An introduction to some of the major poetic forms:
A villanelle is a 19-line poem, made up of five tercets and a concluding quatrain. Lines may be of any length, but are often written in iambic pentameter and follow an ABA rhyme scheme. The villanelle also employs line repetition. The first line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line in the second and fourth stanzas, and as the penultimate line in the final quatrain. The third line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line in the third and fifth stanzas, and as the last line in the final quatrain.
The structure and rhyme scheme of the villanelle is as follows:
An example of a villanelle:
Do not go gentle into that good night, by Dylan Thomas
Do not go gentle into that good night, (A1)
Old age should burn and rave at close of day; (B)
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (A2)
Though wise men at their end know dark is right, (A)
Because their words had forked no lightning they (B)
Do not go gentle into that good night. (A1)
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright (A)
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, (B)
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (A2)
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, (A)
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, (B)
Do not go gentle into that good night. (A1)
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight (A)
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, (B)
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (A2)
And you, my father, there on the sad height, (A)
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. (B)
Do not go gentle into that good night. (A1)
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (A2)
The Elizabethan sonnet consists of 14 lines, written in iambic pentameter. It has four quatrains and a closing couplet. The structure and rhyme scheme are as follows:
An example of an Elizabethan sonnet:
Sonnet 147, by William Shakespeare
My love is as a fever, longing still (A)
For that which longer nurseth the disease, (B)
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill, (A)
The uncertain sickly appetite to please. (B)
My reason, the physician to my love, (C)
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept, (D)
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve (C)
Desire is death, which physic did except. (D)
Past cure I am, now reason is past care, (E)
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest; (F)
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen's are, (E)
At random from the truth vainly express'd; (F)
For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright, (G)
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night. (G)
The Italian, or Petrarchan sonnet is named for the Italian poet Petrarch. The Petrarchan sonnet also consists of 14 lines, but has a much different structure than the Elizabethan sonnet. It begins with an octave (8 lines) and closes with a sestet (6 lines). Its structure and rhyme scheme are as follows:
An example of a Petrarchan sonnet:
On His Being Arrived to the Age of Twenty-three, by John Milton
How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth, (A)
Stolen on his wing my three and twentieth year! (B)
My hasting days fly on with full career, (B)
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew'th. (A)
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth, (A)
That I to manhood am arrived so near, (B)
And inward ripeness doth much less appear, (B)
That some more timely-happy spirits indu'th. (A)
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow, (C)
It shall be still in strictest measure even (D)
To that same lot, however mean or high, (E)
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven. (D)
All is, if I have grace to use it so, (C)
As ever in my great Task-master's eye. (E)
Each type of meter is made up of two parts: the foot and the measurement. The foot is the basic building block of metered verse, and there are five types:
1. Iamb - an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. (u /)
Example: di - vine.
2. Trochee - a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. (/ u)
Example: sis - ter.
3. Dactyl - a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. (/ u u)
Example: Can - a - da.
4. Anapest - two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. (u u /)
Example: in - ter - cede.
5. Spondee - two stressed syllables in a row. (/ /)
Example: heart - break.
These feet, put together into lines of poetry, make up the units of measurement. Four trochaic feet would be trochaic tetrameter. Six dactylic feet would be dactylic hexameter. Five iambic feet would be iambic pentameter.
Iambic pentameter is most commonly used in metrical poetry because it mimics the natural rise and fall of everyday speech, and blank verse is a poem written in unrhymed iambic pentameter. "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun" (from Shakespeare's Sonnet 130) is an example of iambic pentameter.
According to Eliot, rather than losing an authentic interpretation, we actually gain it through distance. We may then apply such a temporal relativism to "The Waste Land" itself, saying that in our perception of Eliot's poem, we have a temporal advantage over the poet, as his time is historical to us today. Remaining on the relationship of past and present, now in Eliot's point in time (1921-22), we may elucidate his ordering device for relating disparate subjective modern experiences to a more coherent (albeit ugly) past. In this way, subjective and objective perceptions--past and present information, different classes, places, and times--act as mutual supports, a piling up of equivalent and contrasting metaphors and allegories of the modernist poet's predicament. However, such a future-oriented approach breaks down into ambiguity and multiple interpretations. In the first place, the interpretations differ in whether the critic wishes to expand upon "The Waste Land", if he or she decides to take a personal responsibility for post-modernity's own impotence and sterility, or decides, more academically, simply to decipher a now-historical modernity alone.
Finally, in introducing "The Waste Land", we must comment upon its structure, and its themes. The structure has been likened to a constellation of stars, spatial as opposed to linear, but this can be misleading, not to mention two-dimensional. Despite what some say, interpreting "The Waste Land" does leave a sense of at least partial linear movement. As to the themes of "The Waste Land", there is a lack of thematic clarity, but this, in my view, is Eliot's intention, and at least leaves room for redemption, if it doesn't guarantee it. The lack of clarity may be due to the said ambiguous linear movement and also to the absence of an immediate narrative in the poem's main body, though some clarity may be found in the poem's references to external texts.
When the caged Sibyl is asked her desire, she replies "I want to die," which evokes not just a world-weariness and absence of redeeming joy, but also invokes the eastern radical anti-materialistic philosophy of nirvana, in which one achieves a complete freedom. The self, we discover, is in fact imprisoned by its own very existence, and can become free only through its willed destruction. We come to see that it was the Sibyl's desire for a worldly immortality (an immortal self) which condemned her to eternal decay.
The dedication to Ezra Pound then harks back to the Troubadour poets of twelfth-century Provence, who "represent the origins of great European traditions of high poetic art which go hand in hand with a refined but invigorated sexuality." This allusion to refinement will appear again in "What the Thunder Said", and this necessity for willed self-control (and a controlled desire) is one major element needed for redemption.
In the beginning of "The Burial of the Dead" we hear a "voice of propriety" that wishes to halt all new movement, change, or development. This sterile propriety wishes to remain in the darkness, the twilight consciousness of winter, to avoid the suffering and oncoming rending pains of approaching new birth. Stylistically speaking, this desire is unsuccessful as the poem quickly continues on, morphing into another voice, which alludes to a meeting with Countess Marie Larisch. Death by drowning is evoked (l. 8), which symbolizes the ancient narratives of sacrificial death, always necessary before renewal. However, in the present tense of metonymic details, and real time happenings, such renewal, though alluded to, seems entirely absent: "I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter." (l. 18)
The next section (l. 19-43) momentarily retreats to the original voice, but quickly ruptures into "you know only / a heap of broken images..." which makes clear both the modernist's practical predicament, and the formal structure of "The Waste Land" itself. Such montage-imagism, a "heap of broken images" represents the incoherence of modernist social structures, and the mind it creates in its citizens. Spring, traditionally a seasonal process of rebirth and sexual and spiritual potency, is now perceived as painful. The lost love and desire of Tristan in lines 30-34, followed by the similar but more subjective and direct failure in the hyacinth garden, ending in "Waste and empty is the sea", suggests here that such a renewal will not occur in the modern Waste Land. Other interpretations go further, to suggest that such a renewal will never occur. However, we must keep in mind that such a renewal depends upon a very real individual participation--a self-sacrifice that modern man avoids.
With Madame Sosostris (ll. 42-59) we discover how much ancient myth has been devalued and we are given the reason for modern misery and decay. Madame Sosostris does not portray useless myths, rather, she displays complete blindness towards myths in their real, quite fruitful meanings. Madame Sosostris is so telling because she does not possess the real meaning of such myths at all; she tells us to "fear death by water", which symbolizes how much such myths have been forgotten. Avoiding such a death of self is to avoid renewal and remain in a living death. Myth in the hands of Sosostris becomes empty superstition, devoid of any personal self-sacrifice. There are intimations of redemption, and this may be symptomatic of Eliot's reservations about overtly romantic optimism, blind hope, or easy, painless solutions.
Now, in lines 60-76 we see contemporary society, and it is not surprisingly deemed unreal. Clock-time, and a perpetual twilight of "brown fog" have overtaken seasonal changes of light and dark. It seems that man and woman have entered into a wasteland of twilight and are now unable to return to either darkness or light. Like the Sibyl, they are unable to die, and with the absence of deep feelings, they are barely alive, due to mere avoidance and a lack of true sacrifical meaning (honesty). Society has found itself to be "neither living nor dead". This, in terms of Eliot's historical position, may be the witching hour of civilization as it may still be today, or it may be an experience of the rending pains of new birth.
"A Game of Chess" begins with a style reminiscent of seventeenth and eighteenth century literature. By Eliot's time, a very experientially different urban twentieth century, such a convoluted, luxurious, smooth style seemed unworthy of praise. A psychological interpretation of this matter of literary taste would point us again towards the modern neurasthenic. Clock-time, and a quickening society, was coupled with growing populations in machinated, cluttered, unreal cities that cinematically flashed the senses with commodities and advertisements, all of which became fragments of a new man-made artifice: consumerism, and the beginnings of TV culture. This broadcast-consumerism along with a routinized, conveyor-belt approach to production, would help to send the mind into cognitive dissonanc e, anxiety. Indeed, such a modern dislocation of the senses from intensely felt experiences was, according to Eliot, rooted in this eighteenth century literary tradition, which initiated such a dissociation of emotions and their immediacy. Such a style is mirrored in lines 111-172.
So much have the senses been disassociated that the transformed Philomela's bird-song of romantic passion is now heard by "dirty-ears" as a mere "Jug Jug", or a call for raw, physical sex--intimacy without feeling. We hear disembodied voices (ll. 111 -137) close to nervous breakdown, but even then, they remain unaware of their plight. They avoid the rain, a water-symbol of salvation and redemption that, unbeknownst to them, is urgently required. On top of everything else about "The Waste Land", is the fact that such a plight is unfelt, and therefore inescapable, at least for those who do not bring such anxieties to the sunlight. We might then see these first two sections as the initial stages of a cathartic process.
In the beginning of "The Fire Sermon", the season skips back to late autumn, or early winter:
"The river's tent is broken; the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed."
We are reminded of The Fisher King, maimed and impotent, his land approaching its consequent decay. The seemingly timeless state of affairs here by the river blurs into modernity with the mention of horns and motors (l. 197) and there is a sense of approaching watershed. But the core of this section (ll. 187-204) is the allusion to Verlaine's Parsifal and how the Knight, questing for the Grail that will renew spirituality, is tempted by sensual music, which is reminiscent of the temptations of Christ in the desert before his death and resurrection. What follows is a reminder that such a tempting sensuality has fallen down to basic impotent desire--"Jug Jug" and the rape of Philomela.
The Unreal City still under a brown fog, flashes again into consciousness, but this time it is in full winter that we find it, though it has barely changed.
