Poetry and Morality
(Material gleaned and edited from the Zeugma and Haven discussion boards, with special thanks to Alison Croggon for her permission to include section III.)
I. The Importance of Cosmology
Without some shared assumption about the universe as background form, artists are limited by the necessity of creating their own assumptions. Let us say, for operational purposes, that God exists and he is good. Not much more can be known, and this is already too much for many, since a religious friend of mine has pointed out, quite rightly, that agnosticism is the only valid position, empirically, for those not visited by angels. By so designating a cosmology for art, again, operationally, I do not propose enjoining such belief on others nor defining for them what "God" is beyond the fact that if he exists, he is good.
I think it makes for better art to believe in God than not, and though a bad reason for belief, is better than none. Without a cosmic hierarchy of order and purpose, real or imagined, neither Homer nor Dante nor Shakespeare could have invented what they did, nor would the Romantics have had the proper authority imago against which to rebel. Remove the decalogue and even D.H. Lawrence would suffer a loss of passion.
My greatest criticism of God (Judeo-Christian), seated on his throne like a cherry atop a melted sundae in this malleable age, is that he gave us too much freedom.
Is evil the price of being human? I don't know. I don't blame him for evil but naturally wonder if he might have done more to safeguard against it. Since he did not, I am forced to conclude that the existence of evil serves some greater good. Besides, if God had granted us any less freedom, wouldn't we be demanding more, like eternally complaining teenagers? Would we be human with any less? In the Christian tradition, God gives us the ultimate freedom: the opportunity to murder our maker. Who could ask for more?
II. Morality Distinguished from Cosmology
Every attempt to moralize poetry has failed because any implied lack of freedom is death to art though what society assumes, art assumes; and though I notice no recent contests for poems about the Madonna, there was a time when they could have earned patronage because of society's prevailing values never a good measure of what is right, only what is acceptable. If I understand Jesus, which is admittedly a reach, then who we are speaks louder than what we say. What we say stems inevitably from who we are; so a spiritually thirsty man is going to be drawn to Eliot or Rilke or (shudder!) Bly. Nevertheless, any imposition of concept morality is bound to fail, since the outbreak of a joyous heterodoxy is always trumped by orthodoxy, when spiritual fossilization sets in and the match is blown out.
What I mean to say is this: be good and your verse will reflect goodness. That is all the obligation we have or can have as artists.
Poets can say what they want, but "out of the heart cometh...." Those who have stored up forgiveness in an imperfect world have much to share, since that is how mature love chiefly manifests itself in an imperfect world only rarely visited by the ecstasy of true interpersonal Eros. Those who have not yet entered the healing phase of their journey can, in truth, offer something else identification with the human struggle, perhaps, the comfort of not being alone.
"Brethren, let us not love in word or in speech but in deed and in truth." (I John)
I agree with Kant that our personal lives are our public lives and our professional lives are our private lives. In one we are forced to render service by oath and paycheck; in the other we can choose, and it is there the world can best judge us. And no matter how Eliot labored for the "impersonal," poetry is ultimately personal, as his distinctive voice confirms against his early theories.
The biggest blow for righteousness a poet can strike is to be righteous, though as a poet, his first moral obligation is to write well. The two shall certainly meet. But to say how will only result in a critical inquisition of some kind, and I plead guilty in advance to avoid torture.
III Morality and Modern Writers
The question of morality and art is one that exercises me continually, precisely for the reasons that CE outlines. Any THOU SHALT NOT is death to art. There are so many examples of artists destroyed by or at odds with their own passionately felt beliefs, artists who run afoul of good intentions demonized by ideologies, that it has become an axiom.
In post-revolutionary Russia, Mayakovsky died under a cloud (despite his later rehabilitation as a "revolutionary poet"); Shlovsky (not a poet but a fine and discerning critic) was silenced for his unrevolutionary Formalism, not to mention the Mandelstams, Akhmatova, and others all in the name of "The Greater Good."
Sartre's Writing and Commitment picks its way through minefields only by ignoring the parts of Marxism that disavow writing. Even with the best of intentions, he couldn't ally himself as a writer to an ideological system. But he raises some interesting problems while attempting it, and he's an interesting read for anyone thinking about these questions. He was attracted to Marxism because of an abiding passion for social equity and anger against injustices he saw before him. But his writing (and Sartre couldn't help but be a writer first) continually escaped his best efforts to tie it down to an ideology. What's attractive about his oeuvre is its fierce defense of freedom, and its linking of artistic freedoms to other, perhaps more practical, liberties.
The contemporary disavowal of commitment in art, the kinds of excesses of much language poetry and post-modern splinterings of any concept of responsibility or ethics, can be in their own way just as tyrannical as any ideology. The meaninglessness of much contemporary literature, which complacently insists on an infinitely receding moral relativism (as if human beings weren't capable of individual thought or action, or as if they were not moral beings at all) can be daunting. I cannot begin to explore such issues here.
I am always suspicious of writing that doesn't posit truth as its highest ambition. Edward Said defines an intellectual as "one who will tell the truth, no matter what the cost." That's why I think Beckett is greater than Tom Stoppard. Or, as Celan said more gracefully, "Only truthful hands can write true poetry."
IV. Notes Toward a New Direction
I hold that the primary deficit of Existential (Post-Modern) Poetry (now giving way to the Neo-Elizabethan Literary Webolution, I hope) is a lack of invigorating substance, the consequence of fervent belief. The problem with MFA programs and workshops in general, I think, is that they too often give succor to those with talent to say something well, who, as yet, have little to say. The art of saying nothing has become almost as great a virtue in poetry as it is in politics. The New York School (Koch, Ashbery) is proof of this (say nothing profound, at least by intention).
When Sir Philip Sydney, in his Apology for Poesie, asked his muse how to proceed, she said:
"Fool, look in thy heart and write!"
Good doctors survive medical school.
Good poets survive MFA programs.
As Sartre (or was it Camus?) observed, the real question of this century and it applies to Existential Poetry quite well, is:
"Why not commit suicide?"
That's the question our generation should answer for the new millenium, IMNSHO ("In My Not So Humble Opinion").
Eliot at thirty spent three months in a sanitarium for depression ("nervous exhaustion") and wrote The Waste Land, back when diagnosis was still needed for the new modern maladies of anomie and ennui. The next generation of poets (in English) offer no essential treatment, rather a further descent into the disease.
If one ignores formalists (born in part of the New Criticism: Auden, Wilbur, Moss, et. al.), both the Beats and Confessionalists took self-exploration to new, more solipsistic depths, but what did they ultimately find? Less than was there before, of course. They reached the pinnacle of Parnassus on the wings of a confessional, ultimately whining, then bankrupt muse.
Man, left to himself, is a dead end. My apologies to all Anchorites, but if Christ was any example, notice his life: passionately interwoven, by prayer and sacrifice, with the lives of everyone he loved, and he loved all, though not all could receive it, so my Lutheran dogma.
Poets for my proposed new Neo-Elizabethan School? I'd nominate Kenyon and Levine for starters, Wislawa, Heaney poets whose humanity seeps off the page, whose love for life and others is undeniable.
C.E. Chaffin and Alison Croggon