Perhaps, in the future, historians will ponder why the later 20th and the 21st century felt compelled to make everything of national importance. Completely made up “holidays”—such as National Bosses’ Day and National Mustard Day—will be fodder for many future doctoral dissertations and historical debates. It may even be wondered why some of these “holidays” spilled out from their twenty-four hour bed and infected an entire month, such as what has happened now with the month of April being consigned to “National Poetry Month.”
Now, there is nothing wrong with poetry per se; poetry is a very beautiful art form when it is done correctly. The irony, though, is that now that “National Poetry Month” is an official purpose for April, the quality of poems and the poets who pen them have declined compared to when poetry was not seen as having to be given a month in which to be commemorated but was a universal art form that was appropriate and heralded throughout the year. This thought was recently placed in my head when I stumbled across a piece by Diana Whitney on the website Ozy.com. Miss Whitney listed five women poets that, according to her, should be read because their work will inspire “the resistance.” The common theme running through these five poets is the unapologetic dedication to contemporary, left-wing politics. Evie Shockley’s poetry addresses race, gender, “stands up” for “gay marriage” and Black Lives Matter, and “exposes Thomas Jefferson’s racism,” while JP Howard has declared that her identities as a black woman, a lesbian, a “wife” and a mother, inform and inspire her poetry, which she has read in front of one of President Trump’s tower during “a recent vigil.” Even when there may not be a particular, political message in the poetry or book, the climate of the poetry is still definitely in the realm of the political. Sharon Olds, who is so well secluded from the general public’s gaze that she won a Pulitzer Prize, pens poetry that, “[t]hough not explicitly political…refuses to play by patriarchal rules” since her new collection, Odes, “celebrate[s] the clitoris and hymen praise[s] stretch marks and withered cleavage.”
It is very true that poetry can be quite political. James Ryder Randall, for example, penned his poem, “Maryland! My Maryland!” after he learned that the Union Army had entered that state in order to keep it from linking hands with the growing Confederate States. No sane man could accuse Randall of being unpolitical as every stanza screams against the perceived injustice committed against his home state:
The despot’s heel is on thy shore,
His torch is at thy temple door,
Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland! My Maryland!
Hark to an exiled son’s appeal,
My mother State! to thee I kneel,
For life and death, for woe and weal,
Thy peerless chivalry reveal,
And gird thy beauteous limbs with steel,
Maryland! My Maryland!
Thou wilt not cower in the dust,
Thy beaming sword shall never rust,
Remember Carroll’s sacred trust,
Remember Howard’s warlike thrust, –
And all thy slumberers with the just,
Maryland! My Maryland!
Not only was Randall’s poem political but it was also powerfully contemporary for 1861; Randall was not reaching out for universals at first glance but was speaking in the context of a very specific event. But, it cannot be denied that though the motivation and the event which birthed the poem were specific, many of the themes woven throughout the poem were completely universal. There is the love of homeland, which moved Randall to write his poem in the first place; there is the continuation of history and tradition, seen in the reference to Charles Carroll and John Eager Howard, both Revolutionary patriots; and then, there is the certainty that Maryland is the defender of goodness and truth, since she is seen as having “peerless chivalry” and her limbs are to be bound with steel and her sword—the weapon of the knight—will never rust. Randall’s poem is actual poetry then, because it was beautiful, as it spoke of beautiful things.
