”When he wriggles,” Ambrose Bierce once wrote of the politician, “he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice.” Bierce might well have said the same about modem writers who cannot distinguish between propaganda and art or between political sermons and poetry.
Within the last year college bulletin boards and newspapers have been flyspecked with announcements of demonstrations, teach-ins, and poetry readings devoted to attacks on nuclear energy, the arms race, and American policy in Central America. Most representative is a broadside from a group calling itself “Poets for Peace,” an organization dedicated to working “on behalf of a weaponsfree world.” This manifesto is infested with implications about an imperialistic United States government which, through its goons in the Department of Defense, is responsible for all economic, social, political, and military unrest anywhere in the world. The piece is signed by a good many poets who are, presumably, intelligent enough to recognize its intellectual dishonesty.
This naivete among literary people about political reality is hardly new or surprising. The history of European and American literature is marked by writers who have seen the reshaping of the world in terms of a peculiar social or political vision as their calling. Shelley’s simplistic assertion in A Defence of Poetry (1820) that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” is symptomatic of the belief that writers should be social engineers as well as artists.
Among British and American writers, for example, Shelley, Ruskin, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, and, currently, Norman Mailer have been afflicted with delusions of themselves as messiahs who will bring the gospel to the unenlightened, cure society of its many evils, and restore some kind of sociopolitical Eden among the satanic mills of the modern world. All too often, these people have started out to write belles lettres and ended up producing dreary tracts that appeal only to their narrow group of disciples. They mistake their intellectual squirming and caudal vibrations for the stirrings of art.
This penchant for linking social and political values to literature has been particularly evident in the 20th century. As early as 1908 John Macy approached the criticism of American literature from a distinctly Marxist perspective. In the 1930’s Granville Hicks, C. Day Lewis, and V. F. Calverton, among many others, became apostles of the Marxist school of criticism which published its work in magazines such as The New Masses and The Left Review. Although the RussoGerman friendship treaty and the coming of the Second World War muted these radical voices, they arose again in the 1960’s to lead their intellectual groupies out of the desert and into the streets, the lecture halls, and the pages of publications like The New York Review of Books, Village Voice, and Mother Jones. Anyone on a college campus during those noisy days remembers the strident anti-Americanism that characterized so much of the peace movement.
But fairness demands an acknowledgment that there has also always been in Western literature a tradition of honest and honorable dissent among writers who felt deeply about the course their culture was taking. Milton, the 18thcentury English satirists, and Thoreau are just a few examples of writers who looked at their worlds from the perspective of history, tradition, and values and with a very deeply held love for art and humanity; they saw clearly the dangers posed by an amoral and materialistic modernism. And they were not willing to prostitute their writing to literary fad or gratification of the ego.
Two modern poets who illustrate this contrast in social criticism are W. H. Auden and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the subjects of recent biographies by Edward Callan and Larry Smith. Auden is widely and justly regarded as a major poet of our century, while Ferlinghetti, for the most part, is now considered as little more than a museum piece from the literary horror show of the 1960’s. Both men have viewed poetry as a vehicle for political comment, and both have been connected with Marxism, but that’s about as far as any comparisons can be drawn.
Auden is perhaps the most prolific poet in modern British literature, his collected edition running to some 30,000 lines (compared with Yeats’s 14,000 and Eliot’s 5,500). From the early 1930’s until his death ten years ago, he worked easily with a complex variety of conventional verse forms—sonnet, villanelle, couplet, ballade, canzone, sestina, terza rima—and he experimented with more exotic types such as the Welsh englyn and the Skaldic drott-kvaett. His work won him two Guggenheims, the Pulitzer and Bollingen prizes, and the National Book Award, as well as the professorship of poetry at Oxford.
During the late 1930’s Auden became the premier poet of his generation. Influenced by writers as diverse as Hardy, Hopkins, Eliot, and Yeats, his work was almost neoclassical in its cool, ordered, balanced, polished, economic precision. For some time he flirted with Marxism, as did his friends Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis, and Louise MacNiece, but by 1940 he was beginning to see it as nothing more than another hollow but dangerous philosophy which offered nothing to his or any other generation: ‘We hoped; we waited for the day/ The State would wither clean away/ Expecting the Millennium/ That theory promised us would come/ It didn’t” (“New Year Letter, January 1, 1940”). Sensing the anxiety that pervaded the West before and after World War II, he sought to discover and assess the inner conflicts behind the sickness of modern society, an illness he saw as the result of modern man’s loss of faith and tradition. Auden learned that loss and pain are constants in human experience and that the best artists have known this: “About suffering they were never wrong/ The Old Masters: how well they understood/ Its human position: how it takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along” (“Musée des Beaux Arts”).
