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The Supple, Surviving Voice


ISSUE:  Summer 1988
The Faber Anthology of Political Verse. Edited by Tom Paulin. Faber and Faber. $19.95.

On Oct. 23, 1958, Anders Østerling, the secretary of the Swedish Academy, dispatched a cable to Boris Pasternak informing him that he had won the Nobel Prize for literature. Two days later, Østerling received an acknowledgment from the author; Pasternak described himself as being “immensely grateful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed.” The Soviet response to the award appeared promptly in Literaturnaia gazeta, one of the leading literary journals of the country, and the article unequivocally condemned the award, describing it as an “inimical political act,” one designed to exacerbate the Cold War. By Oct. 28, Pasternak was carrying with him a lethal dose of Nembutal, and on the following day, informing no one of his plans, he cabled Østerling again: “In view of the interpretation which this distinction has undergone in the community to which I belong, I must renounce the undeserved prize which has been awarded me. Do not be offended by my voluntary refusal.”

On the same day, he was expelled from the Writers’ Union, and the international community, which had already bestowed the highest praises on Doctor Zhivago, responded with telegrams that implored the Union to “protect” Pasternak; the British cable was signed by, among others, Eliot, Spender, Russell, Huxley, and Maugham. Unfamiliar with the politics of Soviet literature and unaware of the provocative shrewdness of Pasternak’s refusal, the Western world of the late 50’s spoke with alarm of the “Zhivago Affair.” Within two years of its original Italian publication, the novel appeared in 25 languages; Edmund Wilson, writing in The New Yorker, epitomized its reception, claiming that the novel would “stand as one of the great events in man’s literary and moral history.” Not until the appearance of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in 1973—three years after he received the Nobel Prize—would a Soviet writer garner such lavish attention. By that time, however, the war in Vietnam had begun to exact its enduring toll on the American political consciousness, and Solzhenitsyn’s travails illustrated not a series of new and horrific abuses, but a gruesome development of the old ones that Pasternak had resolutely endured. The “Zhivago Affair” introduced many Westerners to the problems and implications of political literature.

Interest not only in Soviet writers, but in all writers from totalitarian, besieged, or oppressive societies has become common enough for scores of journals to devote entire numbers to the publication and discussion of the literature. Although Paulin’s anthology is devoted largely to English, Irish, and American poetry, he includes selections by Zbigniew Herbert, Różweicz, and Holub. A careful and lucid analysis of the major traditions of political poetry, his introduction briefly analyzes the allusive literary techniques, the sleights of hand eventually mastered by the Eastern Bloc writers who would attempt the difficult task of both defining and exercising their responsibility to art and society. For Paulin, literary history has become “almost a lost art,” particularly in the United States, and Holub’s verse, for example, provides a stark reminder that only in free democracies are biography and intention ignored as interpretive fallacies. Paulin’s ideas, partly and properly methodological in nature, hone our appreciation of these poets by requiring a synthesis of critical practices: Pasternak’s politics, Pasternak’s art, Pasternak’s Shakespeare, and Pasternak’s renunciation are bound together in a finely seamed expression, at once daringly personal and cunningly public. Rarely does the word “bravery” appear in discussions of contemporary American literature; discussions of Soviet literature cannot do without it.

The extreme deprivations suffered by the Eastern Bloc writers have aroused a discernible, occasionally macabre degree of envy in many authors from the democratic countries. Poetry scratched on cakes of soap in Sibeiia would seem intrinsically more admirable than poetry written on typewriters in book-lined studies. When diagnosing the maladies of contemporary English and American poetry, critics and poets often beleaguer the verse with exotic metaphors, comparing it, for example, to “hothouse orchids”: the offending verse is either vaguely impressionistic in its precious vision or delicate and fragile in its musty versions of traditional form. In a recent number of The Yale Review, Seamus Heaney examines the ways in which translations from the Eastern Bloc writers have influenced their English and American counterparts. According to Heaney, the writer who lives in a totalitarian society is envied “not at all for the plight of the artist but for the act of faith in art which becomes manifest as the artist copes with the tyrannical conditions.” Heaney is speaking here of commitment, and to call it a purely political one narrows its range of implications. The commitments and decisions that allow a literature to survive under tyrannical conditions are not those that insure its survival in a liberal democracy; but commitment to an ideal, perspective, or aesthetic distinguishes all vigorous writing, and its absence, Heaney claims, portends a weakening of the ethical or moral force of our own poetry:

The poet in the United States, for example, is aware that the machine of reputation-making and book distribution, whether it elevates or ignores him or her, is indifferent to the moral and ethical force of the poetry being distributed. A permissive, centrally heated, grant-aided pluralism of fashions and schools, a highly amplified language of praise which becomes the language of promotion and marketing—all this which produces from among the most gifted a procession of ironists and dandies and reflexive talents produces also a subliminal awareness of the alternative conditions and an over-the-shoulder glance toward them which I have characterized as envy.

“Permissiveness,” “fashions,” “promotion,” “marketing”— this is the indicting language traditionally leveled by zealous reformers at the self-indulgent abuses of the bourgeoisie.

But a poetic language is not easily governed, even in those countries that would attempt such a government, and it develops in the hands of the poets, the best of whom, history teaches, remained skeptical of the advice meted out by worried critics or censors. It is pointless to scold “ironists and dandies” for being ironical and dandy, and as Heaney recognizes, the wistfulness that sometimes accompanies the romanticization of the Eastern Bloc writer can be equally corrosive. Sincerity, at least, is not the dandy’s affectation. Unearthing the voice of social responsibility in English literature, Paulin’s anthology provides a useful starting point for writers and critics who share Heaney’s reservations about contemporary verse, yet who find the model of the Eastern-Bloc writer admirable and ultimately—”happily” as Heaney says—unattainable.

Because anthologies represent an editor’s selection from an unwieldy body of literature, they are easy prey for those who in the course of their complaints would compile their own collection. And no one reading this volume will fail to find omissions. But to atone for these omissions, the successful anthologist gradually provides glimpses of a coherent and interpretive intelligence, one that will suggest to its reader implicit definitions of its subject. Paulin is a nimble and savvy editor, delighting in the deviously revealing juxtaposition. Fulke Greville, for example, composed his own epitaph, a model of monarchial devotion: “Fulk Grevil—Servant to Queene Elizabeth—Councellor to King James—and Frend to Sir Philip Sydney. Trophaeum Peccati.” From his long sequence, “Caelica,” poem CI ends Greville’s section in the anthology, and the poem’s governing sympathies are eloquently rendered by the couplet, “By which as kings enlarge true worth in us, / So crowns again are well enlarged thus.” From this poem, with its Elizabethan harmonies and well positioned author who was dedicated to the service of both Elizabeth and James, we proceed to the gritty, anonymous song, “Gunpowder Plot Day.” Designed by Catholic conspirators to destroy the king as he sat in Parliament, the plot was discovered and disaster averted:

Please to remember
The Fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot;
I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot

Paulin illustrates the lively oppositions of English political life in the early 17th century—and the various literary forms they assumed—with this inspired juxtaposition of Fulke Greville and Anon.

Jonson, who is represented in the anthology by “To Penshurst,” his opulent plea following James’ behest that the nobility return to their country estates, maintained an extraordinary political agility. Converting to Catholicism in the 1590’s, he nonetheless served the government as a spy against the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. And in the second decade of James’ reign, Jonson returned to the Church of England, a time when the ideas of the more moderate Arminians were beginning to find favor in the Church. “To Penshurst,” written in 1616, combines the concept of Protestant moderation (“Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show”) with one of a noble Protestant ancestry (“Sidney’s copse”), and in the anthology the poem follows close on the heels of the anonymous lyric concerning the Gunpowder Plot. Paulin’s insistence on balancing the privileged cadences of the court poet with the popular rhythms of the anonymous lyric reverberates throughout the first half of the anthology, providing a broad and fertile ground for our understanding of political poetry in the last two centuries.

The 18th century remains the great age of political verse, particularly political satire. The extended allegory of “Absalom and Achitophel,” a predictable, but necessary inclusion in Paulin’s anthology, illustrates the forceful ways in which cultural heritages—in this case, the Biblical heritage—can be manipulated to order contemporary events. Dryden was not the first to compare Charles and Monmouth with David and Absalom, but the convincing interplay he created between the two histories remains unparalleled in allegorical writing. The 18th-century reader, accustomed to receiving the peculiar wisdoms of historical allegory, was sensitive to the scandals and upheavals of contemporary life, but immune to the illusion of instability those calamitous events often promoted. The gradual ascent of historicist theory undermined our confidence in the kind of epoch-matching undertaken by the allegorist, and today traditional allegory has proven incapable of convincingly reproducing the characteristic inflections of contemporary culture.