Beauty is a concept that can be tricky to pin down. We are often are—or at least were—assailed with the phrase, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but like with subjectivism in general, it cannot stand on its own two feet. One person may look at a golden sunset after a thunderstorm in the middle of summer and see beauty; another man may look at a pile of garbage or a rotting corpse and see beauty. According to the well worn saying, both objects of admiration, the sunset and the garbage or the corpse, are equally beautiful because they find their worth thrust upon them by their gazers. But it should not take much to see that every real person should and would choose the sunset over the garbage, just as we would expect a person to accept a gold brick in payment instead of a mud brick. But the question then, still remains: What is beauty? The philosopher, Roger Scruton, is correct when he says that beauty is a sense of the sacred and of the sublime. This is more correct than even Sir Roger may be aware of since beauty must tie in somehow with the sacred since it is one of the three transcendentals that, ultimately, lead to God. Peter Kreeft, another of the few true giants of our time, following in the footsteps of C.S. Lewis, has said that the three transcendentals are Truth, Goodness and Beauty with each one being related to an aspect of humanity. Truth, which is the revelation or the showing of Being (What Really Is), is related to the mind and in allowing the truth inside, the mind can see what truly is; Goodness relates to the will and Beauty to the heart. Not only are the three transcendentals related to different aspects of a person but they are also intimately linked with one another. Truth is true because it conforms to reality; Goodness is good because it is true; Beauty is beautiful because it is good. This leads to an interesting detail; if Truth is universal (which it must be or else it is not truth) then Beauty, being so intimately related to Truth, must also be universal. Beauty must be able to cut across time and space and present itself to be seen by every man who has and ever will live. O course, the different paths taken by history in the different parts of the world, as well as the different languages and cultures that dot the world and its past, mean that there have been different expressions of Beauty over time. The poetry of the Orient and the Occident is one obvious example, but even in Europe, poetry differed between ages. But does not follow from this that there are no universals at all. Although the expressions were different, they show each culture approaching the sacred. To take honor as an example: both the medieval knight and the samurai believed in honor but each had a different way of expressing their honor. The knight was to protect the weak and defenseless while the samurai was to ritually kill himself to regain his honor in case of defeat or dishonor.
Poetry, as one of the arts, has, as its goal, the expression of Beauty. Its end is to give expression to those universal truths that tie humanity together and to allow people to encounter the sacred. Of course, authentic love is one of those universal truths of which the poets have sung the most. Even a poet of lesser quality can be inspired to compose a masterpiece when love overtakes his heart. The Cavalier poet, Richard Lovelace, is not one of the brightest names in the book of poets but his “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars,” is a tender expression both of the love he possesses for his Lucasta and the love he has for higher things:
TELL me not, Sweet, I am unkind,
That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind
To war and arms I fly.
True, a new mistress now I chase,
The first foe in the field;
And with a stronger faith embrace
A sword, a horse, a shield.
Yet this inconstancy is such
As thou too shalt adore;
I could not love thee, Dear, so much,
Loved I not Honour more.
There is the universal love of man for woman expressed but also the equally important duty of men to love honor and ideals as well, the need to stand and fight for what is right, a sentiment that often seems overclouded today. But Lovelace’s inspiration was to see that these loves are not in opposition but that his love for Lucasta demanded that he go to war for, if he did not stay true to his principles, would he stand up for her? Of course, when it comes to the theme of love, Shakespeare is the undisputed master. Many of his plays—comedies and tragedies—have love as their central force. It is also, unsurprisingly, the theme of many of his sonnets, with Sonnet 29 being one of the most well remembered:
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
The Bard had a keen understanding into human nature and knew that a man could always be envious of another man’s successes and often would be. But, even in all that, the love of the lover is supposed to bring him back to the world, in a sense, and remind him of what he has and not of what he does not. And what he has is infinitely more precious than anything that he does not.
Not all truths, of course, are happy. Some are quite sad. That may be why death is also such a constant theme in poetry since it is the one thing that every inhabitant of the world will have to encounter. There is dispute in literary circles whether Edgar Allen Poe was moved to write “Annabelle Lee” because of the death of his wife, Virginia, or whether another woman acted as the muse for. At the end, it really does not matter from the perspective of the beauty of the poem as Poe ably put to paper the sorrow felt of having lost one’s love. If Shakespeare and Lovelace’s poems gave quiet assurance of love and its power, Poe displayed the truth of pain after the love is lost by death:
The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.
But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.