Next, we are introduced to Tiresias, the poet's anti-self who sees all impersonally. It is through Tiresias that we have been conscious of the Waste Land. The poem is his. However, there is one parallel possible between Tiresias and Eliot. Both are unable to affect any direct change. In the hyacinth garden, Eliot experiences the very feeling--he becomes the experience. If the problem is that we are removed from real experiences and feelings, and the goal is to diagnose, then such impersonality must be contrasted with the healthy state of experiencing direct emotions, whether they are positive emotions or not. It is no surprise then that such a lover's scene as this (ll. 230-247) is the opposite of the lovers and scene of the hyacinth garden.
In "Death by Water" Madame Sosostris is overcome because there occurs what we had been told to fear--a death by water. There is a sense of peace in such annihilation, but the death does not end "The Waste Land". In what follows, we are also shown a Christ-like figure post-resurrection, the first explicit sign within the main body of the text that intimates an occurrence of resurrection, of redemption. Perhaps then, this same figure that has drowned, is returning again, purified and refined.
"What the Thunder Said" directly appeals to Eastern philosophy, more specifically, Hinduism. The word "after" repeated three times (ll. 322-25) seems to suggest that something has been overcome, perhaps what has just passed, a death by water. What follows is more death (ll 327-330). We could interpret this as a rather radical assertion that "The Waste Land" is no longer a description of decaying, but rather, it is a portrayal of a civilization already dead. Indeed, the desire for water and the uncertainty of the post-death stage reaches a critical climax at line 366 - hallucination, illusion, deranged perception takes over, and with the signalling "co co..." from the rooftop cock, illusion and hallucination departs the poem.
Rain gathers at last (ll. 396-400), and there is excited anticipation. The thunder speaks: DA, DA, DA. The syllable reminds us of Jesus' use of 'Abba' or Daddy to describe his intimate relationship with a Father God. But the Eastern interpretation is three-fold, developing into Datta, Dayadhvam, and Damyata, meaning, respectively, "give", "be compassionate", "self-control". In the first instance--Datta--Eliot brings us back to the hyacinth garden, suggesting that only by this surrender do we exist. The sorrowful realization here is that perhaps such a revelation has come too late for the speaker, that the paralysis experienced in the hyacinth garden was an inability to give love, to surrender one's self to another completely. Thus these lines seem to suggest love to be the proper means and motive of giving. In the second instance--Dayadhvam--Eliot links the absence of compassion to the problem of solipsism and egoism--"each in his prison / thinking of the key". Again we hear the suggestiveness of a moment's surrender, and how pride blocks participation in love and perhaps leads to displaced revenge. In the third instance--Damyata--we are urged to control ourselves, like manning a boat upon a calm ocean with the help of the wind, as the heart seems to respond happily to controlling hands.
Indeed, this is a rather different, far more positive interpretation than is usually given to this section of "The Waste Land". Eliot possibly leads us to believe that our private experiences are truly only our own, but, in terms of the Eastern philosophy which he evokes, such a perception is only true because we live in a world of samsara, the only escape from which is nirvana. But the prescriptions are ambiguous, and dogged by the past-present state of the modern Waste Land where people do not recognize such redemptive meaning. But speaking out more radically now, if we maintain an absence of salvation, we have to realize what we are really saying, and be responsible for the consequences of our words--proposing no salvation essentially condemns all futures to desolation.
In the final section, we meet the Fisher King again, and a crumbling society. There is an individual desire to order one's own land. At line 427, we are reminded of purgatory's refining flame, supported by "DA", where self-control, compassion, and giving up one's self (all in love) are healthy forms of passion, renewing desires, refined burning. This refinement overcomes the sterile avoidance of the voice of propriety (ll. 1 - 7; 19 - 20), the improper desires of emotionless sexuality (ll. 218 - 248) and emotionally detached existence in general (ll. 111 - 138). The swallow reference (l. 428) is reminiscent of Philomela, and of sadness, but with the hope of renewal, and intimations of spring again. We see that "The Waste Land" has been a process of personal maintenance--"These fragments I have shored against my ruin". The process has also been one of warning, that the references to the past are not an attempt to escape, nor mere romantic nostalgia. This leaves us one choice, to turn and embrace the future. The thunder speaks again and we end in a peace which lies outside understanding, a nirvana-like state of positive nothingness, and a sense of completion--"Shantih shantih shantih".
With the poem's ambiguous intimations of salvation leaves an interpretation that salvation will not just occur, nor will it be automatically achieved by a mere movement of time. Redemption is left up to the will of individuals to create it. Essentially, when critiquing "The Waste Land" we must bear this self-willing in mind. Many interpretations choose not to find salvation, others choose to be more positive. The poem leaves these two doors open.
Thus, one must maintain hope and the way towar ds salvation, especially in this post-modern point in time, where, if anything, the modern neurasthenic has reached paranoia levels, and permanent states of drudgery, induced by the sedentary, sedative, and dissociated visual-feeds from the popular culture. What the thunder said should not only be remembered as an ethic, but also lived as an individual life. This is the only way to escape the prison of the self, and renew our feelings, to reacquaint them with direct experience, to experience shantih, a peace beyond understanding.
All prophecies are fragile. They are subject to contradiction, to falsity. The false prophet, then, one might consider insane. But how does one interpret the language of prophecy? Is it a language of madness, of hidden truth, of images? Such questions are pertinent when discussing the works of visionary poet William Blake. His prophecies or visions informed his poetic style and language and invested them with a vigor, energy, and substance that reach far beyond the mere meaning or signification of language. He claimed to experience visions of the prophet Elijah (among other visions). So was Blake insane? Blake, certainly, suffered from some type of mental illness. His mood swings, his depressions, and his fervent, inspired productivity have been the subject of much debate. However, does mental illness necessarily detract from the value of his visionary poetry? Or does it contribute something to it? These questions cannot be answered adequately unless address the topic of mysticism as well. Blake was a follower of the esoteric religious doctrines of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The intersection of madness and mysticism is key to the understanding of Blake, if only because it demonstrates that this madness did not signify a necessary degeneration in the faculties of the mind, but rather a passionate commitment to the imagination, the spiritual, and the profound.
"He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee."
-Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
James Douglas Morrison's poetry was born out of a period of tumultuous social and political change in American and world history. Besides Morrison's social and political perspective, his verse also speaks with an understanding of the world of literature, especially of the traditions that shaped the poetry of his age. His poetry also expresses his own experiences, thoughts, development, and maturation as a poet--from his musings on film at UCLA in The Lords and The New Creatures, to his final poems in Wilderness and The American Night. It is my intention in this essay to show Morrison as a serious American poet, whose work is worthy of serious consideration in relation to its place in the American literary tradition. By discussing the poetry in terms of Morrison's influences and own ideas, I will be able to show what distinguishes him as a significant American poet. In order to reveal him as having a clearly-defined ability as a poet, my focus will be on Morrison's own words and poetry. I will concentrate on his earlier work to show the influence of Nietzsche and French poets such as Arthur Rimbaud and Antonin Artaud and the effect they had on Morrison's poetry and style.
The first thing to consider is the use of half-rhyme or slant-rhyme in ghazals. I would advocate strongly against either of these tools, with one possible exception. The addition of "-s" or "-ed" to rhyme words, if used extremely sparingly-I would suggest one per ghazal, possibly two if the poem is long enough-can add a slight alteration to the mono-rhyme, and keep the whole poem fresh and buoyant. However, were a poet to constantly do this, or, even worse, depend totally on half-rhyme, the poem would cease to exist. Indeed, the fragile chain of rhyme-refrain that holds the beads of the ghazal together would be broken. Half-rhyme or slant-rhyme are simply not options at this time in a form such as the ghazal; The form is too new and too fresh to the English language for us to begin wrenching it around to fit our laziness. A strict rhyme scheme must be maintained for the poem to succeed.
How then can poets hope to keep their ghazals alive and energetic?
The first goal would be to vary the types of words used in rhyming. By this I mean avoid using all adjectives, all nouns, all verbs, etc. when choosing rhymes. In my failed ghazal below (hands), one of the major problems is the constant use of the rhyme as an adjective describing the hands. The only time the poem changes this scheme, S1L2, the grammar of the line is so twisted and unnatural that the rhyme becomes forced. However, in the ghazal with the refrain "or you", the rhymes consist of five verbs, two prepositions, and one conjunction. By varying the types of speech, the lines cannot stagnate, i.e., the phrasings of the second line in each stanza cannot help but be invigorated, simply because the grammar demands it.
Another possible solution would be to vary the syllables in the rhyming words. There are many ways this can be accomplished. If one is lucky enough to come up with a long enough list of feminine rhymes, a successful ghazal can be written based on those. However, this is an extremely hard task to accomplish, and usually requires some playing with the language. One idea would be take two words that match the rhyme being attempted. ("give her/quiver" "I went/silent" etc.) Another idea is to match a masculine rhyme to the feminine rhyme, in other words, rhyme an accented syllable with the unaccented syllable, as in S5L2 of my poem. This is, of course, impossible in a strict metrical line, but in a looser accentual rhythm, this trick is an extremely fun way to shake up both the rhythm and tone of the poem. Much like the old Elizabethan trick of opening occasional lines of iambic pentameter with trochees, the masculine/feminine rhyme combo is a surprise and, hopefully, a delight for the reader.
Another take on this is to keep the rhymes masculine, but change the number of consonants in the rhyming word. In other words, rhyme one syllable words with two syllable words. This is a favorite technique of the late Agha Shahid Ali in his ghazals, and something I have endeavored to work towards in my ghazals, as is seen by "you" where two syllable words-"abhor", "adore" and "before"-are rhymed with one syllable words "for", "nor", "pour" and "tore". This may not shake up the rhythm as completely as a masculine/feminine combo, but it does create a visual imbalance, as well as a slight aural imbalance, that hopefully succeeds in amusing and fascinating the reader. This technique also expands the list of rhyme words available, and leads to more interesting images, if not variable lines due to grammatical variance in the rhyme words.
Rhyme, of course, is not the only component to the ghazal. Stanza disparateness, strong imagery, and good choice of refrain are all important, not to mention the mixed bag of guidelines handed down by those great poets who wrote before us. However, as a half of the rhyme-refrain combo that strings the beads of the stanzas together, rhyme should be one of the major focuses when attempting to write ghazals. Keeping the rhyme fresh and enlivened will help keep the stanzas, and indeed the ghazal itself, from growing stagnant. By varying the parts of speech used in rhyme, by varying the syllabic count of rhyme words, and, in cases of extreme playfulness, by rhyming masculine and feminine words together, a poet can avoid some of the common paths that lead towards unsuccessful ghazals.
Justice, slip a steaming mug of yourself into my cold hands.
