover (Byron) and ascetic (Hopkins again), philosopher (Eliot), and doctor (Williams). Although real poets love eternal truth and the spirit, they cannot resist passionate, illicit, illogical affairs with the marginal, the mythological, the banal, and the irrational. No wonder Wallace Stevens writes contradictorily of poetry as an irrational enterprise and a pursuit of fixed platonic truths; Steven's paradox is poetry's paradox – to be equally at war and at peace with both the world of illusion and of truth.

A Tale of Two Poetries

But in a curious sense, poetry, for all its profundity, looks into the mirror of the contemporary media and sees an image of itself. The media, like poetry, uses images and sound to enthrall, captivate, and entertain an audience. Long before Steven Spielberg, poetry invented special effects. The media, in effect, incorporates and magnifies poetry's traditional oral, visual, and aural powers. This is why the recent popularity of poetry on CDs, MTV, and the Internet should be approached with caution and skepticism without serving as an occasion for mindless self-congratulation. In staking out an adversarial position against an over-reliance on modern communications technologies, real poets should be fully aware of the seductiveness of this "other" poetry.

For it is a great mistake to glibly assume that traditional poetry's future is secure in the expanding global village of high-definition television, audio books, and the Internet. The Huxleyan vision, not the Orwellian, seems to be the wave of the future: culture is "redefined as a perpetual round of entertainment." (Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, by Neil Postman. New York, Penguin Books, 1985, p. 155.) We may now be entering a cultural dystopia where the "wired" citizenry – their sensibilities perpetually warped by the media's mindless diversions-becomes one huge studio audience and public life, one vast silly, outrageous talk show. Books and the printed word finally seem "too boring." How do we, as poets "take arms against a sea of amusements?" (Postman, p. 156.) Despite drawing battle lines, rattling a few militant sabers, and targeting adversaries, poetry is still strutting about, uncertain how to proceed. Can the natural rabble of diverse poetic voices be consolidated under a unified command? This is the challenge to a nation of poets and poetry lovers on the eve of a badly needed cultural war.

A Poetically Correct War: The Strategies

Ultimately, there are only two weapons with which to wage this war: the poet and the poem. But detailed battle plans must be designed by individual poets. Here are two essential strategies:

1) Militantly advocate the written word. This requires an unapologetic defense of the inherited textual poetic past, the traditional forms, structure, and narratives as well as their creative misuse. Poetry's recent revival of traditional formal meter strikes a radical, discordant cultural note, since the culture of the mass media acknowledges and responds only to the allure of the now, the trendy. Poetic tradition is continuous and historical; the media thrives on the discontinuous and nonhistorical. Here is a stark contrast, a battle line, between radically different sensibilities. A poetically correct war defends the uncompromised autonomy of the poetically magical word, a cause that transcends divisions between, for example, New Formalists and free versers.

Poets should not only revel in the nonreductive, magical quality of their virtual reality, but militantly advocate poetry's special language. What about a poets’ take-no-prisoners manifesto charging our poetically-challenged society and media with "language abuse" followed up by a press conference?

The spirit of Shelley could animate this enterprise: as aggressive stewards of language, poets can revitalize not only the quality of poetic language, but drab, cliche-ridden public discourse. It is war between cynicism and magic. And as poets and lovers of poetry, we should have no doubt where we stand.

2) Champion the rebirth of the poet as a social critic.

In prose and verse, American poets have traditionally offered excellent criticisms of everything from materialism (Emerson), to the corrupting effects of the media (Jarrell), to questionable American wars (Bly). This tradition needs to be reaffirmed in the form of a war against cultural mindlessness and cynical reductionism. It is true that poetry today is defended by excellent generals such as Dana Gioia. But poetry also needs to generate an army of enlistees.

The poetical sensibility, with its attention to the fine nuances of language, tradition, harmonies of meter, the truths of the spirit, and the tragicomic sense of life is well suited to confronting the dishonesty, harshness, and raw cynicism of a society, a politics, and a media that assault and trivialize language, music, and our moral and aesthetic sensibilities.

Dedicated poets, even nonacademic ones, fussing over their technical expertise, tend naturally to withdraw into the cloisters of small presses and workshops. Outside, in the real word, a poetically challenged society laughs and screams itself into mindless oblivion, and life redefines art. On the cusp of the 21st century, how can the poetic democratic spirit tolerate this almost medieval division between a monkish, highly literate elite and a wider, nonworkshopped intellectual population, both of whom share the same cultural enemy? By going to war for poetry, the poet-militant can rescue real appearances from false realities.