NOTA BENE Of Poetry, Politics, and Populism BY TOM McCLELLAN But it was a handy little bomb to throw. George Orwell IN BRIEF: the literary left began to form when literary patronage moved from the aristocracy to the rising, reading middle class, during the last half of the Eighteenth Century. The bourgeois tend at once to romanticize artists and to view them as marginal citizens of dubious worth. Poverty and ambivalent status move one leftward. Then modern war politicized poetry in a sense Walt Whitman’s medical service during our Civil War set an example for W. H. Auden and Ernest Hemingway in Spain six decades later, when the literary left took much the form it has now. This is the question we are asking you: Are you for, or against, the legal Government and the People of Republican Spain? Are you for, or against, Franco and Facism? From Paris, writers and poets who had been in Spain asked this of their brethren in the U.K. and the U.S. Predictably, the responses wore no uniform: “!UPTHEREPUBLIC!” \(Samuel “Spain is an emotional luxury to a gang “My sympathies . . . are with the Government side, especially the TOM McClellan, who lives in Dallas, writes a regular column for the Observer. East Dallas Printing Company Full Service Union Printing 211 S. Peak Dallas, Tx 75226 “Sure I am against all of the damn “I would . . . give my right hand to prevent the agony; I would not give a flick of my finger to help either side win.” One poet who signed the questionnaire letter subsequently regretted his radicalism: British citizen Wystan Hugh Auden.. Another signer, Pablo Neruda, was later recalled from his position as Chilean consul to Madrid because of his radical antiFascism. To set them side by side is to see two disparate approaches to the problem of a writer’s responsibility in political matters. Wystan Hugh Auden was not so gauche as Percy Shelly, who from his hotel window rained revolutionary pamphlets down upon the Irish poor who could not read them, but his high-toned socialism falls into much the same category; his democratic sentiments allowed him to seduce the mechanic from the local gas station as cheerfully as he did fellow British poet Louis MacNiece. Following his involvement in the Spanish Civil War, Auden moved away from Marx and into the Anglican communion. When he dealt seriously with the matter of poetry and politics in his elegy for W. B. Yeats throwaway part of a poet’s vita; seen through the ancient eyes of Time, Yeats’ Irish nationalism, like the British chauvinism of Rudyard Kipling, proves ephemeral: She Worships language and forgives, Everyone by whom it lives. Time, who with this rich excuse Pardoned Kipling and his views, And shall. pardon Paul Claudel, Pardons [Yeats] for writing well Nationalism obstructs socialism, so Yeats’ politics opposed Auden’s. But good writing, so speak these lines, transcends an ephemeral cause. For Auden, the main disadvantage to being a poet was that the means to one’s goal was the common lingo, when one’s metier was precise and uncommon as mathematics, and caviar to the general. His was an intellectual’s populism. When a journalist asked his opinion on Vietnam, 30 years after the Paris questionnaire, he replied: “Why writers should be canvassed for their opinions on controversial political issues, I cannot imagine. Their views have no more authority than that .of any reasonably well-educated citizen.” He was of course widely quoted and requoted. Neruda’s populism was born of spirit conjugating the flesh of experience: The human crowd has been the lesson of my life. 1 can come to it with the born timidity of the poet .. . but once I am in its midst, I feel transfigured. I am part of the essential majority, I am one more leaf on the great human tree. Auden’s option, to find the roots of one’s humanism in a branch of the Catholic faith, was denied Neruda, whose church excommunicated him. For a Catholic, unqualified materialism, even with the help of de Chardin, is not possible; the church most oppose Marx on theological grounds, whatever political motives may be attributed to it for doing so. Auden backed away from Marxism; Neruda transformed his art into a religion; the lowercase Word became his Eucharist: I drink to the word lifting the word, the crystalline cup. in her I drink the wine of idiom and living water from all words’ maternal source. Neruda has the greater force because he is Neruda, while Auden is merely a genius. Still, both men spoke with integrity, and for both the poet must serve two sacred causes, the human and his language. First this: In the deserts of the heart Let the healing fountain start, In the prison of his days Teach the Free man how to praise. Then this: To one who cannot hear the sea this Friday morning, one who is cooped up in any house, office, factory, or woman or street or mine or dry calaboose, to that one I come, dumb and blind, I’m here to open that prison door. You know who wrote which already. l8 APRIL 28, 1989
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