Thursday, November 6, 2008

Elections 2008 and the Ezra Pound Problem

Can a fascist ever be a good poet? I'm not making the value judgment here of demanding an artist be politically correct. If Christopher Hitchens wanted to write a poem in praise of Dick Cheney, well, more power to him, provided he sobers up first. Rather, I'm asking if someone who espouses a doctrine that overtly destroys dialog, demands compliance, and punishes those who stray, can ever be considered a worthy artist. I answer this in the negative. Ezra Pound was a shitty poet because he was fascist. Similarly, hagiographers to Stalin or Mugabe can never be assessed as genuine artists because they are making the case for closed minds, not open ones.

Now I don't take this too far, particularly because many people believe that only a partially troubled life can yield good art. On the Ted Hughes/Sylvia Plath dispute, for example, I will acknowledge some sympathy for Hughes, since he made some attempt to provide Plath with a good atmosphere, and Plath's troubles were so deep-seated, Hughes ultimately was not responsible for her suicide. But I would say that a serial abuser of women, like a serial killer, cannot be considered a worthwhile artist because their personal foibles trump their personal visions.

In the aftermath of the election, I've seen some essays and blogs that mimic the kind of language one hears from extreme evangelicals or racists. These people are sure that a Democrat victory gives rise to insta-socialism (just add water), and that anyone who voted for Obama is a dupe for some undefined conspiracy. I don't drink Obama Kool-Aid. Like Hillary Clinton, Obama was a flawed, centrist candidate with Democratic Leadership Council support. But he has an honest intent, and it sure as hell is clear that he's no more socialist than George Bush, post-bank-nationalization.

One expects to see myth-based pseudo-thought from the religious right, because the devout value faith-based truth more than rational discussion - in fact, they shy away from the scientific method as the devil's own. One does not expect to see it from writers and artists. There are plenty of neocons who love to debate issues with liberals and radicals, and more power to them. But there are writers and artists who assume that Obama's election means the world has come to an end, and they are not willing to discuss these issues. Such people are hagiographers for faith-based truth, and have no right to be considered artists in a post-Enlightenment world. An artist does not function as a toady for closed faiths, closed minds, closed political systems, or closed cultures. This is why Ezra Pound sucked by nature.


Ruth said...

I’m so far from being a Pound scholar that to say I don’t agree with your ‘shitty’ assessment may not count. I have really only studied one poem of his, The River Merchant's Wife, a Letter. What he did to launch imagist poetry can’t be discounted, giving encouragement to the likes of William Carlos Williams, Yeats and Marianne Moore. But sometimes one leads others to achieve what they themselves can’t or don’t. And you may be right about Pound’s work in general. I’m not an Eliot fan either, but I love Prufrock. They helped launch modernity, and that is no small feat.

I totally agree with you that a poet should not be a closed-minded anything. Any body of work, to be respectable, has to demonstrate basic openness to the possible connectedness of everything. What are the connections between, say, a lead pipe and being unable to bear children? It is the artist’s job to make the connections, to show, and not tell. By the end of the poem, the reader feels he always understood how a lead pipe and a woman’s (or a man’s I suppose) inability to bear children were connected.

If you accept that, then the connectedness of all things says you as a poet can’t bury yourself in a bunker. Those steel walls shut out too many connections.

If an artist tries to “tell” – to drive home a message - then she is no longer an artist. I think most political poetry doesn’t work. Not to say good ranting poems don’t work. They do. But it’s hard to write a good ranting poem.

I agree with you. Tell me if I missed the point.

As I wrote this, it occurred to me that like some figureheads of movements (Pound and Eliot) Obama may also be an agent launching change in ways he himself won’t or can’t achieve in these next 4-8 years. He may not be considered a successful president when it’s said and done. But his election alone is such a change that maybe that is what will be remembered and valued. I hope he will be successful, but that is quite a subjective term in that job, eh?

Great post.

Loring Wirbel said...

I think one can try to write a good rant, though an oblique glancing blow is better than a tirade. Dylan's absurdisms were always better than his direct statements, though Phil Ochs did pretty well with direct statements. But the poet should remember that the symbol and thing signified may only be true for her or him,and maybe only for a tiny moment in time, and not a universal truism. I have trouble deciding what I think about the Islamic poets in Snow, for example. If a poem insists on the sharia, is it less genuine?

Ruth said...

How about if a filmmaker is Leni Riefenstahl and the film is "Triumph of the Will"? If that isn't art, what is?

John G said...

This makes sense to me, just because you are a good poet does not mean you are an artist.

Loring Wirbel said...

"Triumph of the Will": pure sophistry. Leni: amateurish acolyte. (Obviously I'm having fun with this.)