At night, my love, around your belly, I dream that I fold hands.
I wander the iron veins of this city, a dog in heat for you.
Where were you when they forced a pink slip into these old hands?
Were I to consume you like a lemon, would you sour in my mouth
or would you stain my skin with your rind. Could I brag gold hands?
My helmet light rips through the mine like a canary feather.
Wake white, my sleeping love, to chiseled stink, black eyes, coaled hands.
The Prophet drowns alone in a numb curse of beer and whiskey.
Oh, my love, come soak his tongue and fill his steel souled hands.
Your lover ghazals in order that the world may adore you.
Why is it, my dream, that you, alone, abhor you?
We are all chalices, filled with the mead of delight.
Here, taste my lips. This is the wine honeyed for you.
I have no silk to spread beneath your feet.
Please, tread soft on the dreams I lay before you.
The world is a rug, woven from foam on the waves.
Who can sleep here alone? Not I, nor you.
See with your heart. It will guide like a flickering candle.
For your eyes are blind, and will only serve to detour you.
If the wine does not consume you, it is but vinegar.
Why drink if this is all the jar can pour you?
Seeing the moon strip naked, the Prophet rejoices.
Come, let his love heal the wounds where heartache tore you.
"We have faith in poison.
We will give our lives completely every day.
FOR THIS IS THE ASSASINS' HOUR."
-- Arthur Rimbaud, "Drunken Morning"
"The revolution was in his poetry from the beginning and to the end: as a preoccupation of a technical order, namely to translate the world into a new language."
-- Herbert Marcuse, paraphrasing Breton's comments on Rimbaud
Confrontation, Subversion, and the Aesthetic Turn
In considering the socio-ethico-political function of art, it is easy to lose sight of art itself. We become so enraptured by classification, hierarchies, theory, and the hermeneutical act itself, that hermeneutics ceases to take place at times. The systematization of art, or the experience of art is beneficial for scholarly purposes, but when one speaks of relating art to society, art must not only transcend its origins and facticity, but also the ideas and presuppositions of art itself perpetuated by academics. The aesthetic schema and social schema are often viewed as totally different organisms that are inextricably linked through some genetic quality: both humanistic, yet one is scientific and the other sensual. Both the scholastic and sensual views of art and society are misconceived and erroneous. Art is not any less technical, specialized, or scientific than psychology, sociology, or philosophy. Yet, at the same time, the humanities (including the aforementioned social and intellectual disciplines) are too often devoid of their artistic legacy. Social analysis has lost its sensuality somewhere along the way in its attempt to perfect theory, and keep in touch with science's attempt to understand the human being in her/his totality. There are exceptions, such as Bataille, whose aphoristic meditations on sadism, masochism, and morbid eroticism became autobiographical expressions and introspective meditations that related his personal worldview and psychology to his social theory; and Sartre whose later works, like The Family Idiot and The Critique of Dialectical Reason stretched the idea of the historical diary, existential psychoanalysis, and existential authenticity to the realm of Marxist and literary theory. Yet, with the rise of structuralism in the 1960's and its subsequent influence on postmodernists (for the sake of classification this is what we call them, although most of the thinkers I discuss transcend the term) such as Lyotard and Baudrillard, social and historical theory has become more about system, structure, and binary opposition than human agency or feeling of the world. Both systems of thought have valuable legacies and practical applications within today's social theory, yet the prevalence of either one over the other effectively negates the structural and critical multiplicity postmodernism itself has exposed. The dialectic between generality and particularity, structure and existence, system and sens is unbalanced and unresolved due to the academic prejudice toward postmodern or post-structuralist theory. To reinvent either method to suit the needs of the other is counterproductive, yet that is the closest thing to a mediation between the two we have seen. The debate lingers on (the fire fed by both sides) steeped in word play and analytical critique, and in the meantime, the capitalist mode of production flourishes as it expands not only globally but ideologically (some say the two are identical). Our attention must switch from theory and methodology (we already have an adequate exposition of the theories and methods proposed by both camps), to praxis and an effective alteration in proletariat consciousness. The attempt to mediate between the anti-existentialism of postmodernism and the humanism of critical modernism or even existentialism itself must lead to action.
Our preoccupation with theory becomes a roadblock in the way to revolutionary or hermeneutical praxis. What I attempt to illustrate here in this essay is how both the hermeneutical--or interpretative--action in art must go beyond mere interpretation or favoritism toward a particular critical methodology. My method of critique is both deconstructive and constructive. It is an attempt to synthesize the tremendous potency of structural analysis in light of deconstruction in conjunction with unfinished modernist project to substantiate claims of validity so that effective, grounded praxis becomes possible. Therefore, hermeneutics must not end in the capturing of meaning, but rather in the moment of power, or of action. In other words, it must function as a method to reveal how art transcends personal expression and becomes a confrontational act; it should function as a negotiation between two positions rather than a determinate affirmation. Once we have reached this point, we can demonstrate the revolutionary function of art without becoming encumbered by arbitrary aesthetic labels like classicism or romanticism. At the same time, it is important to be aware of the play of ideology in aesthetic and social classification as well. It will prove important in our discussion of art as a subversive action.
For purposes of this essay, the revolutionary function of art will be discussed primarily as ideology critique. Ideology critique amounts to the shattering of an illusionary or false consciousness that has been reified in to the subjugated classes so as to prevent any type of class or revolutionary consciousness from being aroused. Furthermore, ideology is expressed through the ways in which we construct social structures (in particular for this work, religion as ideology and politics as ideology). It does so because this false consciousness is built into our media, our morality, our value system, and our psychology (and consequentially, in many cases, our art). In many ways, ideology is a matter of discipline. The disciplinary technique in the play of capitalist ideology is strong. Part of this false consciousness (capitalism) becomes our dominant ideas of normalcy and deviancy related to social activity. As Foucault so brilliantly exposes in Discipline and Punish, our bodies have been turned into objects. Objects not of the phenomenological Other, but of a machine. This atomization, or alienation, turns the body and human existence itself into a place of technical discourse rather than the existential language of authenticity or mood incorporated by, for instance, Heidegger. Beyond these disciplinary techniques are the social structures which discipline is meant to uphold. There is nothing outside of the social structure itself, however. Capitalism has become so firmly entrenched that nothing escapes its vacuous gaze. Within schools, prisons, even the public park nothing is hidden. Panopticism, the idea of being seen, of having presence, has taken premiere importance in our everyday lives. Therefore, what is seen must be controlled.
It is here that two concepts, one aesthetic in a manner of speaking, the other political, become useful in our discussion of ideology and art. The first is confrontation. The clearest articulation of the concept of confrontation in the aesthetic sense is that of Artaud. Furthermore, Artaud's "theater of cruelty" and its primitive and ritualistic recommendations for the artist stretch beyond the aesthetic realm into the realm of revolution and social change.
Artaud suggests that, in theater particularly, the abolition of the separation between the audience and performer is key. In this way, it becomes possible for the performer to directly confront the spectator. The performer is no longer the object of the spectator, but rather her/his confessor. Theater becomes an interrogation of the person's own psyche (personal reflection brought on by the action of the performance). The spectator's emotional response should be induced by a confrontational, violent experience. There should be a disruption of consciousness where, entranced by the performance, there occurs an internal "revolution" of individual consciousness through which the audience member transcends his/her own faculties of reason, submission, and morality, thereby gaining access to subconscious desires and expressing them: power, potentiality, lust, excess, or to sum up briefly, mania and ecstasy. The catharsis for the audience member is not the purging of emotions, but the embrace of those emotions, or the violent collision between desire and repression, facticity and transcendence, consciousness of itself and the visible world and the world of the unseen--the invisible presence of "the want".
Artaud's suggestion, however, goes beyond mere shock. Shock can pass one by and be overcome. Artaud believes the audience should be infected as if they were transmitting a plague to one another:
"And just as it is not impossible that the unavailing despair of the lunatic screaming in an asylum can cause the plague by a sort of reversibility of feelings and images, one can similarly admit that the external events, political conflicts, natural cataclysms, the order of revolution and disorder of war, by occurring in the event of theater, discharge themselves into the sensibility of an audience with all the force of an epidemic."-- Artaud, The Theater and its Double
Theater becomes a "plague" which affects the audience in such a way that its entire sensibility changes. This philosophy carried over into a more blatantly political theater with the arrival of Brecht and his Marxist epic theater. He purposely made his plays anti-climactic and refused to allow the audience member to forget that what s/he was watching was merely a play. Brecht achieved this through breaking into song randomly, leaving the theater lights on, and having characters wear signs with the act numbers on their chest, for instance. In this way, the audience member could not be emotionally involved and was forced to view the play intellectually and be affected by its political content. However, I would rather show how art which may not be directly or intentionally political functions in a political way.
It is interesting that in the above quote, for instance, Artaud likens his "plague" to the effect that a lunatic has on the public. If the insane were left to wander the streets, if science and hierarchy had not deemed what we term to be "insane" exactly that, the line between mere eccentricity and absolute delirium would be blurred. It is only through language and classification that such distinctions become possible. So, very much like Foucault in Madness and Civilization, Artaud exposes the marginalization of the "insane", seemingly without knowing it.
This may be because so much of Artaud's art likens itself toward magical, deranged imagery. He is an alchemist, turning our perceptions of reality into what they are not, forcing us to confront that which has been excluded from "proper" discourse. Artaud seems to feel that delirium, or distorted and disjointed perception expressed through imagery should be the visual effect of the theater. For Artaud, confrontation is evident in the way true theater "disturbs the senses' repose, frees the repressed unconscious, incites a kind of virtual revolt ... and imposes on the assembled collectivity an attitude that is both difficult and heroic." (Artaud, The Theater and its Double)
The visual effect (lighting, the imagery constructed within the set itself, costuming, etc.) and the audible effect (speech, shrieking, laughter, screams, sound effects, and the delivery of lines) in Artaud's theater become unconventional, uncomfortable, and unorthodox. Artaud's key to the arousal of a certain consciousness is to shock the audience members out of their complacency and so enchant them that this new consciousness is not ephemeral, but lasting and transmittable so that it might infect others. Within Artaud's own work the characters are blasphemous, crude, offensive, and downtrodden (for example, the blasphemous priest and the whore that bites the wrist of God in Jet of Blood). Artaud's staunch atheism, drug use, and homosexuality in and of itself creates a shock for the conservative or repressed individual.