The poetry that Paulin chooses to represent the 19th and 20th centuries bears witness to the diversity—and occasional obscurity—of political writing that followed the pantheon of public voices dominating the previous century. Arthur Hugh Clough and his untarnished republicanism have been resurrected for us, as has his fascinating relationship with Matthew Arnold. John Clare appears here, too, a poet who for some time has been shedding his mantle of minor Romanticism and assuming his rightful garb as one of the original talents of the century. Both poets, the one an erudite and deeply cultured writer, the other a master of dialectal rhythms, share the ability to create and sustain “a general historical awareness,” one of Paulin’s requirements for the political poem. The languages employed by Clough and Clare have nothing in common, but their historical awareness shares a similar integrity—the political poem in this century remains the birthright of all styles, all practitioners.

Tracing these stylistic extremes into the 20th century, Paulin arrives at some unlikely and instructive places. The Mississippi Delta produced Charlie Patton, and his blues classic “34 Blues” appears here. Showmanship and social indignation combined in varying proportions to give this music its protean points of view, but the songs provide an eloquently rendered history of black life in the Delta, and Paulin’s choice is unassailable. The puritan-republican tradition in England ends, Paulin claims, with the early Auden, the latter stages of his career espousing monarchist or Anglo-Catholic sentiments. As many critics have agreed, the latter stages of Auden’s writing are partly indebted to the Horatian celebration of domesticity and its implied apathy, but it may be premature to relegate those poems to such neat categories. Auden was one of the first English poets to grapple successfully with Eliot’s poetic model. Eliot’s verse, evolving from Prufrock’s fractured narrative to the vastly assimilative verse of “The Four Quartets,” expanded in its scope, each new poem finding its logical place in the empire of his work. Auden was frying sausages and learning to live with obesity in one of his late poems (“Since”), and if that seems a long fall from the exclusive dignities of both “Horae Canonicae” and “The Four Quartets,” it also implies a jolly and corrective skepticism concerning the imperialist strain of Eliot’s poetry.

Because this anthology presents an historical tradition, contemporary writing must receive its proportional allotment. Irish authors arrive well equipped to suit the demands of an anthology of political verse, and the Irish are well represented: Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon, of course, and Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon, and Seamus Deane, too. Montague is noticeably absent as is, politely, but unfortunately, the anthology’s editor, whose verse has sought to locate the republican tradition of a Northern Irish Protestant. Of the two Muldoon selections, “Meeting the British,” which details an episode from the French and Indian Wars, establishes obvious parallels with the contemporary Irish situation, and the poem reads as if it were the wayward progeny of the allegorical and lyrical tradition. The successful synthesis of these two traditions is one of the poem’s significant and innovative accomplishments.

Upon completion of the anthology, the doleful reader might find much contemporary verse a pale and anemic addition to the muscular genealogy Paulin presents here. But the political voice, the voice of “historical awareness,” depends upon suppleness for its survival—today’s popular song is tomorrow’s anthem. And the groundswell of popular writing exercises no privileged claim to this awareness: here is a tradition shared by T.S. Eliot and Charlie Patton. Such an odd couple recalls the extreme argument that all writing is political writing; far from the liberal camps it often frequents, the argument might well represent another manifestation of the conservative vision, “weary,” as Paulin claims, “with a quietist distaste for the topical and the new.” The anthology convincingly demonstrates that political poetry does not begin in the caucus rooms; it issues from an individual’s response to what Stevens termed “the pressure of reality,” a pressure countered by the disciplined force of the creative imagination. In the Eastern Bloc countries, this force often results in martyrdom, and as Heaney pointed out, among the many feelings that confront the Westerner who reads of these sacrifices, envy lurks insistently. But the literature of the free world has not yet shirked its defining responsibilities; Paulin’s anthology is renovative in its alignment of the contemporary sensibility, shrewd in its assessment of the historical tradition, and hopeful in its implicit prognostications.

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