Saturday, February 24, 2007

Words and All

[posted by Callimachus]

Terry Eagleton doesn't wonder why non-literary types often are repulsed by the personalities and politics of many of the geniuses of poetry. He wonders why the guardians of the canon are so defensive about it.

Why do critics feel a need to defend the authors they write on, like doting parents deaf to all criticism of their obnoxious children? Eliot's well-earned reputation is established beyond all doubt, and making him out to be as unflawed as the Archangel Gabriel does him no favours. It is true that the poet was a sourly elitist reactionary who fellow-travelled with some unsavoury political types in the 1930s, and as a Christian knew much of faith and hope but little of charity. Yet the politics of many distinguished modernist artists were just as squalid, and some—Pound and Junger, for example—were quite a lot worse. There is no need to pretend that all great writers have to be uxorious, liberal-minded, philosemitic heterosexuals. Why does Raine write as though discovering that Eliot was a paedophile would change our view of Four Quartets?

Neither is it just a question of "fine poetry, pity about the politics." The fact that apart from Joyce and Woolf, almost all of the major "English" modernists were radical reactionaries, askew to the orthodox liberal consensus of their age, is a condition of their achievement, not a regrettable corollary.

Right. When it comes to personality, it's hard to think of any of the great ones who wasn't a bastard or a bitch on some important level -- though Whitman probably is the exception. As for politics, poets are notoriously bad about that. Yeats probably got closest to the truth, upon being asked for a war poem in 1915:

I think it better that in times like these
A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter's night.

Note it's not "upon being asked for a pro-war poem." Needless to say, his STFU advice has been roundly ignored since then; poets just don't work that way.

An executioner might write a beautiful poem. But not even an angel could write a beautiful poem in praise of a concentration camp.

Labels: ,