Here is where the concept of subversion begins to play itself out. Within Artaud's theory there is a suggestion of praxis. A performance that shocks, offends, confronts, indicts, and enthralls all at once. At several points in his writing on Occidental theater he uses the word "spectacle" (just leaf through the essay in The Theater and its Double entitled "On Balinese Theater"). But this spectacle is no circus sideshow act. It becomes more than spectacle through its expressive quality and its powers of affectation on the audience. The expressive quality of theater, says Artaud, should be primal, unrestrained, violent, magical... it should be unlike reality. He suggests that themes do not become a matter of "boring the public to death with transcendent cosmic preoccupations." (Artaud, The Theater and its Double) Rather, the performer should employ masks, ritualism, groans, cries, distorted language, violent imagery, and vile humor to destruct and deconstruct the goals of theater itself, and thus, the audience's reaction to theater. If we destroy the normalcy of the theater itself, we eliminate the possibility of normalcy in the audience's reaction. Artaud's method becomes a matter of turning the "normalizing" or "disciplinary" technique on its head: show what should not be seen. This disruptive praxis then subverts common or "customary morality" (Nietzsche) engendered in the population by bourgeois culture. Artaud's goal is to distort the face of reality into a cruel, yet comical grimace; to expose to the audience the very primordial desires and potentials that have been repressed in them. Language and symbol become visceral rather than formal. Both romanticism and classicism are rendered insufficient and boring. "Ritual, spectacle, horror, ecstasy; or nothing at all!", becomes the cry of the performer. It is in this way, through altering the concepts of the real and normalcy, by undermining traditional moral and ethical standards, and vocally expressing the disillusion, repression, and frustration that the masses feel due to their utter lack of freedom, creativity, and satisfaction in the face of an oppressive social structure, that art becomes subversion. Once confrontation has resulted in subversion, and thus the arousal of revolutionary and radical consciousness, praxis has already occurred, and can continue. This is the aesthetic turn. Art turns itself inside out: it ceases to redefine or reinterpret the known and instead, becomes the "mystical key" to revealing the knowable unknown, or the repressed desires of the human heart.
This is one way in which art becomes ideology critique. Artaud's theory becomes a brilliant example of how we can reclaim the sensuality and creativity that capitalism has stifled in the masses for so long. Religion and its adjacent traditional moral values of charity, submissiveness, and humility are only disciplinary concepts reified into the consciousness of the masses so that they may be controlled, not only by the religious institution, but also by the religious population's own internal sense of guilt. Here is where the Nietzschean critique proves helpful. It elucidates the social construction of moral values, and furthermore how they engender a "slave morality". However, the egoism and self-righteousness of master morality is not sufficient either. This world is a will to power, but this is not an allowance for dominance. To disenfranchise another person is an affirmation of weakness. It illustrates that our autonomy is contingent upon our social environment and the people in it; in this case specifically, the marginalized or weak. The presence of the infinite, of Being within all of us than becomes the demand for an ethical relationship. We cannot escape the Look. The face of the Other should not be a tether, but at the same time it should not become a mere object, or means to an end. It is in this way that we must become utterly free, yet totally aware of the Other and our ethical demand to her/him. The Übermensch is the achievement of power for the individual to master her/himself while coexisting with the other. This way, authentically, there is no dominance or control, because each person "rules over" her/himself, and thus reaffirms the ethical relationship.
Rimbaud, Kinesis, and the Critique of Ideology
While Artaud's theory predominantly spoke of the theater, its scope could be stretched to encompass any art form. In modern times we have seen elements of Artaud emerge in the sado-masochistic photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, the poetry and "heroin lore" of Burroughs, Jim Carroll, and Richard Hell, as well as the particular brand of punk rock that grew out of New York City. At the same time, Artaud's thought has a rich historical legacy within the French avant-garde itself. Writers like Baudelaire, Lautreamont, Sade, Jarry, and Rimbaud all find some little niche in Artaud's writing. However, at present I would like to focus on Rimbaud, while some of these other figures shall play a mere supporting role, which, I do realize, is a diminutive role to be played by artists of their talent and importance.
Within Rimbaud's writing we again find the two important concepts that make social consciousness by way of art possible: confrontation and subversion. Rimbaud's brand of confrontation is often far more playful and spiteful than Artaud's, especially in his earlier poetry. It is evident in places that despite its mature subject matter, tone, and talent, these are the writings of a teenager. Even Rimbaud's last known poem is a poem about soldiers farting (see Paul Schmidt's edition of Rimbaud's complete works). The immaturity and brazenness may be obvious in poems such as this, but at the same time there is a scathing and cynical critique of all things deemed wholesome. There appears to be a growing reverence for science, and method, as well as a growing political concern. However, Rimbaud's concern with method or science became a way of transcending his own bourgeois background. Initially, Rimbaud sought to escape the bourgeoisie by entering the intelligentia and later, after growing disenchanted with the supposed anti-bourgeois intellectual circle of Verlaine, Rimbaud sought to escape his background by forcing the intelligentia to enter into the realm of the "common", or to borrow a phrase from Dostoevsky, "underground man".
Rimbaud's poetry intellectualized and beautified what was traditionally seen as vile. His political concerns also showed a distinct interest in the lower classes, commonly viewed themselves as vile by the French bourgeoisie of the time. Rimbaud drafted his own plan for a communist society, and was sympathetic to the efforts of the Commune itself (Marcuse, Counter-revolution and Revolt). Still, his method in achieving these goals through art was audacious, to say the least.
Rimbaud's ill-temperedness, his arrogance, and his rancor may be attributed to his youth, but even more, they are a reflection of his headstrong, dissatisfied personality. This is the disillusion, sadness, and bitterness reflected in A Season in Hell. Rimbaud's mother, we know, was oppressive and attempted to stifle any efforts he made into branching out into writing, especially once he showed an interest in the French avant-garde writers of the time such as Hugo and Baudelaire. Furthermore, Rimbaud never found the freedom and intellectual understanding he desired socially (as is quite evident in his tumultuous relationship with Verlaine. Their conflict began when Rimbaud simply grew bored of Verlaine's bourgeois sentimentalism and paranoid religiosity). Rimbaud's restlessness makes him naturally confrontational. With titles like "Confessions of an Idiot Old Man" and "The Wastelands of Love" surely he was prone to offending sensibilities.
However, his sometimes bleak world-view and cynicism is offset by an uncanny affinity for lyrical beauty, the pastoral, and genuine sorrow. His poem "Drunken Morning" from Illuminations especially shows the multi-dimensional perspective and language of Rimbaud. The first stanza praises the "marvelous body" and glorifies the "rack of enchantments". It serves almost as an invocation...an invocation of his Muse. This Muse is the sensual, the ecstatic, and the manic of the human soul, all that is restless, striving, creative, and anxious. In the second stanza we hear Rimbaud's sudden and vicious attack of morality as an ideology. He equates morality to a false consciousness, a misrepresented idea of how human behavior should be controlled and labeled.
Let us re-create ourselves after that superhuman promise.
Made to our souls and bodies at their creation:
That promise, that madness!
Elegance, silence, violence!
They promised to bury in shadows the tree of good and evil,
To banish tyrannical honesty,
So that we might flourish in our very pure love
-- Rimbaud, "Drunken Morning"
The above passage is very Nietszchean. We have a powerful and individualistic portrait of the human being corrupted by "tyrannical honesty", striving to bury the "tree of good and evil". The idea of "tyrannical honesty" hearkens to Nietzsche's critique of our moral value system. Our valuation of honesty is "tyrannical" because it is a rigid determination, lacking the possibility of modification, alteration, or new understanding (this is reinforced by the Judeo-Christian moral schema). Honesty is "good". All that is "dishonest" is therefore bad. It is not that Nietzsche is defending malicious lying (although there is an interesting discussion to be had about Nietzsche's concept of honesty). Rather, he is dissatisfied with the arbitrary determinations made by moralists. Morality demands fluidity. Rimbaud echoes this sentiment in the above passage. Burying "the tree of good and evil" is an obvious reference to overcoming these arbitrary distinctions Rimbaud and Nietzsche both seem to feel stem from Christianity. Both call for the devaluation of values as social standards, so that they might become a matter of people creating values for themselves. In this way, morality becomes more authentic than the fascistic tendencies to marginalize, label, and exclude as "deviants" those people who do not have a distinct, normalized relationship to bourgeois culture.
In the stanza immediately following the above quotation from "Drunken Morning" Rimbaud states that this promise, this vision of humanity has "... ended in the scattering of perfumes". These perfumes merely cover up the odor of our discontent and our exploitation and dissatisfaction. Rimbaud reflects to us the lies that we accept. He calls for reinvention, for destruction, so that we might transcend our own faulted perception of the world around us. The perfumes are ideology and his "Little drunken vigil, blessed!" is his confrontation. In this way, the poet as seer and as visionary makes art more real than reality. In accentuating his desires and sensuality Rimbaud creates a "real" more honest than the reality we live in now. Our present reality has been reified by ideology, by discipline, and by fear. Our complacency becomes the reason Rimbaud becomes so cynical. As Marcuse says:
True and false, right and wrong, pain and pleasure, calm and violence becomes aesthetic categories within the framework of the oeuvre. Thus deprived of their (immediate) reality, they enter a different context in which even the ugly, cruel, sick become parts of the aesthetic harmony governing the whole.
-- Marcuse, Counter-revolution and Revolt
While Marcuse can adequately explain how art, even when it is deviant or unreal, becomes more real than reality, there is a certain hermeneutical tendency to categorize operative in his theory. Marcuse's Counter-Revolution and Revolt expresses political radicalism yet it champions intellectualism and classicism in aesthetic theory in response to the confrontational nature of much of avant-garde revolt. In his opinion, it is counterproductive to revolution because of the negative reaction it draws from the Establishment. However, in the case of Rimbaud this reaction is what is intended. His intention amounts to disgusting those opposed to him. He is a seer and he wants to reveal his visions to everyone, even if they expose what we would rather not see. He is Jeremiah, the unwanted prophet. In poems like "Cities I" (again in Illuminations) he speaks of cities where "... companies shouted the joys of new labor/ into thick air, restlessly moving/ but never escaping those phantoms come down/ from the heights where we were to have met." These words are prophetic in light of capitalist globalization and programs like Workfare. More than ever our refusal to confront the Establishment has made us more dependent on the good graces and mock liberalism of representational government.
Again, we have been duped by ideology. This disdain for the complacent masses is illustrated in Rimbaud's most ironic and sarcastic poem in Illuminations, "Sale".
Anarchy for the masses;
Wild satisfaction for knowing amateurs;
Atrocious death for the faithful and lovers!
Senseless and infinite flight toward invisible splendor,
Toward insensible delight-
The madness of its secrets shocks all known vice!
The mob is aghast at its gaiety.
