Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Poets? Conservative?

    Before proceeding, please prepare a list of what you consider to be the 21st Century's best poets. 

    Humor me. 

Wallace Stevens
    Let us paint in broad strokes.  For our purposes, "conservative" interests include the status quo, religion, and war.  "Liberal" values include egalitarianism, secularism and peace.  While the majority of poets are progressive, the right is well represented among the elite print (e.g. T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, et cetera) and online (e.g. Dennis Hammes, Peter John Ross, David Landrum) poets and institutions.

War Versus Peace

    The arms industry dominates international trade.  Oil?  Weaponry is how we pay for petroleum.  Not surprisingly, conservative poems glorify conflict, as we see in one of the 20th century's most famous poems, "In Flanders Fields":

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep

    We often need to look behind the title¹ to see what is being promoted.  Horace's line, "Dulce et decorum est[pro patria mori" ("It is sweet and right to die for your country"), exhorted Romans to fight the Parthian enemy.  "What joy, for fatherland to die!"  By detailing the horrors of WWI and "glory, the old Lie" Wilfred Owen's sardonic "Dulce et decorum est" expressed a decidedly pacifist view.

Religion Versus Secularism

     All poems and hymns that promote any particular faith are conservative, if only because of their tribal nature.  Along with war, religion's place in the arts has declined since J. G. Magee's narrator "touched the face of God."  It's safe to say that in poetry and song, at least, the liberal view of combat and denominationalism has prevailed.  This is little more than an extension of our parents telling us to avoid discussing "sex, politics and religion."

     So, how has the Left fared in the critical battle between "Status Quo" and "Egalitarianism"? 

Status Quo

     What fascinates us is how often aesthetics cross over:  people who vote and argue for liberal causes usually embrace conservative poetic forms and arguments.  Take, for example, meter, which some regard as traditionalist and, thus, conservative.  This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the latter, which concerns itself with the present, not the past.  For example, at the Boston Tea Party conservative businessmen threw centuries of tradition overboard in order to protect their current [wealthy] status. 

     Conformity is conservatism.  We need only look at what is being published to understand the conservative aesthetic:

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #37
Form - Prose with linebreaks.

     Most books being produced today don't have a single line of verse--metrical or free--in them.

Category - Lyric...

     ...as opposed to dramatic or narrative.

Focus - Writer-centric...

     ...which makes sense, knowing that Nobody Reads Poetry.

Market - Poets...

     ...as well as friends and family...which is to say, no market at all.

Themes - Cryptocrap and diary writing...

     ...as opposed to drama, romance, comedy, tragedy or anything else of interest to humans.

Performance - None.

     Screaming or droning one's autobiography onstage does not add value.

Technique - Negligible.

     Who cares how something sounds on the page?

Gender - Male.

     The John Barr Rule:  When you add funding into the mix, as we see in institutional poetry circles, two things happen:  conservatives take over and males dominate the conversation, lecterns, organizations, publications and awards ceremonies.

     The above aspects describe 99% of the poetry being published, blurbed and criticized today.  How accurately does this describe your own work?  Or that of the poets you wrote on your list?        

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #43
Q.  What, then, constitutes a liberal aesthetic? 

A.  Respect for an audience. 

     It really is that simple.  If mention of the public brings up the image of pinheaded, beer-swilling brutes we have embraced the conservative perspective wholeheartedly.  Call it "exclusivity" or "elitism", but disregard for non-poets determines which side will eschew efforts to reanimate poetry.

     Meanwhile, a progressive approach relegates us to being voices in the wilderness.  Again, most poets are politically liberal but aesthetically conservative, postmodern rather than hypermodern.

Form - Meter, Free Verse and, occasionally, Prose Poetry.

     In order to please an audience one needs sufficient flexibility and knowledge to choose and execute the most appropriate form for a particular piece.  Stringing metaphors and iambs together won't cut it.

Category - Lyric or narrative.

     Elsewhere, storytelling is a lost art.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #166
Focus - Fancentric.

     While it hasn't happened yet, the optimistic lefty has a "build it and they will come" approach to the fact that Nobody Reads Poetry.  Consistent with their desire to maintain the existing PoBiz, conservatives blithely deny the problem.  Liberals acknowledge and endeavor to solve it.  (Dare I mention art imitating life?)

Market - YouTube.

     The notion that poetry begins on the page is the antithesis of the viewer-oriented progressive spirit.  Textual study is warranted only after poetry has proven itself.  Readership follows audience.

Themes - Adventure, emotion, elegy, humor...

     ...and every other thing that people enjoy in literature, film, speech, and television.

Performance - On stage or video.

     Was Shakespeare the last poet to understand that performance, properly produced, is half the game?

Technique - Paramount.

     Who could guess that pleasing a crowd would involve using time-honored crowd-pleasing tricks?

Gender - Female.

     When verse is judged on merit, either by geeks (who care about nothing else) or in a contest with blind judging (as with Maz's record of success), women win out as you might expect, given their greater numbers.  The notion of allowing poems to speak for themselves, trusting the audience's² judgement, is a distinctly progressive principle.      

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #52
Echo Chamber

     It is a common battle tactic to make a lot of noise in order to cause an enemy to overestimate our numbers.  Slammers rave about other slammers, institutionals blurb fellow academics, metrists praise formalists, corazoners swoon at heart farts.  The factions are either indifferent or oblivious to poets beyond their niche.

     If you look at your list of 21st Century versers, few--if any--will find support among 5+% of poets³, let alone .0001% of the population at large.  This fragmentation benefits conservatives simply because their echo chamber is better funded. 


     We can laugh at the CIA financing and establishing the "Paris Review" in 1953.  Without question, though, the strategy of controlling the purse strings has decided the struggle in favor of the Right. 

     So far, at least.


John Gillespie Magee
¹ - Authorial intent rarely matters;  the issue is a poem's effect.  At first glance, "High Flight" would seem to be neutral, confining its scope to the pleasures of flying.  However, we come to a very different conclusion once we consider the time and context.  Commercial flight was in its infancy.  In 1941, flying was a military pursuit.  The Nazis had not established a flight training system.  This, coupled with little propaganda attention to their pilots, cost them the skies and, in large part, WWII.  By contrast, British losses during the Battle of Britain were fewer (because downed RAF pilots could be recovered while Luftwaffe ones were captured) and more efficiently replaced, thanks largely to the number of recruits inspired by John Gillespie Magee.  We might wish to remember this the next time someone says that poetry doesn't change anything [when it has an audience or readership].

² - Restricting our target to the public's more sophisticated individuals changes little.  However, if poets are our only audience then we, as poets, have no audience.

³ - It may help to bear in mind that fewer than 2% of poets have attended a college level Literature, English or Creative Writing class.


1. "Poets?  Conservative?"

2. "Poets?  Liberal?"

3. If Poetry Were Alive

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