But even though a poem may express an unhappy truth, that does not mean that death and loss are the only subjects which the poet can speak. Percy Shelly’s “Ozymandias” is an elegant and sobering laugh in the face of hubris and the belief that momentary greatness will somehow shield one from death or from the sands of history and, more generally, what occurs when man makes himself the end of his own existence:
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Allowing the reader to come near to the sacred by expressing universal truths is not the only thing that makes a poem beautiful though; the elements of composition, such as rhyme, meter, rhythm, also play a hand. This has to do because of what Aristotle taught concerning beauty, that beauty is that which is pleasing to the senses because the parts are proportionate to the whole which they make. To give the obvious example of the Mona Lisa: da Vinci’s most famous painting would not have lasted in the mind of the world for as long as it has if the painted woman possessed warts, crossed-eyes or a balloon nose. Instead, since every part of her fits in proportion to the rest of her body, the Mona Lisa is not a freak or an oddity but a beautiful woman whose small smile has enchanted and puzzled people for centuries. The same principle holds in poetry. Language is musical, in that it can flow and dance with a magic and energy that one usually does not find in the commonplace college textbook. In order to flow, however, the words cannot be thrown into a bag and mixed in the hopes that it will come out right. Just as in a musical composition, where the notes must follow the tempo and the key of the piece or movement, so, in poetry, the words and rhythm must fit together. An illustrative example of this is Percy Shelly’s “Ode to the West Wind” in which Shelly recreates the wind itself through the chosen words:
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!
Through the use of alliteration (the repetition of a consonant sound) coupled with the use of single syllable words in the opening, “O wild, West Wind,” the sound and the feel of the west wind itself is placed into the poem; the rhymes hold the poem in audible unison and their placement in the poem, in a more erratic style (compare it to the placements of the rhymes in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29), the unpredictability, the sudden starting and stopping of the wind is made manifest.
Poetry, in its greatest and most pure essence, if we may give over to hyperbole for one moment, is a combination of matter and form, in true Aristotelian fashion: the matter is the words, chosen for their rhythm, rhyme, meter and tempo and the form is the universal truth or truths which the poem deals with. With that very technical definition expressed, it might be better seen why the five women poets, uplifted by Ozy, are not really poets at all. This is not merely to attack them since there may not be very many actual poets left in the West. Last year, the UK Daily Mail ran a story detailing how the Poet Laureate of Britain, Carol Ann Duffy, instead of celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday in verse, as was customary with other laureates, had announced that she was writing a poem about the coin fed gas meters that were going to be completely replaced by 2020. As the author of the piece, Christopher Hart, said at the time, other laureates, such as Tennyson and Mansfield, had written of beautiful things, England being one of those beautiful things. But, in the modern age, where universal things such as love of one’s country or the love of natural things, such as the sea, is viewed with suspicion and scorn, there really is nothing left to talk about. And that is the rub: the modern poets have dismissed the reality of beauty and universal truths in general. This phenomena extends back prior to the Second World War; Roger Scruton says that the desecration of beauty began sometime after the coming of modernism when expression, not beauty, was made the primary end of art. Scruton says:
In a seminal essay—“Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” published in Partisan Review in 1939—critic Clement Greenberg starkly contrasted the avant-garde of his day with the figurative painting that competed with it, dismissing the latter (not just Norman Rockwell, but greats like Edward Hopper) as derivative and without lasting significance. The avant-garde, for Greenberg, promoted the disturbing and the provocative over the soothing and the decorative, and that was why we should admire it.
The value of abstract art, Greenberg claimed, lay not in beauty but in expression. This emphasis on expression was a legacy of the Romantic movement; but now it was joined by the conviction that the artist is outside bourgeois society, defined in opposition to it, so that artistic self-expression is at the same time a transgression of ordinary moral norms. We find this posture overtly adopted in the art of Austria and Germany between the wars—for example, in the paintings and drawings of Georg Grosz, in Alban Berg’s opera Lulu (a loving portrait of a woman whose only discernible goal is moral chaos), and in the seedy novels of Heinrich Mann. And the cult of transgression is a leading theme of the postwar literature of France—from the writings of Georges Bataille, Jean Genet, and Jean-Paul Sartre to the bleak emptiness of the nouveau roman.
Because Beauty is intimately tied to Truth, when Beauty was run out of the world of art, so was Truth. The result is that poetry cannot be about anything really substantial but can only be about the subjective feeling of the poet. Now, poetry has often been fueled by feeling but, again, those feelings were tied to the universal truths that poetry also expressed. The poet’s feelings were his own experiences with those universal truths. But now, with the eradication of Beauty in favor of “expression,” there is nothing holding poetry except to the poet’s own will to power. This can lead–and has lead–to several deteriorations in poetry.