Still, Rimbaud manages to find hope despite the cynicism that pervades so many of his views. In "Genie" Rimbaud makes several observations about the potentiality present within the world and humanity. Though the critique of ideology is still present in the mocking sarcasm directed at the idea of custom and tradition (" ‘Away with these ages and superstitions' "...), he still resonates with hope that someday we may transcend the internal fear, anguish, and external oppression that demeans our very being. He refers to the genie in a messianic tone, proclaiming:
He is affection and the future, the strength and love
that we, standing surrounded by anger and weariness,
See passing in the storm-filled sky
and in banners of ecstasy.
Rimbaud's messiah is far different than the conception we have of the Judeo-Christian messiah. The genie makes no promises, and his resurrection and arrival is signaled not by a chorus of angels but by "The splintering of grace before a new violence!" which Rimbaud hopes will so shock our being and our consciousness of being that we will learn to "... follow his image,/ his breathing, his body, the light of his day."
Rimbaud's subversion exists not only in confrontation itself, but also in resolution. The tension he creates between confrontation and resolution is dialectical in that both the moment of conflict, or the collision, and the resolution of the conflict, the denouement of our confrontation, are abolished before they are completed: they are destroyed, and thus transcended; exploded in consciousness and replaced by the suggestion of praxis. Rimbaud's notion of praxis or action is founded on movement, motion or change. The "assassin's hour" is a call for uninhibited, violent action. Not violent in the sense of an emotional release or act of violence, it is violent in its virility, its power, and its self-sufficiency. The explosion of Rimbaud's dialectical images in the consciousness of the reader or listener combats "the disintegration of the aura in the experience of shock" (Walter Benjamin, "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire").
Rimbaud's influence is still felt today within artistic circles which still attempt to challenge the spectator. Patti Smith (and many other artists in the punk movement) take a cue from Rimbaud in their confrontational performance styles and purposefully blasphemous or controversial statements. The rallying cry for the disenfranchised transforms from "For this is the assassin's hour" into Smith's exclamation in "Rock n' Roll Nigger" from the Easter album: "Outside of society, that's where I want to be". Even the title of the song itself expresses incredible anger, and purposely tries to touch a nerve by firstly, using a racial epithet to express the disillusionment and alienation suffered by Smith's generation regardless of race, and secondly to confront society at large with its own capacity for marginalization, hate, and ignorance.
Rimbaud, as well, confronts us with the sordid and uglier side of our nature, our world, and our own private thoughts. The kinesis of Rimbaud's poetry is substantial motion: generation or decay (hearkening back to pre-Socratic philosophy and poetry of Heraclitus and Empodecles). He moves, effortlessly from the sublime to the depraved, the insane to the methodical, always fluctuating, following the ebb and flow of his own design. Rimbaud's poetry is polarized between his optimism or messianic-prophetic language and his extreme cynicism or apocalyptic-prophetic language. The imagery and word-play moves between death and life, heaven and hell, cruelty and divine agony. Rimbaud does not fear confronting the reader, as he is not looking for approval from the reader. He wishes to evoke a response to his poetry. In that response to Rimbaud's audacity, his chiding sarcasm, his visionary and ecstatic language, is precisely Rimbaud's suggestion of praxis. Hopefully, through pushing the reader to respond to his poetry, the reader finds the potential for action within him/herself; action that ceases to be reactionary and instead becomes the result of personal and possibly even collective initiative. Rather than submit to family pressure, or social tradition, Rimbaud remained iconoclastic in his work. No church, moral code, or government could alter his poetic vision. It is for this reason that Rimbaud is so effective at criticizing these various ideologies--he has no sympathy for or dependence upon them. Arthur Rimbaud lived outside of society and so he was an objective witness to the world that unfolded around him. He did not regret his headstrong or iconoclastic stance, however. He was too in touch with his own creative and sensual impulses to deny himself his own nature. In some ways, he remains outside of alienation through alienating himself (although, this may not be a viable option for everyone; nor am I suggesting it as one). He saw, all too early, the effects of the social order upon the lives of his peers and family. It fostered in him a disdain for the bourgeoisie. Yet at the same time, it fostered frustration in him; not out of hate, but rather disillusion, because he saw the potential for creativity, beauty, and divinity within humanity itself. Rimbaud's negativism is not a condemnation. It serves a two fold purpose: firstly, to shock the masses into a realization of their own power and creativity, so as to overcome their own complacency and unwillingness to change, express themselves, and question established moral, cultural, and political points of view and secondly, to reaffirm to those already aware of the stifling oppression spawned from capitalism's tainted seed, that their unrest can be expressed in a productive and meaningful way, through art and therefore also affirming that the possibility of achieving the change they seek lies buried within the system itself and that it is their responsibility to find that possibility and uproot it. Rimbaud's radical, eccentric, and ecstatic lifestyle was also an affirmation of the possibility of "the good life"; of freedom, joy, and untapped ecstasy. His disillusion and cynicism was not a forgone conclusion. It was merely an honest reaction to the disappointment he faced throughout his life as he attempted to realize in himself and others the happiness that he saw flickering dimly in the eyes of humanity. He attempted to save that ember within each of us by pouring gasoline on the fire. And despite his disillusion and eventual retirement from poetry, one can still find inspiration in Rimbaud's passion and his uninhibited quest for contentment, personal satisfaction, and a greater understanding of himself, and the people and world around him. His poetry is a monument to his own radical legacy. As he says in his poem "Lines", the most poignant moment of his last poetic work, of his final epiphanic Illuminations:
When we are very strong-who can hold us back?
And very gay-how can ridicule harm us?
When we are very bad-what can they do to us?
Dress yourself up,
I could never throw Love out the window
- In these poems, you will find Beecher's damn truth and, I've a hunch, ours, as well. I'm not certain how to describe his style. At one moment, he's Huck Finn, grown-up, and long after having lit out for the territories, telling us like it is. At another moment, he has the fire of an old-time preacher lining a hymn. Always, it's hot with passion and a belief, that this world can be a better place for all those anonymous millions who make the wheels go round. And that's the damn truth.
Beecher wrote verse that slammed the foundations of the American consciousness about our own society, and as a result suffered strong social consequences personally, like being blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee and losing various teaching jobs on various occasions. His poems, and also his prose writings, illustrate, according to Brown, in his editor's Introduction, "the idea of America as the great experiment in democracy gone awry:. As well, Frank Adams wrote of Beecher in a 1981 article in Southern Exposure magazine: "Like Isaiah, or Bunyan, and even Sandburg for a time, his poems were for average people. Beecher seemed to know instinctively that poetry was not just for the critics, but that people used it in one way or another every day not to flatter but to survive, to express the uncommon or mysterious in their own, often tragic, lives. The poet's task was to listen, to record, then to chant his poetry".
Beecher's Report to the Stockholders (published in 1925) is a nine-part poem that carries a double meaning in each anecdotal section, while piling on examples of unfairness in the work environment. Robert Meredith, in his article Homage to a Subversive : Notes Toward Explaining John Beecher, from the American Poetry Review, writes, "As much as one-fourth of Beecher's poetry is in this mode which, with its invariable ironic structure showing the discrepancy between the official report and actual happening, is not my favorite Beecher. All the same, especially taken as a whole, it is a powerful, highly controlled writing which reveals and identifies with a class and a world unfamiliar to most readers of contemporary poetry". Regardless of whether it is Meredith's favorite or not, the powerful irony is there. The title indicates that the poem is a fictitious account of life in the company for those whose money represents the capital, but who are not involved in the daily operations inside the company's walls. The poem is certainly drawn from Beecher's own experiences as a worker in steel mills, as the son of an executive for U.S. Steel, and as a government social worker helping poor farmers. Adams's biographical comments relay : "For the next six years [1919-1925], his life was a mixture of academic vagabondage punctuated with sweat-streaked stints at the faces of open hearth furnaces in the Birmingham mills".
His poems are the culmination of his sympathies with the working man and his rejection of his father's lifestyle, relying on the reader to take the irony like bait. There are no overt statements, and no crashing indictments. The accusations against corporations, against the wealthy business owners, and against the system are heavy and subtle. To a certain extent, a knowledge of Beecher's overall biography and agenda help in the reading, but are not necessary. The statements tend to speak for themselves as he presents us with a new view of our fellow man. Other prime examples are In Egypt Land, a long poem about an episode in Notasulga, Alabama, when white landowners began harassing and even attacking local sharecroppers because blacks and whites were forming a union together to improve their conditions, and Peanuts, another long poem about a commune in Americus, Georgia, that was attacked by locals for treating blacks equally.
Beecher's writings won him few popularity contests. He is enigmatic in many ways: a social rebel from a wealthy family, a post-Eliot poet whose work is for common people, and a man who faced threw himself head-long into difficult situations seemingly on purpose. He also, perhaps, wrote poetry for people who didn't read poetry. Maxwell Geismar, in his Introduction to 1968's Hear the Wind Blow: Poems of Protest and Prophecy by Beecher, called him, "a poet who speaks [common people's] language, and whose poetry in turn can be understood by these people". He also called his work, "so proud, angry, rebellious; so full of moral dignity and so rocklike". However, others, like Marjorie Perloff, were not so keen on his work; in her article Tradition and the Individual Talent: A Review, published in 1976 in the Southern Humanities Review, she wrote: "Beecher's verse is, however, not poetry at all," and in the same article, "Beecher's characters are generally sentimental cardboard figures, and his solutions to America's problems are touchingly simplistic". Her words are a stark contrast to Meredith's assessments in the same year: "powerful, highly controlled writing" or Adams' words five years later: "His most enduring lyrics are about the downtrodden's fight for economic justice, human dignity and political fre'dom". Not everyone took Beecher's bait. There is a lot of debate over whether or not Beecher is a viable 20th century poet. Perloff seems to say no; Adams, Marsh, and Meredith seem to say yes. I side with the latter to say that no one doubts his volatility, nor his ability to cut deep down to the "damn truth" as he saw it.
This one refrain, the core idea of "Easter 1916", is an emblem that represents a subjective reaction of the poet to his culture, an ambivalent reaction, to Irish national uproar.
The birth of a "terrible beauty" cannot, then, be separate from the idea of radical change: "all changed, changed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born". What we witness in this poem is a poet's confusion when deeply rooted traditional ideologies are uprooted, in a process represented by its historical equivalent, "The Up-rising". Yeats was well aware that his tradition, his ideology's home - his das Heimliche - was over. The uncanny complication we feel when hearing the phrase "terrible beauty" is not then particularly surprising; with the loss of traditional meaning, it is uncomely; W. B. Yeats has found himself faced with spiritual eviction - his das Unheimliche. A normalcy of "Polite meaningless words" changes to a paralyzing shrillness that seems to come with overthrowing transitions.
What was once a living stream, its change continuous and natural, is now disturbed by what is perceived as stubbornness, a stone-like commitment to one political cause.
"Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream."
