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September 7, 2011

Of Poets Good, Bad and in-Between

The United States of America has a new poet laureate.

The United States of America being the United States of America, who cares?

For democracy is the death of poetry and often enough of poets, who may be reduced to penury if they’re any good. Though bad ones can thrive, or at least get a job with Hallmark.

The United States of America has a new poet laureate.

The United States of America being the United States of America, who cares?

For democracy is the death of poetry and often enough of poets, who may be reduced to penury if they’re any good. Though bad ones can thrive, or at least get a job with Hallmark.

Wallace Stevens, who was very good, was just as prudent. He knew enough to hold on to his day job as a successful insurance executive in Hartford. The T.S. Eliots and Robert Frosts had to go to England, where Frost wrote some of the finest American poems of his century, to win recognition. Just as American painters once adjourned to Paris. We don’t much recognize our own.

Yes, a Whitmanesque songteller may arise from time to time here at home, like a Carl Sandburg writing love letters to the “Hog Butcher for the World,/ Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,/ Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler,/ Stormy, husky, brawling,/ City of the Big Shoulders….”

But much as we homers love the effect and affect of our prairie bards, this kind of thing tends to be more sentimental than poetic.

And we still produce the kind of assembly-line poets whose syndicated work used to appear in newspapers (The Poet’s Corner) and so ruined the art for generations of kids growing up on the morning paper.

But poetry, the real thing, and not just everything and anything that goes by the name, must be selective. Like the soul. (The soul selects her own society,/ Then shuts the door … –Emily Dickinson)

What de Tocqueville said of painting applies to poetry, too, when it comes to Democracy in America: “In aristocracies a few great pictures are produced; in democratic countries, a vast number of insignificant ones.”

Tyranny, on the other hand, can be the health of poetry. See Russia, if you can bear to look. In the days when czars and commissars ruled with an iron hand, writers were a kind of second government – an outlet for all the art and freedom stifled by the regime.

As long as Stalin and his heirs ruled, manuscripts were passed from hand to hand like a secret treasure, which they were. But when the thaw finally came, Russian writers lost their urgency and intensity and audience. There was no longer a pressing need for it. Freedom will do that; it takes the edge off poetry of the political kind.

Which is why the announcement of a new poet laureate in America, however good or bad or in-between, is greeted mainly by a yawn in this country, if it be greeted at all. The business of America remains business. (Coolidge, Calvin.)

Yes, some do know who the new poet laureate is – the other members of the guild, the always dwindling audience for poetry in a democratic society, the hopelessly retentive, maybe even a newspaper columnist who’s sick of politics for a day, but still notices how politic the selection of an American poet laureate is.

Occasionally a real poet will be the laureate – an Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Richard Wilbur or a Joseph Brodsky – but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. For politics tends to be the death of poetry.

And how artificial, how imported, the title sounds: American poet laureate. Much like our own version of the queen’s honors list – the Medal of Freedom. Its recipients, too, are duly named every year. There is something foreign about all such titles of nobility. Much like those shakoes Richard Nixon, with his impeccably bad taste, wanted to put on the White House guard.

The newest poet laureate is Philip Levine, who’s been styled the workingman’s poet. Professor Levine’s early poems about his grimy Detroit years resound with a righteous rage, his later ones with tenderness. Love and age can have that mellowing effect. What is gained in life is lost in art.

The choice of Philip Levine as our new poet laureate shows a nice sense of balance when you consider all those he succeeds, including the easily understandable (“accessible” is the trade term) Billy Collins.

From sweet to tart, it’s a nice change of pace and taste.


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