Loring Wirbel said...

I shouldn't be so flippant. In all honesty, I tend to judge people (both famous and ones I personally know) on a multi-dimensional "grade on the curve." If they get 5 on environnment but 2 on civil rights, it all evens out in the wash. But if they get zero on a dimension, they flunk Humanities. Someone who is a great writer and philanthropist but is also a misogynist, for example, flunks as a human. Harsh, sure, but it discourages failing grades.

Sharon said...

(I wrote this before your last comment. I'll have to think about what you just said:)

What a loaded post.
Pound may have sucked as a human being but that is neither here nor there when assessing one of his poems. In discussing a poem that specifically espouses a particular “agenda” than the validity of it’s message and the writers intent/beliefs is a fair barometer of worth for that particular piece. An entire life’s work can also be homogeneously judged for it’s content, but such judgments are personal and not necessarily reflective of the artist. People are complex and even the most flawed of us can at times be a vessel for, and producer of, great insight and beauty; at times born out of, or visible only in comparison to, utter vile. As for whether or not a person is “worthy” of the title of artist, or whether or not his work is “worthwhile” are two completely separate issues. The title artist is a very broad term, completely subjective, and often aggrandizing and pretentious. There are few historians who would discount the artistic merit of The Venus of Willendorf. It stands alone as a great work without context to its creator. It is generally held to be, in itself, worthwhile art. Its creator however could have embodied atrocities beyond our imaginations, we don’t know. So I guess what I am saying is that even through a closed mind/heart can (perhaps unintentionally) come insight and enlightenment. Some of the biggest Neanderthals can be our most powerful teachers, illuminating and enlightening the receptive. Which doesn’t mean that they don’t suck, or that they aren’t artists.

Loring Wirbel said...

Beautifully said, Sharon!

Loring Wirbel said...

I should add, Sharon, that my impetus for writing this was not only the Amy post, but thinking about those who work for "art for the state" or whatever and try to repress others, such as the "social realism" artists of the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Like Leni Riefenstahl in the Third Reich, such artists not only were promoting their own twisted visions, but trying to silence the visions of others. The analogy in science was Lysenkoism as a counter to Darwinism - serious scientists said that Lysenko was not merely wrong, but no longer deserved to be called a "scientist" due to bastardizing his work for an external cause. When one tries to shut down the give-and-take of opinions, the equivalent of putting fingers in ears and saying "la la la I can't hear you", their work should be shunned as not deserving of being appreciated and critiqued by others.

Ruth said...

I agree with what Sharon wrote, and I disagree with where you've gotten to here, Loring. I may not like an artist because of their life choices, but that does not make them less of an artist. I don't think you can compare a scientist squelching scientific facts with an artist who promotes their own vision, however warped and vile. Censoring art for any reason is unacceptable. But I know that you and I also differ on tolerance, and the question of tolerating intolerant people. I do, you don't.

When a range of emotions bubbles up watching "Triumph of the Will", in spite of the disgusting realities of what it propogandized, it is art. It does not necessarily follow that I like the artist or the art. That is a different issue.

Ruth said...

I think I just contradicted myself in my first comment. And I'm fine with that.

Fun stuff.

Ruth said...

I went back to your "I shouldn't be so flippant" comment, and I realize you are talking the bigger picture of being human, not just being an artist. I agree, if an artist is great at what they do, who gives a dried fig about that if their life is a testament to cruelty? They might hang their masterpieces in a gallery, and I would not attend.

Loring Wirbel said...

Oh, I would never censor art, Ruth! I am talking about judging their validity to promote a vision. Obviously, much of this is tongue-in-cheek, but I have always completely ignored Jesus' dictum to "judge not and ye shall not be judged," and I've also rejected the philosophy that "everyone gets a voice at the table." If you are Pol Pot and your view depends on massive urban massacre to fulfill a vision, then you have no right to express your view in an open UN-style discussion (that is why I would be so hesitant to say the Taliban would have anything legitimate to say to anyone). If an artist has a vision that demands silence from the crowds observing and obedience to the views expressed, well, they can recite that poem or hang that painting, but the crowds should say, "We will not abide by your demand not to critique, and we will not accord your vision any validity."

Ruth said...


wretch said...

In discussing the Pounds and the Riefenstahls, I suspect there's a case to be made for distinguishing between Art and artistry. I'm not really qualified to be the guy to do it, but I'd like to hear the discussion.

The Venus reference brings up another notion, that once someone sends their creation out into the world, it's no longer entirely theirs -- others are then free to appreciate it based on what their interpretations of it.

oops, gotta run.