With the reference to seasonal fluidity in "The Waste Land" where spring - a typical time of positive movement and change - is met by paralysis and decay. Despite it being spring, Eliot writes,
"What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water..."
(T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land", l. 19-25)
In "Easter 1916", Yeats (like Eliot) uses the universal paradigms of permanence and flux, in the form of stone and water, to show how tradition's flow has been disturbed by a headstrong single-mindedness - a nationalistic political ideal. Yeats, rightly or wrongly, paints such unchanging ideals as futile when he surrounds them with the growth and movement of a multitude of natural processes ("Easter, 1916", l. 40-56).
What we witness then in "Easter 1916" is the same thing we perceive in "The Waste Land" - the sense of an unwillingness to grow, an unwillingness to be renewed by spring's call. One prefers the death of winter than the rending pains of growth. Though we might accuse Yeats of being that changeless death of winter (in the form of his traditionalism), Yeats sees it otherwise. This idea is underwritten by Yeats' central refrain proclaiming radical "change" and the birth of a "terrible beauty". Paradoxically, it is the very changelessness of the rebel's ideals that cause such radical change. Historically, on Easter 1916, Dublin erupted into violence - civilization divided into barbaric confrontations. The radical change is for Yeats a reality of radical decay caused by an unwillingness to change or to grow.
Still, historically, such barbarism continued, and as it persevered, Yeats' ambivalent connection between a sense of terror and a sense of civilization was investigated in his subsequent works.
Yeats re-evokes the metaphor of water in "The Rose Tree" where the sustaining life force of "the living stream" might "Make the green come out again/ And spread on every side/ And shake the blossom from the bud/ To be the garden's pride". But such water is nowhere to be found, and again, the desert planes of "The Waste Land" are evoked, drawing the same spiritual drought, and the need for the redemptive element of Water, that is, renewal. In "The Rose Tree", the lack of water leads to a consideration of blood (one thinks "Water into Wine; wine into Blood of Christ") and the idea of blood sacrifice. The fact that Yeats has "Pearse" suggest this in the poem distances the poet, and allows for the poet's continued - and probably genuine - ambivalence. In context with our question then, it seems the barbaric act of self-sacrifice to a loving/vampiric "motherland" is in fact offered as a way to nurture a budding civilization. The idea of violent revolution in a time of spiritual drought is all done in the name of a new, "up-rising", civil nation. The central idea is that the foundation of civilization is sometimes founded by uncivilized acts, and is found in much of Yeats' poetry.
In a perfect balance, Yeats in a way also re-evokes the metaphor of the river-disturbing stone in "On a Political Prisoner". Compare
"That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill."
Which was associated with the stone amid the flowing waters, with
"Did she in touching that lone wing
Recall the years before her mind
Became a bitter, an abstract thing,
Her thought some popular enmity:
Blind and leader of the blind
Drinking the foul ditch where they lie?"
The stone in "Easter 1916" had represented single-mindedness, even stubbornness, or "hearts with one purpose alone", and coincide with "a bitter, an abstract thing".
We see now that Yeats has gone further since "Easter 1916". Now the crowd - the mob - has been incorporated into the equation as a catalyst for "her" mind's bitterness. "The Crowd" had become a major issue in Yeats' time, in philosophy and psychology, and Yeats had in no small way ignored the masses. He offered a popular theatre to the people of Ireland; but, Yeats quickly became disillusioned with such an ideal -
"...the dream of my early manhood, that a modern nation can return to Unity of Culture, is false; though it may be we can achieve it for some small circle of men and women, and there leave it till the moon bring round its century."
Yeats abandoned the idea of mass politics, and retreated to the comforts of his own close group of literary acquaintances; indeed, one may say that Yeats' poetry from this point on constitutes a lengthy process of complete retreat: a retreat from the Modern Age, the body, from life as lived (politically / practically speaking). "Sailing to Byzantium", a poem looming in the poet's future, holds within its words just such a reality of Yeats' retirement from mass-politics. However, in "The Leaders of the Crowd", Yeats still offers his unique wisdom - "truth flourishes where the student's lamp has shone/ and there alone." That lamp will reappear in "Sailing to Byzantium" but it will be no "singing school" this time, but rather, a study of "unageing monuments of the intellect". It seems at this point that the barbarity (sometimes) necessary in creating a society or civilization has forced Yeats-as-poet towards Byzantine past in a form of nostalgia, but, immediately, when we reach "The Second Coming", we see it also pushes him into the future in the form of prophecy.
In "The Second Coming" we receive Yeats' philosophy of history:
"urning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."
What, indeed, can we say about this? The four lines chime universal - they appeal to a grand pattern, a cosmological vision. Plus, this is the second coming, so eternal recurrence is added in to the conceptual cocktail - with a dialectical twist - we have, according to Yeats, reached an antithetical moment, a reversal or trans-valuation of values. The poet's Hegelianism seems clear. By now the D
The facts are that over 70 years ago, the poet was on the SS Orizaba, a ship traveling 275 miles north east of Havana from Mexico to New York. It was there he drank copious amounts of alcohol, and after several violent outbursts, had to be locked in his cabin. It is said he was in such a fierce state that the door had to be nailed shut. Somehow, against all odds Crane managed to escape and was seen heading for the sailor's quarters in search of "the secret oar and petals of love" which translates from Crane-speak as a hefty bout of buggering. He was found later that night beaten up and relieved of his valuables.
The next morning, he visited his companion and sometime lover Peggy Cowley, who at the time was trying to "rescue" him from the terrible affliction that he happened to be attracted to people of the same sex. His last words to her were "I'm not going to make it dear, I'm utterly disgraced." With this he left, and was seen at the boat's stern where he approached the railing in an overcoat under the midday sun. He removed this and, in his pajamas, leapt over the side and was last seen swimming strongly towards the horizon. Lifeboats were sent out to search for him but returned empty-handed. His body was never found. The ship's captain, a man called Blackadder (clearly not skilled in the art of bereavement diplomacy), said, "If the propellers didn't grind him to mincemeat then the sharks would have got him immediately."
Though it is undoubtedly the deed that has immortalized the poet, all his work is unfairly viewed in its shadow. Certainly, it played its part in telling the story of who he was, but it shouldn't tell the whole story.
If you are looking to find out where he was born and all that Catcher in the Rye sort of crap, all I can tell you is that he was born in Cleveland, Ohio into a wealthy middle class background. Through the manufacture of maple syrup, his father made a fortune but lost it all in the Great Depression. The young Crane did not have a happy upbringing, later writing to his mother: "it's time for you to realize that my youth has been a rather bloody battleground for yours and father's sex life and troubles." Obviously taking it seriously, he tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists but thankfully survived. Whether his upbringing led to his poetic inclination to unify themes, to prevent conflict and separation, as psychologists have claimed, is either the truth or psychobabble according to your view of these self-absorbed analytical times. Rejecting the business path that his father attempted to coerce him into, he struggled to hold down the monotony of a steady job, the sure sign of a genius or a rogue or both. He drifted into New York and, mesmerized by the city and filled with mad ambition, found a cheap flat at 110 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn above the harbour, above the sound of the river, the passing boats and the fights and intrigues of the waterfront. From the window where he sat his desk, he could see the granite gothic arches and the steel cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. His muse stared in at him as he struggled to think of something to write. Later he found out that his window was the very one from which Washington Roebling, the bridge's engineer, had watched its construction.
Intoxicated by his hero Edgar Allen Poe's assertion that the thirst of the poet was that "of the moth for the stars", he set about to try and bring the wonderment of WBaudelaire enthused, or to reach "the rational derangement of the senses" of Rimbaud. Or they may have simply been excuses to get his rocks off and get pished.
Indeed Crane has often been called the American Rimbaud, but though he was similar in his incendiary personality he was not quite the poetic revolution that young Arthur was. Nevertheless he searched for "divine madness" and found it fleetingly in some remarkable works. It was not an easy life. He regularly struggled with poverty, trying to extract money from his parents like teeth from a drunkard, and suffered artistic frustration, resorting to throwing his typewriter from his window onto the pavement below. Staggering whiskey-sodden through the streets in search of a willing sailor he'd shout, "I am Baudelaire, I am Marlowe, I am Whitman" into the night. His only problem was that despite his calls he remained Hart Crane, and for him, that wasn't quite good enough.
At more successful productive times he would sit writing in an alcohol-induced frenzy, listening to the same song over and over again on full blast from his Victrola, and when finished, he would leave to go down into the city under the pseydonym Mile Drayton, where he'd cruise the rough spots looking to get laid.
One reason why he echoes Rimbaud is, like the demented Frenchman, he was the scourge of the intelligentsia. "Who is this young poet?" the fashionistas would ask and, "Can we have him at our next dinner party?" And sure enough he'd turn up and they would never invite him back. For this alone, I will always toast the man's memory. Oh and almost as an afterthought, his work was also quite good.
After much time and effort, his central work The Bridge was eventually forged. The Brooklyn Bridge, the "terrific threshold of the prophet's pledge," would be a symbol which would unify all the disparate elements of what he thought America was. The native, the colonizer, science and art and business and technology, the modern and the ancient into "One Song, One bridge of fire!"
Amongst this and the follow up White Buildings, there are some stunning pieces of writing. Metaphors such as "adagios of islands" gliding past slowly and gracefully like the melody of a string quartet blissfully recreates ocean travel. Nor was it all positive and idealistic. The lines
"Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan"
refer to both the individual submerged by the sheer mass of the city and Crane himself the displaced homosexual.
There is no doubt he wrote some tripe, but search through his writing and you'll be rewarded. The most admirable characteristic of his work was the fact that he sought to celebrate the world and what life could be with "rapturous intensity" and in doing so, put his neck on the chopping block for all the arch miserabilists who earn their living trying to fool us into believing that life isn't worth living. The fact that it was unfashionable, at a time when most poets revealed, and reveled in, how brutal and terrible the world was made it refreshing. His novel approach was basically "enough moaning, we require new sensations" and like the futurists of Europe, he believed we needed a new poetry for these new times. So rather than write of old women sitting drinking tea talking about Michelangelo, he'd write about the mighty Charlie Chaplin and suspension bridges and skyscrapers. He summed up the situation perfectly when he said, "The poetry of negation i s beautiful, alas too dangerously so for one of my mind. But I am trying to break away from it. Perhaps this is useless, perhaps it is silly but one does have joys. The vocabulary of damnations has been developed at the expense of these other mood. Let us invent an idiom for the proper transposition of jazz into words! Something clean, sparkling, elusive!" In this way his work may be the antidote to T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land", an upper to Eliot's downer and his America a fresh start as Europe collapsed.
