Thomas McGrath, Problems of the Revolutionary Poet in Contemporary Times

Perhaps this is a subject for a catalog rather than for a short paper. The poet will have the usual problems of making a living--problems which everyone who works has to face--and these will be complicated by the fact that he must try to live two lives at once: as a revolutionary and as a revolutionary poet. He must buy time for the second life since he is a pre-capitalist type and not a producer of commodities. He will have the usual problems with the police and with blacklists--with whatever kinds of repression are of the mode for the time in which he lives as modified by the levels of organization of class struggle. He will face a more or less hostile publishing apparatus. In general his freedom, which, as a writer, he sees as time to create and publish his work will depend on the strength of his own side--on whether or not there are developed revolutionary organizations and a press--or on the indifference or "liberalism" or stupidity of the enemy. The poet may suffer benign or malign neglect, or be hunted as was Neruda, imprisoned like Hikmet, or killed in one way or another. But all these are practical problems. They have been or are being now or will be faced by real poets. The enemy will always be generous in creating specific difficulties. But what I am interested in here are the more general problems of how one becomes a revolutionary poet in a reactionary society in the first place.   "Pen, paper and the social command"--according to Mayakovsky those are all the poet needs. But Mayakovsky was speaking as a poet who was already formed and a highly sophisticated one at that. Our hypothetical young poet, someone just starting to write, may have the Mayakovskian makings, may have a true gift, but before he can write the poem he will have to work through a whole series of questions related to his culture and what he sees as his role and function. I am setting out some of the problems below. I think they are some of the main problems for a young poet trying to write in the United States in these times, but the list is incomplete and in such a short paper the remarks can be little more than notes toward a discussion.   "The Tradition". Or: Cattlemen, Sheepmen & Outlaws   Whether or not our poet is blessed or cursed by an education, he will have to read widely. This is to say that he immediately faces the bourgeois view of what literature has been and is now. Even a moderately good library is a kind of sorting device for separating the sheep or the "tradition" from the goats and the mavericks. The standard anthologies he will read will "essentialize" this sorting into the standard view of literature as seen from the high windows of the academies, and the criticism and literary history he is likely to encounter will offer formal grounds for the legitimization of this point of view. These are not the only possibilities, but they are the usual ones for a young poet. Other views can be had but they are hard to come by.   One form this sorting process takes might be called nationalist. In its rudimentary form it was put forwards years ago by Philip Rahv. Using categories of "Paleface" and "Redskin", he divides American literature into writers who locate themselves in or around the forms and values of English literature and those who work in an idiom which, to a degree at least, is distinctively "American" or "Redskin". It is really a very old distinction and has some--but not much--use for our young poet in the beginning of his career. Later, when he is seriously at work, language, specifically American language, will be a cardinal concern.   But what our poets needs, early, is some sense of poetry in terms of class and he will have a hard time finding such a view in academia or outside it, for that matter. There are beginnings: in Parrington and a few other liberal literary historians; in Caudwell (the material on the English Romantics in Illusion and Reality) and other Marxists. But there are no overall studies of English or American poetry from a revolutionary point of view. (As a matter of fact there are not even any very useful anthologies of poetry from the revolutionary tradition. The ones that exist are either full of contemporary posturings--for the most part--and essentially ahistorical, or they are primarily English and Nineteenth Century. I am thinking, on the one hand, of the New Masses anthology--too small in any case--and of those of Bly and Lowenfels; on the other of the Penguin "Socialist Verse".)   What our poet really needs is a history of poetry along the following lines: Cattlemen: The poets of "the tradition"--the poetry of aristocratic values: catholic or anglo-catholic, "classic", royalist, medieval, fascist or committed to "absolute" values. Since many of these values are dead, the poetry often seems above class conflict or dedicated to the "sublime". Since the social life it arose from is dead, the poetry is only half alive. But because it was once alive it still contains two things: the venom of a class point of view (now hardly distinguishable) and a genuine grasp of some feelings which can still move us since feeling is not completely tied to class. In many ways the poetry of this tradition is closer to the revolutionary poet than is the poetry of the bourgeois tradition since it is anti-bourgeois. This is why Eliot and Yeats seem modern.   