Is poetry a public or private thing?
One’s love of country could be deliciously stirred by the magic of poetry:
“This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England . . .”
Historically western poetry concerned itself with very public matters. In verse we found Kingdoms and Kings, Gods and Fate, Destiny and Mysteries, and Mankind and his cities. Poetry strutted on the vast stage of great events from Ulysses to Oedipus the King, to Dante’s Divine Comedy to Shakespeare and the souls of his flawed Princes struggling in the midst of cruel happenstance.
But that all began to change last century. One wag said, “the poet has no more part in society than a monk in domestic life.”
That sentiment has become debilitating in the age of Political Correctness. Perhaps it is one reason why so much of modern American poetry is a desert of the inane, the mundane and the profane. Most modern poetry says nothing important that you cannot find canned on the cable T.V. channel of your choice. But does it have to be this way?
Could it have an impact on the public politics it once had?
Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), an American poet who studied law at Harvard and dipped his toe in the political world, said, “The very last qualification for appointment to public office by and with the advice and consent of the Senate – and I am speaking with some personal knowledge – is, in the eyes of the senators, the practice of the art of verse.”
By contrast, Shakespeare’s most memorable characters included a Moor, a Jew, a conniving and murderous woman, a crippled man,
“I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them.“
And, even more shockingly, he made fun of cross dressing, bestiality and shrewish women. One can just here the gasps!
Could a modern-day Shakespeare be expected to explore in verse his musings on the State of the State? Would his plays be boycotted, his poetry banned from the public-school system. (oops, I guess that has already been done at some colleges.)
When a man cannot become a judge because he is Catholic and member of a charitable organization as innocuous as the Knights of Columbus, when a comic is pilloried because in the past he did what comics do, make fun of groups of people, how can a poet, be expected to take a risk and hope to be published?
Poetry (and to a large extent Art) has been relegated to the private realm. And to regions safe, secure and is not allowed to deal with the messy unpredictable life of the public arena. One cannot explore the many sides of mankind, not in the public square, not ever, not in real flawed life ever, not without being crucified, if not now, at some future day, by someone, somewhere who will find offense?
As William Butler Yeats, (1865-1939), an Irish poet intensely involved in the politics of Ireland said,
“The daily spite of this unmannerly town,
Where who has served the most is the most defamed,
The reputation of his lifetime lost
Between the night and morning.”
How many men and women has that happened to of late?
It is a supreme irony that we all now live more in the public sphere than ever before. As MacLeish said, “We no longer worry much about our private souls. We worry about the soul of America or about the soul of mankind-the condition of mankind-the human condition.” Yet no longer can anything dangerous ever be publicly ventured about the condition of humankind, the basis of poetry and art.
Lastly, for the person who steps forward, lives his or her art in public, it takes extraordinary courage. And maybe we, living our private lives, should better appreciate all those brave souls who take to the public stage and make the poetry of their lives public for all to see.
“The drunkards, pilferers of public funds,
All the dishonest crowd I had driven away,
When my luck changed and they dared meet my face,
Crawled from obscurity, and set upon me
Those I had served and some that I had fed;
Yet never have I, now nor any time,
Complained of the people.”
For more writings by Phil Cline, visit philcline.com