The Bridge, somewhat a breath of fresh air, received critical acclaim. A lone voice, influenced by unfashionable Elizabethan poets as well as a desire to write the epic of the metropolis, he belonged to no school, no -ism, no following, and he is perhaps all the better for it. His natural allies would only come after he had died. Tragically, he is very close to the same trajectory of the Beats, merging supposedly high discourse and low street talk, celebrating bebop and swing and getting high and seeking to find out what America was or could be. This is tragic because perhaps he was a Beat born too early and was set adrift on his own, spurned by the establishment and without comrades to rely on.
Remember the words of his quoted earlier, "Let us invent an idiom for the proper transposition of jazz into words! Something clean, sparkling, elusive!" They could have come from the mouth of Keroauc himself. Think of the similarities: the homoeroticism, the jazz, the searching for boundless beauty through travel and intoxication. Think of On the Road ending in Mexico or Burroughs in Tangiers and it is all too easy to sense the presence of the ghost of Hart Crane, or at least the echoes of his lonesome paths. Perhaps he was a Beat born too early or the Beats were Hart Cranes born too late.
It is tempting to borrow his own iconography and say that Crane was the bridge from Walt Whitman to the Beats. Sure enough, I can imagine his lines: "We have seen the moon in lonely alleys make a grail of laughter of an empty ash can" taking flight over "the Negro streets at dawn" and their "angel headed hipsters" and deep into Howl.
To leave it at that would be a disservice to the man. For he deserves the respect to be seen as important in his own right--an end rather than a means to an end--a "was" rather than a "might have been". Due to The Bridge, Crane won a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and with the money, he set sail for Mexico where he intended to research an epic about Cortes' conquests of the Americas. There he rented a villa next to the novelist Katherine Anne Porter, who recalled that he was charming company except (and this is a big except) when he reached "that point of drunkenness when he cursed all things; the moon, the air we breathed, the pool of water with its two small ducks. He didn't hate us...he hated and feared himself." This highlighted an increasingly prevalent part of his character--a self-destructive self-loathing--which is not something that should be fed by those distanced enough to romanticize about the tortured artist, that most voyeuristic of myths. It should be remembered that self-disgust is self-attention and is narcissistic, an obsession with selfhood which should never be celebrated as a virtue. This was a human being trying and failing to endure, and it was a pitiful sight.
While in Mexico, David Siqueiros, the Mexican muralist, painted his portrait but chose to portray him with down turned eyes because he said there was too much desperation in them. Crane's reaction was to slice the painting to ribbons and drink a bottle of iodine in another botched attempt to kill himself. You could speak all day about how he wrestled with his repressed sexuality, and he undoubtedly did, but to blame all his troubles on this would be a cop-out, for the man positively adored the act of homosexual sex and his character in almost every aspect of his life, not just sex, was leaning towards manic depression.
Perhaps like his descendant Keroauc, his search for happiness and beauty gave him a purpose but no contentment. Perhaps all art is, as Wilde admitted, the telling of beautiful lies. By the time he left Mexico he wasn't believing his own poetry anymore and wrote only one poem, "The Broken Tower" where he lamented each "desperate choice," all transitory in nature. He left when the money (and the inspiration and ambition) ran out and headed back to an America that seemed determined to repeat the mistakes Europe had made. It was not quite the fresh start he had envisioned.
Suffering from hallucinations due to his alcohol intake and having left poetry behind (or it having left him behind), there was only one end for the man and, having written for so long about the sea, there was only one means of doing it.
There are quite a few reasons for reading Crane. One is because of his extraordinary life or the admiration for those who follow their passions and live their lives precariously on the edge. That stunningly beautiful paragraph in On the Road:
"the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn burn burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars,"
...the paragraph that probably cost Neal Cassady his life attempting to live up to it, and probably cost Keroauc's his running away from it--that paragraph that could just as well have been written about Crane.
Or you could read his works just to see what he had to say about the world while he was here.
History can be generous or traitorous to even the greatest, the most untouchable of writers. Time can make Nobel Prize winners redundant and can inject new life, fresh significance into the previously unknown. History has been rightly kind to the likes of Miller, Camus and Gunter Grass, it has not been so compassionate towards Kipling, Forster or Wodehouse. History doesn't know what to do with W.B. Yeats. Doomed to be consigned to the backs of now defunct bank notes or rarely read anthologies his early romantic works, filled with faeries and fair maidens, have not aged well and his later modernist works appear submerged by the larger ripples of Joyce and Auden. So there is the curious situation where he is held in high esteem, put on a pedestal and then promptly ignored. He has become a legend and as with all legends somehow in being elevated he is relegated, his works promoted in suffocating syllabi seem the stuff of historians, of leather elbow patches and tweed suits, accessed from the highest shelf only through the use of wheeled ladders in dusty libraries. No doubt the futurists were right when they said all critics are useless and dangerous, but only criticism can undo the damage criticism has done. It would do Yeats a great favor, to rescue him from this sterile prison of respectability, if his life and works were truthfully dissected without fear of desecrating his status as a sacred icon. For then at least he would be human and, for better or worse, his works would be alive.
Yeats was a fool, a privileged, talented one, but a fool nonetheless. He held some of the most contemptible and stupid views that can be held, views that weaved together through the years with eugenics and such frauds as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to end under the railway arch entrance to Auschwitz. And yet it is hard not to feel a deep sympathy for a tragic Don Quixote-esque figure who was doomed not because he was born into the wrong time, as has been claimed, but because he clung to a time and set of values that never really existed to begin with.
An avid supporter of the Gaelic Revival, W.B. Yeats promoted the use of the Irish language and the reabsorbtion of Celtic mythology into the modern consciousness. His early poems dealt with traditional subject matters such as fairytales ("The Man Who Dreamed Of Faeryland"), hero-worship ("Cuchulain Comforted") and Irish places ("The Lake Isle Of Innisfree," "Under Ben Bulben"). Their lyricism and rhythms suggest that they are somehow musical in character and it is no surprise that many of his poems have been incorporated into Irish folk songs. And some of them are supreme examples of the right words in the right order, that simple but elusive definition of successful poetry. To appreciate his talent, simply read aloud "Sailing to Byzantium," "The Wandering of Aengus" or "Who goes with Fergus?" as James Joyce did to his dying younger brother. Along with Lady Gregory, he was founder of the notoriously progressive Abbey Theatre that brought Ireland screaming into the twentieth century. All these acts sought to create a cultural renaissance, to revitalize the Irish national identity after the death of its language as the national tongue and the subjugation of its people. Following this philosophy on its logical path, he became a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (a militant elite band of rebels fighting for liberation and democracy or "international terrorists" in today's rhetoric) and celebrated the heroes of the Easter Rising for their sacrifice. The "terrible beauty" of their martyrdom simultaneously attracted and repulsed him but he did not necessarily share the rebel's sentiments or their will to power. He respected them from afar, behind the security that an aristocratic poet could possess, and to his credit he made no bones about this; often the issue of involvement and the turning of words into deeds gripped his conscience. Undoubtedly he was, as Edward Said referred, "a poet of decolonization" particularly when he called for protests against the Dublin celebrations of Queen Victoria's jubilee and deeply opposed the liberal's use of World War One to delay Irish Home Rule. This led him to perceptively equate the Irish situation with the international effects of imperialism--"all through the Abyssinian war my sympathies were with the Abyssinians"--rather than with his fellow Europeans (the Italian empire). He could see the bigger picture and the fact that the Irish issue struggle was a small part of something larger and internationalist in character.
Realizing, however, that ideology could ruin life ("too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart") Yeats saw his role not as a propagandist or apologist but as a witness who must simply record history as it evolves: "our part to murmur name upon name". Yeats never accepted the extremist view that the freedom of Ireland justified any and all means, for he retained an individual conscience too complex to be constrained by any doctrinaire ideology. Indeed he actively opposed the unquestioning militant strand of republicanism, berating Countess Markievicz (the Sinn Fein female MP and first woman to be elected to the House of Commons, though she abstained from taking her seat) for becoming a demagogue, "Blind and leader of the blind, drinking the foul ditch where they lie." Intelligence, Yeats believed, was corrupted by fanatical hostility and he never ceased associating "violent ways" with "ignorant men." His conscience at play, he worried, "Did that play of mine send out, certain men the English shot?" about "Cathleen Ni Hoolihan (1902)", his ode to the female personification of Ireland. Thus he stands as an Irish cultural nationalist rather than strictly a political one, for he despised the self-defeating Catholic streak in Republicanism, which sought merely to swap slavery from London for slavery from Rome or Dublin, supporting James Connolly's assertion that the puritans among the revolutionaries were "seeking to empty a barrel of rotten apples just to fill it with rotten pears."
During his life and throughout his works, Yeats was a steadfast defender of free speech and freedom of thought. To his eternal credit, he remained unceasingly loyal to Oscar Wilde and Parnell, whilst the Irish establishment hounded them ("Can someone there recall the Cretan barb that pierced a star?" and "we devoured his heart" respectively), believing that sexuality was a private matter, beyond the reach or concern of the state or the public. This was a man at his most fearless and admirable, using his position to bravely give voice to his conscience even when in a minority of one. At the Abbey Theatre he championed Sean O Casey's "Plough And The Stars" against rioting puritans who saw it as mocking the blood sacrifice martyrdom of the Easter Rebels. He condemned the riots at Synge's "Playboy Of The Western World" that had erupted because of the improper mention of woman's petticoats. He personally addressed an insurgent audience to boos and jeers, "You have disgraced yourself again, is this to be the recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?" a question that was courageously asked in front of a potential lynch mob. Even more than the State he saw the mob ("a frenzied crowd") as the enemy of free speech and regarded democracy as a form of dictatorship of the majority, a majority easily led and easily hoodwinked. Relishing his self-appointed role of defender of free speech against the conforming philistine crowds, he challenged them "Come, fix upon me that accusing eye, I thirst for accusation" and branded them "the contagion of the throng" and "rats," who had driven their liberator Parnell to an early grave. Eventually, he became the figurehead of the conflict against Ireland 's swerve down the repressive narrow-minded clerical path, declaring, "An ignorant form of Catholicism is my enemy." In a sense, he stood up for the values of those remarkable fellows who had died on Easter 1916 (and indeed on 1798) and against the mediocre who had profited in their absence. He also predicted accurately the long-term consequences of basing Irish Civil Law on authoritarian Catholicism; "If you show this country to be governed by catholic ideas alone you will never get the north. You will put a wedge in this country". This tolerance led him to oppose compulsory Gaelic, fight censorship and support women's right to work. In terms of sexuality, his lines such as "I offer to love's play my dark declivities" (boldly spoken from a female perspective), in the repressive Irish climate became declarations of defiance.