Sheepmen: The poets of the bourgeois tradition of "critical realism". The term "critical realism" has been used primarily for prose but I use it here because I can't think of a better. Capitalism, except very early or very exceptionally, has never produced a heroic literature of praise. What it has produced is a body of writing which both accepts and attacks the system. Typically, American poetry exalts democracy and freedom as the "real" content of the American dream and attacks exploitation, violence, war (sometimes) and the other grand negatives of capitalism as accident or aberration. It is simpleminded and therefore often agonized in comic ways. Its attacks on the system come sometimes from a submerged aristocratic bias, often from an inconsistent radicalism. There are many mixed cases. Whitman is an example. Most of the greatest American prose writers are Sheepmen; most important American modern poets are Cattlemen.   Outlaws: Most of what is left-revolutionary poetry of all lands (internationalism is more useful to us than to bourgeois poets) and folk, "ethnic" and "primitive" poetry. Since our goal is classless, the poetry of preclass society can have a special meaning for us. The closest thing to an anthology of "Outlaws" is perhaps Rothenberg's America: A Prophecy. It is good on the primitive and ethnic and out-of-the-way, though it has next to nothing that is politically revolutionary. As I've said, nothing in the way of a critical examination of poetry in terms of these categories or their equivalents exists.   Criticism Our neophyte poet will have no better luck if he wants to find a useful body of criticism than he will have had in finding a useful view of poetry. Just as there is no anthology of poetry that would be of immediate and practical value for him there is no collection of criticism that would be immediately useful from the standpoint of craft--and that is what he most needs. It is true there are works of great theoretical value, and here again I would mention Caudwell first. But, so far as I know, there is no book which examines the work of contemporary revolutionary poets--neither the international ones such as Brecht or Neruda (whom "everyone"--even "revolutionary" critics-- recognize) nor, of course, the older American contemporaries of our young poor-devil hedge-poet. I think it is safe to say that a single knowledgeable article on Don Gordon (probably our best political poet and one almost as unknown to the Left as he is to academic Marxists) would be more useful to our beginner than all the theoretical criticism that has been done. But neither the reviewers for the Left press, such as it is, nor the mandarins of academic Marxism know bugger-all about his work, though he may be better (and is certainly more useful--I almost wrote available--) than more than one of the international revolutionary poets who are in the canon. It is an area which our academic Marxist magazines might look into. There are any number of articles on Brecht (for example). Fine. But what our young poet needs is a practical criticism, anchored in his own language and time, one which, above all, looks at the craft side of the work. Revolutionary attitudes are all very well, but our poets need to see how a poem works. If he goes looking for an explanation of that, all he will encounter these days is another worn-out restatement of the poem-as-a-verbal-text--the "New Criticism" in its present state of decay and disarray--or the cabalism of Bloom. It may be that the older "New Criticism" will be the most valuable thing he will find. And surely this is a confession of failure for those of us on the Left.   Language "Language is written with words, not ideas" said Mallarme. Language is the single most important tool and resource of the poet, and the language he is born to is the more or less corrupt product of a corrupt society. This "approximate" language of the schools and colleges, the media and much of ordinary speech partly communicates, partly obfuscates. Our young poet must cut a way through this linguistic chaparral if he is to find a field for clear vision.   "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." And the history of history is language, and in language. There are the fossils (even from the time before class struggle) that are benign. There are others, later, like the Homeric "honor", like Seventeenth Century "honor", "honor" among thieves, the white confederate "honor" of Jefferson Davis--these fossils contain poisons that are still alive and deadly. There are words like "moon" and "labor" which, if we look inside, contain more rings of growth than even the oldest tree. Language is, perhaps, only a moment of the growth of what became consciousness and will go beyond it, but it is our machine for separating ourselves from the world in order to create it (as Adam did by naming the beasts and herbs). In creating the world we also appropriate it. The world then is internalized. Now we can make maps, the demons of the four cardinal compass points (Cham to Amaymon) are born, and the Age of Exploration (external and internal) begins.   "Make it new", said Pound. But Pound, like Eliot and Yeats, was essentially a pre-Nineteenth Century man and his thinking was, in part at least, that of an even earlier ruling class. The language of those poets generates (among other things) a fog of false consciousness in which platoons of professors are still wandering, sending out plaintive cries about the "depth", the "profundity" of the bogs they have fallen into. But, it is true, there is something there: pain, above all. About which the old masters were never wrong, or so we have been told. Their pain is of the loss of the "centre" of "tradition", of virtue and virtu--loss of aristocratic values already knocked in the head by the petty bourgeoisie. These "modernists" are really belated medieval writers--they followed the signs out of their own century. But that is why they have such a modern sound. The strategies, the successes and failures, of this holy trinity, point to the reasons why we have not yet had a great bourgeois poem of the Twentieth Century. In English. And never will have.   Everyone wants to reform language. Reformers can be dangerous: they begin by wanting to purify the language of the tribe but may end (as Shaw had it) slaughtering multitudes over an extra vowel. Things turn to their opposites. The liberating purification of language which begins with Wordsworth becomes constrictive, becomes protectionist, buys guard dogs and chain link fences, wants law and order, is in favor of high tariffs... If we take examples from our own times either Pound or Williams will do. Both begin as revolutionaries, knocking down the inflated and bankrupt language of the American survivors of Victorianism. And indeed it was liberating to see those apparitional faces, and interesting to see the chickens and the red wheelbarrow, though the "so much" that is said to depend on them turns out to be not (as Williams supposed) the validity of the whole visible world of objects but merely the temporality of a consumer society.   Metaphysical consumerism! As the Williams tradition runs down in the work of the less talented of his followers, the object becomes All, becomes the One. Things (but not goods) are hypostatized and so anything is as valuable as anything else and a beer can equals the Mona Lisa. The mock-materialism is essentially Puritan. Feelings are muted or excised and objects proliferate. This is what Freud called anal and Marx called petty bourgeoisie and it is where the search for purity has led a lot of poets and novelists: to things rather than to feeling about them, to situations without people, to esthetics pretending to be politics.   And out of so much of this temporary "war politics" rises a terrible spiritual smell which signals to the enemy: "I'm not really like this. Just stop bombing Hanoi and I will go back to my primary interests: flowers, early cockcrow, the Holy Ghost, wheelbarrows, the letter C, inhabitable animals, the sacred mysteries of the typewriter keyboard, and High Thought including the Greater, the Lesser, and High, Low, Jack-and-the-goddam-game mysticism. Worthy enough subjects in themselves. -- Language is always a little out of date and so it always needs reforming: because the world changes; because the real landscape that underlies the landscape of the poem erodes and alters; because our consciousness changes to catch up with the changes in the world; because the world is never adequate to our needs and desires and so we must change it--and by doing so change our needs and desires. The best poets find the new words for this new world of change and need. They may not be understood or felt until we see that the world is changing and "filling in" their words. Then "illusion" is transformed into "reality".   The search for purity and limit in language is often a hedge against anxiety--anxiety that results from a glimpse of the flux and change that is the world. A poet feeling this often sets up a metaphysical system of absolutes, values derived from picking the bones of various systems, to set against the flux. Or, if less honest, he buries his absolutes. His poem, like the pointer on a compass, always turn to these magnets. True North is always under his feet! He has found the still point of the turning world and there, locked in the chastity belt of "purified" language, he remains. I prefer the impure. There is, after all, in our time, another tradition--that leading from Hart Crane and others. What we want and need, in my view, now, is not this questionable purity but a language, to paraphrase Louis Simpson, like the belly of a shark, a language that can digest anything.   Language is part of the forces of production for the poets--it is what he uses to create his poetic "goods". The language chosen by or given to some poets, like certain kinds of machines, can produce variety: "aphorisms, epigrams, songs, song-like poems and so on" as Roethke had it, the tremendous range of "impure poetry" in Neruda's term. Alas, our time tends toward specialization. But if you want to make wood for the winter a chain saw is better than a stone axe.   If we continue the analogy we will see that even more important than the forces are the relations of production. If the poet thinks he owns the means of production (that language factory where the private vision must be socialized into the public myth) when in fact he only uses what has been given to him (any tradition within the bourgeois limit) he will produce a consciousness that is at least in part false. The American worker thinks he is free, but he is chained to the machine. So "politics must be in command". We must try to find our real relationship to things.   Copyright © 2006 Pemmican Press and the author/artist represented. Issue 32  

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