I recently reviewed Leo Yankevich’s latest collection, and only just read an interview with Mr. Yankevich given by the publisher, Counter-Currents. I stand by what praise I gave the volume, in spite of Mr. Yankevich’s own admission that “One of the central themes of…Tikkun Olam is the destructiveness of Jewish power.” Such connotations never once occurred to me, and without getting too couched in politically correct apologies, I am not an anti-Semite, and I enjoyed the poetry as much as I reject its apparent anti-Semitism.
The point to be made here is that one can reject the politics of a poet—even of an individual poem—and still admire the art.
Mr. Yankevich claims that “all art is propaganda whether its creator intends it to be or not.” This is not true. Mr. Yankevich is (ironically) buying into on the central tenet of the Marxist theory of literature, as laid out by Walter Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Mr. Benjamin asserts that art has one of two functions: the ritual, or the political. In the modern world, “instead of being based on ritual, [art] begins to be based on another practice – politics.” Communism and Fascism, he supposes, were the first two political movements to embrace the politicization of art: “[The] situation of politics…Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.” In other words, Fascism aestheticizes politics; Communism politicizes aesthetics. What Mr. Yankevich posits is, in fact, this supposed Fascist theory of art, which is practically indistinguishable from the Marxist.
That is not to say we need to take Marxists exactly at their word. For Walter Benjamin, there was only one religion—Kabbalah—and only one politics—Marxism. While Kabbalistic art is purposefully religious, Western art has long since drifted to and fro the central axis of Christianity, with such devoutly Catholic poets as T.S. Eliot praising and admiring more ambiguous, and perhaps sacrilegious, novelists like James Joyce. But the wider point, perhaps, is this: Art can either serve political ends, or it can serve some other ends.
What those ends are is the topic for another conversation. But let us be clear: Poetry very certainly should serve that “other purpose,” if only because, as a political medium, poetry is useless. I detected no anti-Semitism or Semitophobia whatsoever in Mr. Yankevich’s verse, and certainly did not come away from the book feeling privy to a secret “Jewish power” conspiracy. I would not call myself an anti-Communist so much as a non-Communist: I do not oppose Communism anymore than I oppose other systems I think are erroneous; and yet Tikkun Olam is a self-declared piece of anti-Communist propaganda.
In fact, Mr. Yankevich’s collection convinced me of nothing but his merits as a poet.
But lest we should think this is more a reflection on Mr. Yankevich’s poetic talent, consider the legacy of Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier.” It is a famous little sonnet that starts,
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
I quite like the poem, in part because of my supposed Anglophilia and in part because I am fond of World War I poetry in general. But a professor of mine, lecturing on First World War sonnets, read the poem from start to finish; paused; and said, “I’m Welsh.” That was enough. Never mind that the tens of thousands of Australians, Canadians, Indians, or even the hundreds of thousands of Americans who also died in World War I. Welsh nationalism had stuffed the poem up for this acclaimed and brilliant young Shakespeare scholar. “The Soldier” is a beautiful piece of propaganda, but it is one that can easily be disliked and dismissed if one rejects the politics. Whether that is the fault of the poet or the reader is irrelevant, though I suspect it is not exactly “blameworthy” at all. The point is this: Someone predisposed toward a certain political, religious, or philosophical position may enjoy or take heart from a poem like “The Soldier,” but it is not going to change any minds. A convinced pacifist-internationalist isn’t going to pick up Brooke and become a hawkish nationalist. Nor, really, should they: We would hope such a tremendous change of heart would be informed by practical and moral considerations—even above aesthetic ones. Without a doubt, any practical point we have to make about politics is better said in prose than poetry. Better to read a logical, well-constructed essay on the pros or cons of entering the First World War than Brooke or Siegfried Sassoon, respectively.
On the other hand, we have profoundly Conservative poets who’have undoubtedly established themselves as canonical. That this continues to occur in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in notable cases such as Eliot’s, means their poetry has convinced a predominantly left-wing circle of academics and critics. While Eliot himself wrote a number of famously anti-Semitic poems (notably “Gerontion” and “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar”), our progressive and Marxist literati—many of whom would officially support Mr. Benjamin’s theory of political poetry—have not even tried to blacklist Eliot. This is, of course, because, regardless of his political views, Eliot was a matchless poet. The same is true of Pound, an ardent Fascist and Yeats, an aristocratic elitist. Though this may yet change, as it stands Conservative poets are not persecuted for their political views. (The exception that proves the rule is Roy Campbell, an outspoken South African Francoist.)
Likewise, I think it would be self-evidently ridiculous to reject the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Louis Macniece because they were left-wing. Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” is a terrible poem. It’s a mangled tract for bourgeois degeneracy written in choppy, artless prose. Lord Alfred Douglas’s “Two Loves” is also more or less a tract for bourgeois degeneracy, but as a poem it is far better constructed. I admire Lord Douglas, and I do not think his themes would seriously alienate a Conservative reader.
We do not have to feel at all threatened by the political views of a poet, nor do we have any evidence whatsoever to say that, (a) a great poem’s right-wing politics is alienating to a left-wing reader, or vice versa; or (b) poetry goes very far toward effectively articulating a certain political view. It would be as silly to judge a poem by its politics as it would be to judge Das Kapital by the quality of its prose. Their aims are entirely distinct. (Some exceptions being the didactic poetry of Dryden, et al.)
So what, then, is poetry’s relationship with politics? That, too, is probably a topic for another conversation. But if we can agree that the poetic and the political are at least distinct, we should also acknowledge that they need noy(and perhaps cannot) be entirely divorced. The poet definitely should not rely on how correct he thinks his politics are, as it won’t compensate for any shoddy poetics. Rather, a poem dwelling on political themes should be held to the same standard as a poem dwelling on nature, or love, or religion: the poetic standard; that is, the execution of poetics. What this entails is, again, too lengthy to be discussed here. But as readers, academics, and critics, we should be careful not to prejudice ourselves for or against a poem or poet because we agree with their philosophy. Anyone primarily interested in religion should write and critique theology; anyone primarily interested in politics should go directly to politics. Poetry, when not addressing its own medium, will frustrate the reader, the writer, and the poem itself.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.