The pinnacle of his laissez-faire political stance remains his stand in the Irish Senate asserting the right to divorce. Adopting the Dissenter stance, he celebrated the Protestant tradition (later to harden and bitter with Unionism) of rebellion and tolerance ("We are the people of Parnell and Swift, we have created the best of this land's political intelligence") echoing Milton's phrase, "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience" a freedom that Yeats, like Milton, regarded as "above all other liberties". He reminded the hypocritical Senate members of the infidelities of their heroes, recalling "O' Connell and Parnell" by name and asked, "Should their statues be tore down?" and declared to the bishops and their political stooges, "When the iceberg melts [Ireland] will become a tolerant society" and "your victory will be brief and your defeat final." In the realm of private individual freedom, Yeats was very much a brave radical freethinker even though his idealization of Maud Gonne and his unrequited love for her spawned many a poem but left him emotionally in tatters. Following the logic of Yeats' outlook on personal freedom and privacy, you could come to the conclusion that Yeats' complex, often deliberately unsuccessful and often analyzed romantic life was none of anybody's goddamned business and you would probably be right.
Ironically, considering his defiant defense of personal free will against judgment, in the sphere of public politics, Yeats toyed with Fascist ideas about class, eugenics and democracy. Following aristocratic tradition, he was liberal concerning private sexual and artistic freedoms, freedoms rationed only to those who were by accident of birth born into privileged enough backgrounds to enjoy them, but was ruthlessly autocratic about public freedom and equality. He supported the death penalty and floggings and voted for the repression of republican irregular dissidents after the assassination of Kevin O Higgins (Vice President and Minister Of Justice). In support of draconian measures he at least attempted an explanation, "One does not vote for treason bills out of hatred for anyone but because one believes they are necessary to protect harmless people against anxiety, danger, poverty perhaps death." This substantiated his belief that the death of romantic Ireland was caused by those "who fumble in a greasy till." He favored authoritarian government as a bulwark against the anarchy of human nature and the omnipotent threat of the lower classes. A disciple of Hobbes' "Leviathan", he retained the traditional conservative dim view of humanity as fallen, corrupt and so in need of protection and pre-emptive acts of getting your retaliation in first. This intense traditionalism included seeing the Celtic past through rose-tinted spectacles as a utopia lost ("And ancient Ireland knew it all,") to the extent Orwell accused him of "throwing overboard whatever good the past two thousand years have achieved." It leads you to think that despite his obvious literary talent Yeats' snobbish upbringing had perhaps made him too distanced from ordinary people and the distance made him go slightly soft in the head.
Yeats reflected his distaste for the working classes by associating democracy with mob rule and regarding politics, rather pompously, simply as the battlefield between the educated versus the uneducated rabble. The Russian Revolution, and the precedent for social rebellion it had encouraged, consumed him with terror and as with most bourgeoisie, the fear of communism caused him to swing politically to the security of the far right. He saw the uprisings--the defiant saying of enough's enough by the common man and woman--not as an admirable stirring of the human spirit, but as a threat to apparently god-given status and wealth, a threat to the world of myths, the imaginary worlds of grateful peasants content with their lot and honorable aristocrats he had conjured within his head. This is reflected in "The Second Coming" where "things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood dimmed tide is loosed," the best" (the aristocrats) "lack all conviction while the worst" (the proles) "are full of passionate intensity." And the chilling lines "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" Thus the demands of the working people for common human decency in their treatment had apocalyptic connotations for Yeats, a man easily taken in by talk of ouija boards, seances and Masonic secret lodges. This led him to lend irrational support for fascists like Mussolini and Eoin O'Duffy's homegrown Blueshirt equivalent. He often proudly quoted Mussolini: "We will trample upon the decomposing body of the goddess of liberty" and future generations for Yeats would have "for their task, not the widening of liberty but the recovery from its errors." He went so far as to call Fascism "the best modern way" and claimed the Fascists found their "eloquence upon knowledge". George Orwell was his most perceptive critic when he attacked Yeats' naivety: "[Yeats] fails to see that the new authoritarian civilization will not be aristocratic. It will be ruled by anonymous millionaires, shiny bottomed bureaucrats and murdering gangsters." Yeats struggled to see that he belonged not to the chivalrous Victorian age of the aristocracy but the all-consuming nihilistic totalitarian age of the Fascists. In fact, the chivalrous age, which he desperately clung to, had never existed to begin with, filled as it was with exploitation and poverty of which he was all too blissfully ignorant.
Though his interest in Fascism was a mere flirtation (as with Eliot, Pound and the Futurists) he retained many of the characteristics of Fascist thought. He called for the abolition of parliamentary government to be replaced by a hierarchical state ruled by "the ablest," rather than the most popular. His opinion of women was distinctly anti-feminist and patriarchal and he wished his daughter to grow up "courteous rather than clever", denying women intellectual ability: "an intellectual hatred is the worst so let her think opinions are accursed." "May she become a flourishing hidden tree" effectively summarizes Yeats' belief that written language belongs to men and women's duty is to remain obedient and silent, one step on the road to Children, Church and Kitchen.
Yeats' ideas on eugenics are perhaps his most extreme and irrational views. Adopting the malevolent Fascist ideas about racial superiority and class supremacy, he attacked the "degenerate" working classes and evoked Scottish myths of disabled women and children being buried alive for the common good "lest the whole nation should be injured or corrupted". Interestingly, these babblings went strangely quiet when his health began to deteriorate and he grew older and frailer. He went on to conclude, with no evidence, that "the caste system has saved Indian intellect" and "the real danger" to civilization "is if there is not a world war" to thin the herd. Whilst Yeats' earlier flirtation with Fascism can be excused as a combination of aristocratic snobbery, fear of communism and contempt for democracy, his eugenics ideas are particularly discomforting. It is worth noting though that such ideas were the intellectual norm at the time and though repulsive, Yeats had no knowledge of the depths to which eugenics would take mankind. Indeed Winston Churchill summed up the intellectual climate at the time when he proposed in a government White Paper, with little opposition, that "100,000 moral degenerates be sterilized and placed in labour camps to prevent the decline of the British Empire." Yeats' eugenics ideas, for example, were the standard intellectual ideas of the time held by many (for example H.G. Wells, Jack London, George Bernard Shaw). This does not make them right; popularity is no excuse for acquiescing in blind ignorance, but it makes them at least that bit easier to understand. Thus Yeats' beliefs, while immoral and inexcusable, are more a product of ineptitude than genuine hatred. Unfortunately, it was such popular ideas that aided the ascension of the Third Reich and the resulting Final Solution. And ignorance is no defense to history.
Yeats at his most admirable was an eloquent Irish cultural nationalist and a perceptive skeptic of colonialism. His involvement with political republicanism was always tempered by his Protestant Libertarian streak; his distaste for blind militarism and his opposition to the narrow-minded Catholic establishment are always evident in his work. In a cultural sense, he is an undoubted link in the noble dissenting republican lineage from Wolfe Tone and Roger Casement to the Irish poets of today (Tom Paulin, the late John Hewitt, Seamus Heaney) who reject the religion and race swindle and instead pursue a non-sectarian humanist Ireland. Hopefully, this points a direction independent of the yuppie economics and the patriotic sleight of hands that have defined the modern Irish body-politik. His passion for free speech and the right to sexual and artistic expression resulted in his loyal defense of Wilde and Parnell and his courageous defenses of art to rioting mobs at the Abbey Theatre, and are acts that, even without his poetry, should enshrine his place in history and show him to be a character worth investigating. When we look at the dark side of Yeats and his flirtation with Fascism, we should be careful to avoid judging for we look at history with the benefit of hindsight, forgetting that when Yeats spoke of admiring Fascism he knew nothing of the death camps. His views may have been distasteful, imbecilic even, but he died before they would have become disgraceful. While he may have chosen the wrong side at times, at least he was never apathetic. His opinions, however wrong, at least implied that he cared about things enough to formulate an opinion.
Only the hardest of hearts would crucify a man misled and foolish, a product of his environment who delighted in the politically incorrect without knowing that to do so was to support genocide, whose flaw was naivety, but who bore no malice in his soul. Indeed, some day in the future we may be judged ourselves to have collaborated in the insanity of today's intellectual climate.
When the Irish Free State was established in 1922, Yeats lost the theme that had been his muse politically, but importantly he came to realize that he had always been a poet and never a politician. In 1937 he wrote "I am no Nationalist except in Ireland for passing reasons; State and Nation are the work of intellect and when you consider what comes before and after them they are, as Victor Hugo said of something or other, not worth the blade of grass God gives for the nest of a linnet." His true inspiration had always been and would become increasingly spiritual and metaphysical questions. He underwent a late renaissance when he questioned his own mortality, his age and the tension between his undimmed passions and his aging body in poems such as "After long silence," "Among School Children" and "When you are old and full of sleep." They are marked by their glorious refusal to betray his youth and his passion, which could not be separated from his being even by time, and they mark the point where he blissfully left politics to the gossips and the blackguards and the Machiavellis.
I began this essay determined to attack the man's character and end it determined to stand in his defense. How can you judge a man who wrote the following lines?
"Think where man's glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends."
The point is he lived, he died and he left a lot of stuff behind that benefits humanity and enriches, deepens and heightens the joys of being alive and the question arises what gives us the right to judge him as a person beyond what he left behind when he left this world?
For is it not such contradictions and mistakes, that litter his life, that which makes us human?
Or am I talking shite?
When he died in France, far from the Ireland that was "no place for old men" the Nazis, those whom he had admired years earlier, occupied France and ordered that his body be dug up and thrown into a mass grave. After the war the Irish government requested his remains to be sent home. Eventually, after much diplomatic negotiations and awkward silences they received a coffin. The odds that even one of the bones are his are very, very remote. It is an ironic metaphor, fitting, but also deeply sad, that this aloof figure should rest in a mass grave somewhere in France, and under his favored resting place, beneath the beautiful plateau of his beloved Ben Bulben, beneath the headstone that bears his name, like the dubious relics of saints, lies the bones of unnamed, unidentifiable French workers.
W.H. Auden wrote the greatest elegy for him, which began,
"He disappeared in the dead of winter
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted
And snow disfigured the public statues
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day."
If there is one thing that is left to be said, it is that we could learn from Yeats' mistakes so we don't repeat them, so that we don't run into the arms of tyrannies promising security in these turbulent times. And if we must be nostalgic, let it not be for an imagined past but let us be nostalgic for the future. Of course, you could be of the belief that lives should not necessarily have lessons salvaged from them. In that case, you should read Yeats, you may well find that his poetry has enriched not just the culture of Ireland, but can enrich and intensify your perceptions of the world, above and beyond politics and all the orthodoxies that leave us so divided and unhappy.
And from a poet, perhaps that's the best we can hope for.