Auden strongly sensed that political solutions for many human problems were either impossible or unwise. The title character in “The Unknown Citizen,” a short satire on the welfare state, is the darling of the advertisers and businessmen, the schools, the church, and the government because he does his job passably well, acts and thinks predictably, never acts as an individual, and never questions the statist philosophy. “But was he free? Was he happy?” Auden asks—and answers ironically, “Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.”
In The Dyer’s Hand (1950) his distrust of the poet as prophet and of leftist utopianism is complete:
A society which was really like a good poem, embodying the aesthetic virtues of beauty, order, economy, and subordination of detail to the whole, would be a nightmare of horror, for given the historical reality of actual men, such a society could only comeinto being through selective breeding, extermination of the physically and mentally unfit, absolute obedienceto its Directors, and a large slave class kept out of sight in cellars.
Auden’s stylistic deftness and his philosophic position were not immune to criticism, however. A lesser talent, the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, could carp, ”we never step twice into the same Auden.” But sensitive critics such as Callan see in Auden one of the more substantial poets of this century. In his close readings of Auden’s work Callan shows how Auden moved away from his early fascination with political romanticism in the 1930’s to a later awareness that such a false view of the world could produce not only a Yeats and a D. H. Lawrence but also a Hitler. Callan concludes that “no other writer has so consistently chosen for theme the gap between the world of consciousness where the responsibilities of freedom begin and the unconscious natural world where necessity rules.”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti is just the kind of political romantic Auden warned against: the would-be artist who mouths trendy and revolutionary clichés, unthinkingly attacks traditions and values, and condemns capitalism while milking it for a handsome profit. As publisher of the Beat poets, founder of the City Lights bookstore, and one of the gurus (along with pal Allen Ginsberg) to the radicals of the Vietnam period, Ferlinghetti has tried to build himself a reputation as a social and political visionary, but about all he has achieved is a shocking of the tender-minded and a titillation of political innocents. Having lost much of his audience as the nation recovered from its Vietnam spasms, he is now just another awfully Old Angry Young Man, like Mailer and Leslie Fiedler.
Larry Smith’s book attempts to ‘be both a biography and a reading of Ferlinghetti’s poetry. Since he doesn’t have much to work with, Smith valiantly tries to fashion the proverbial silk purse: he aims at criticism and ends up writing hagiography. Smith takes Ferlinghetti seriously in his self-anointed roles as idealist, prophet, conscience of America, “the open and public realist daring to speak our common truth.” In reality, Ferlinghetti has been the literary mouthpiece for every radical cause imaginable; he vilified President Eisenhower, deified Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro, and found his political gods in Herbert Marcuse and Eldridge Cleaver. He is hardly, as Smith prefers to see him, the “rare combination of literary catalyst, populist spokesman, and creative craftsman” or “a poet-prophet of the contemporary world. . . the contemporary embodiment of the committed artist.”
Ferlinghetti may well consider himself the voice of the people and thus of God, but this may be a case of what General Sherman once described as ”Vox populi, vox humbug.” He views the United States as thoroughly corrupt, diseased by capitalism, riddled with rotten institutions, an international bully that represses its own people and those of the whole world. The world “rolls on lousy with fascism/ The jails groan with it/ and governments groan with it/ And whenever there’s a flag with red in it/ the people holding it up/ groan with it.” This kind of poetry reminds us of Cicero’s observation that “Men who have no inner resources for a good and happy life find every age burdensome.”
Writers who use their names and reputations to proselyte for questionable causes really achieve nothing more than self-advertising. Perceptive readers are always suspicious that such writers are less concerned about the poor, the oppressed, and the unfortunate than about press clippings, expense-account living on the college lecture-and-reading circuit, and adulation by the media, the academics, and sophomore humanities majors. After all, it is very possible these days to make a comfortable living by being a professional conscience. As Romain Gary said not so many years ago, “There are many ways of becoming a professional beauty. . . and one of them is to write noble books, to take inspired, humanistic positions on all the right causes, keep signing those manifestoes.”
Auden went through a period of being the professional beauty and the signer of manifestos, but he outgrew his artistic adolescence to become a significant poet of his time. Ferlinghetti, however, never put away his toys, and, as Liv Ullman said of George McGovern a decade ago, “the words just keep coming and coming as if he hopes that a little life and truth will sneak through.”