Do Politics Ruin Poetry?

ImageOn Sunday, January 20, 2013, Richard Blanco, an openly gay Latino immigrant, delivered Barack Obama’s inauguration poem: “One Today.” It was called a “fine example of public poetry” by Entertainment Weekly, alongside the attributive adjectives “humble” and “modest.” (Although The Guardian’s review of the poem make some very fine points about it)

What all these reviewers mean to say is that the poem was boring, and if you’ve read it, you’ll probably be inclined to add on that it’s not only boring but grossly romantic and rife with cliché, invoking everything from the majestic Appalachians to proud mothers watching their children grow.

I don’t mean to be too critical on Mr. Blanco: a ‘good’ inaugural poem, one that addressed social issues rather than reiterate sentiment, would have run the risk of questioning the nature of the celebration’s optimism. Given his sexuality and nationality during this time of social upheaval, Blanco was also a prudent choice for the government to publicize its solidarity. What should be addressed though, is the fact that an inaugural poem goes against much of what true art stands for.

Maybe, if Richard Blanco didn’t want to run the risk of being labeled a rebel-rouser, he would have looked back one hundred years for his inspiration, instead of at park benches and smiling mothers. 1913 marked the time right before the breakage of the Great War, a time during which the world’s population and its collective belief in humanity would be cataclysmically disturbed. Never before had slaughter been so publically realized or so widespread as it was during the War; never before had faith in the imperialism of the state been in such doubt. For the first time in modern history, the world was made to see the price paid for its political ‘progression,’ and asked the question of whether or not it was willing to continue to pay that price.

This realization was due in no small part to the World War 1 poets, namely the English writer Wilfred Owen, who lamented the carnage and scorned those responsible in such pieces as “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” Yet while Owen’s appears to have been the foremost of the dissenting voices, his message was a mere echo from the much stronger vituperation of Joseph Conrad who, in works such as the novella Heart of Darkness (1899), lambasted the machine of imperialism that drove men to commit heinous acts of violence and, in so doing, become the eventual victims of that same violence.

Conrad was popular during his lifetime: the reviews of his work are staggering even by today’s standards, yet for all his prestige, his message of doom was ultimately rejected, as history shows us. People may have liked Conrad’s stories but they didn’t like his bad news. They ultimately chose delusion, to believe in the power and the goodness of the state rather than in the idea of its corruption. It’s no accident that Rudyard Kipling, the “prophet of British imperialism,” as the dissenting George Orwell scathingly labeled him, overshadowed Conrad throughout his lifetime and stole the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907.

Despite what Conrad or any of the other literary malcontents may tell us, a belief in the state is necessary for progress. Without the authority that writers such as Kipling celebrate, the community itself would cease to be and humanity would become nothing more than a collection of demoralized anarchists, paralyzed by mistrust. Even so, we cannot afford to do away with our rebels: with Conrad or Owen or Orwell, or to read their messages at face value before throwing them aside.

This all goes back to the inaugural poem and why it is inherently flawed. If the poem were to attack, challenge, or do anything else but celebrate the authority that commissioned it, it would be biting the hand that fed it. Thus, when the government commissions an artistic piece, the piece is immediately deprived of any social value it might have had; it becomes a way for the government to celebrate its own authority. Kipling’s famous and racist poem “The White Man’s Burden,” written originally for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, is a dangerous example of such a piece.

Whether or not we accept such ‘art’ is our own choice, though we cannot afford to do so unquestionably. Too many artists, from Conrad to Orwell to the late Chinua Achebe, have shown us the evils of political authority for us to remain blind to them.

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