One such deterioration, as mentioned previously, is that much poetry today is fueled by politics. Again, poetry before modernity could delve into politics to some degree but the difference is that the politics was relative to the universal truth which the poet was giving voice. Without those universals, however, politics can be seen as all that there is in the world, the only thing that we scattered, atomistic, pieces of humanity can share in common. Art can only be about politics and from there, it is only a short step to saying that poetry can only be about the right sort of politics which is why so much modern poetry concerns the affairs du jour of the left today. But there is another deterioration. If poetry, and art in general, is only about expression, then we are quickly taken to very strange places. In her poem, “Any Lit,” Harryette Mullins writes:
You are a ukulele beyond my microphone
You are a Yukon beyond my Micronesia
You are a union beyond my meiosis
You are a unicycle beyond my migration
You are a universe beyond my mitochondria
You are a Eucharist beyond my Miles Davis
You are a euphony beyond my myocardiogram
You are a unicorn beyond my Minotaur
You are a eureka beyond my maitai
You are a Yuletide beyond my minesweeper
You are a euphemism beyond my myna bird
Perhaps my mind is not sophisticated enough to understand the meaning of the poem but it seems to be held together by chaos. In fact, chaos seems to be at least one of the points since the author highlighting Mullins, Adam Fitzgerald, praises “the mayhem” of the poem, asking, “Who else writes like this?” What is the connection between a unicycle and a migration and how is the poet the former and the person to whom she is speaking the latter? Or, again, what is the connection between “a Yuletide,” and a minsweeper? Why is the poem only a series of comparisons between the poet and a second person made of incomprehensible comparisons? With objective Beauty, these would be serious questions but with expression as the only end of art, and expression that transgresses especially, these concerns fade into the distance and disappear. But things do not just remain chaotic with the inversion of art. They can become evil. In the same piece, Adam Fitzgerald also highlights Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, a self proclaimed, “trans poet.” The poem which Fitzgerald chooses to highlight reads:
sometimes in a moment of deja vu
I forget where I am and my hands bleed
into the bed and the bed bleeds into the wall.
there are colors becoming other colors
and it doesn’t mean anything.
this is always happening and we never notice.
what’s a layer?
we’re touching through layers.
two tin cans and infinite strings in all directions.
talk to me. say something.
use words I don’t have to go back
to college to understand.
do you care that the world is trash?
I do. I am trash.
I’m in love with the feeling of it.
The same cacophonous mixture is present here but, mixed in, is the idea that the world is trash, the poet is trash and that he loves the is in love with the feeling of the world and himself being trash. The world can be uncaring; it can be cruel; it can be harsh. All great poets have acknowledged that fact. But to describe the world as trash is to say that all is ugly, corrupted and rotted, and that there is no goodness at all to be found in the world. Not only that, but to say that one loves the feeling of the world being nothing but trash is to rebel against the natural longing for Beauty and Goodness which we all hold. It is to make oneself ugly in the service of ugliness.
Compare the poetry of today, one more time, with “Sea Fever,” which John Masefield, another Poet Laureate of England, wrote:
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
What so many of the modern poems and poets lack is a sense of wonder, which Aristotle said was the beginning of wisdom. They have been so consumed by their own cynicism and by the lie of expressionism that wonder has shriveled and withered away. It is another paradox that in trying to be free of wonder, modern poets have restricted themselves to the point where they are the prisoners, trying to hold the rest of the world hostage. G.K. Chesterton wrote poems ranging from doggerel to epics, a feat he was able to accomplish because he saw the wonder and Beauty of the world, and captured that wonder and Beauty in his verse. What Chesterton and all the great poets understood was that man needs Beauty, just as surely as he needs air and water. As Roger Scruton, again, argues, the fact that we take extra time in setting the family table for the Thanksgiving or Christmas feast, bringing out the good silver and dishes and table clothes, demonstrates our need for beauty that goes beyond beautiful paintings and poems. We need beauty in our everyday humdrum lives. We require this beauty because he are heads and hearts. Rationality encompasses both. We need Beauty in order that our rationality may be more fully fulfilled. And we need Beauty to guide us along the path to Being itself.