Reginald Shepherd, in a typically thoughtful and eloquent post, successfully critiques the notion that poets associated with Donald M. Allen’s seminal anthology, The New American Poets, wrote with political and/or social change as a goal. Unfortunately, as he reaches his conclusion, he uses his valuable analysis to make a puzzling claim: “If we were to judge works of art by their creators’ political positions, much would be ruled out of bounds.” On the surface this sounds admirably dispassionate; but the implications of his statement are troubling.
First, let me narrow the focus from “art” in general to “poetry” in particular, since poetry is the focus of Shepherd’s post. Second, I’d like to insist on the broader sense of “politics” as “the assumptions or principles relating to or inherent in a sphere, theory, or thing, esp. when concerned with power and status in a society” [Oxford American Dictionary]. The question then becomes: Is the political content of a poem irrelevant to our judgement of its value? Surely the answer has to be no.
Shepherd, for example, cites a number of writers whose politics were odious: F. T. Marinetti and the Italian Futurists, Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, Germans Gottfried Benn and Ernst Jünger, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. He could also have added Pablo Neruda, who embraced Stalinism long after the show trials and purges had become common knowledge; Allen Tate, a Southern racist who in 1932 actually lodged a protest against a proposed party in Nashville to honor Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson; and Wallace Stevens, a Yankee racist who famously, upon learning that Gwendolyn Brooks had won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, asked, “Who let the coon in?”
I think most readers would agree that the wretched views of such writers can only be held against their works to the extent that those views shape the works. Depending on how narrowly we construe this issue, we might feel justified in rejecting The Pisan Cantos, for example, but feel sanguine about recommending “The Lake Isle” to a Jewish friend. As John Berryman puts it in his poetic preface to Berryman’s Sonnets:
The original fault was whether wickedness
was soluble in art. History says it is,
Jacques Maritain says it is,
But I do have a Jewish friend, a poet, who despises Pound, who can’t read Pound—and it’s hard for me to fault him. I certainly couldn’t bring myself to lecture him on the idea that our judgement of artistic value can and should be divorced from our judgement of the artist. What if Hitler had continued with a parallel career as a watercolorist? What if, in between invasions and incinerations and tortures, he had managed to make undeniable formal innovations that went on to influence subsequent generations of watercolor artists? Could we really stomach the claim that the nature of his life should not affect our view of his art?
Of course, relying on the most extreme case to make a point usually hints at a weakness in the argument. The weakness here is that we don’t understand—or at least have no clear way of discussing—the connection between a poet’s character and his poetry. There may be none at all (an idea I find hard to swallow), or it may be that poetry at its best springs from “the better angels of our nature”—those forces in ourselves that seek to free us from our own negative, even destructive, limitations. If the second view is true, and I think it is, we can understand why it is that totalitarians and racists, lousy fathers and mothers, dopers and alcoholics, unsuccessful anger managers, cowards and killers, have all—at one time or another—produced exalted poetry. Among all the mysteries of the art (of all the arts), this is perhaps the most profound.