Wednesday, October 08, 2014

`A Servant of Tradition, Wary of Change'

I happened upon a poetry anthology a reader can actually enjoy because it contains the work of good poets who enjoy what they’re doing. That ought to be tautological but good poets, good poems and enjoyment of same are disappearing like toadstools in a drought. No loyalty oaths or declarations of virtue are mandatory for readers of The Conservative Poets (University of Evansville Press, 2006), edited by the poet William Baer, but a sense of humor, contempt for cant, and a love of wit and craft are useful. Baer sticks to contemporaries but his standards are high, and in this his collection recalls another anthology, The Quest for Reality (1969), edited by Yvor Winters and Kenneth Fields. 

Not a poem in the anthology is overtly political in the banal sense, but all suggest respect for individuals and tradition, literary and otherwise. All ignore, as Baer writes in his preface, the fashionable irrelevancies -- “gender, race, sexuality, and even political events.” He says: 

“In the war against cultural decadence, the poets in this anthology would surely oppose most, if not all, of the following: utopianisms, all totalitarianisms (Marxism and Fascism), all socialisms and utilitarianisms, over-centralized government, economic levelling, excessive taxation, the unconstitutional over-reaching of the Supreme Court, the vitriolic attacks on religion, the hyper-sexualization of the media, abortion, the biased press, the decline of discipline and serious scholarly content in the nation’s schools, etc.”  

Nothing exotic, nothing mouthed solely to conform to chic orthodoxies, just common sense. All sixteen poets, of course, eschew free verse and practice what Baer calls “more traditional metric.” The poets form not a monolithic movement but a gathering of artistic and moral kinships. “Some, myself included,” Baer says, “would even tend to see the underlying structure of meter as a poetic representation of the provident order of God’s universe.” A persistent theme among the contributors is satirizing the debasement of literature in universities. Here is Joseph S. Salemi’s “Advice to the English Department”: 

“Instead of Reading Marx and Hegel
Have yourself a cream cheese bagel
Skip Foucault, ignore Lacan—
Order up a coq au vin.
Sick of texte by Derrida?
Cherchez la cuisine, comme ça.
People who are in the know
Turn to escalopes de veau
Rather than get mental canker
Wading through some verbose wanker.” 

Baer contributes “Lecture,” a neat takedown of academic pomposity: 

“The hip professor lectured to his class
This afternoon, but not a sound was heard,
which looked quite odd, and certainly didn’t pass
unnoticed, but no one said a word.
Why bother? His students had better things to think
About: their dreams, and loves, and wedding rings,
and where they’d eat tonight, and what they’d drink,
and death, and cancer, and serious family things.
He finished. Class dismissed. It was, he thought,
his best performance of the year. A notion
his students supported, having never bought his
his clever cynicism and self-promotion,
thinking it’s better to learn nothing today
than learn whatever crap he couldn’t say.” 

See also “For the Woman Who Shrieked at Couplets” by the great David Middleton, including these lines: 

“Free love is like free verse, wedded love’s like rhyme,
True freedom found in law, timelessness in time.
Such wisdom exists beyond the single man
So let us try to attain it if we can
studying God’s details, the vivid facts
From which conceptual mind then abstracts . . .” 

In that poem, Middleton describes himself, winningly, as “A servant of tradition, wary of change, / I hold to manners rooted in the past / That unlike the floating moment may well last.” I wish I had known A.M. Juster’s “Cancer Prayer” in time to share it with D.G. Myers: 

“Dear Lord,
Please flood her nerves with sedatives
and keep her strong enough to crack a smile
so disbelieving friends and relatives
can temporarily sustain denial. 

“Please smite that intern in oncology
who craves approval from department heads. 

“Please ease her urge to vomit, let there be
kind but flirtatious men in nearby beds.
“Given her hair, consider amnesty
for sins of vanity; make mirrors vanish. 

“Surround her with forgiving family
and nurses not too numb to cry. Please banish
trite consolations; take her in one swift
and gentle motion as your final gift.” 

What reflects the conservative temperament in this poem is its generosity, acceptance of human nature, deferral to divinity and refusal of “trite consolations.” No happy talk, no empty platitudes that flatter the speaker and do nothing for the one who suffers. The poem is “conservative” in Michael Oakeshott’s sense because it reflects “a disposition appropriate to a man who is acutely aware of having something to lose which he has learned to care for.” A similar spirit is at work in Catharine Savage Brosman’s “On Her Sixty-Sixth Birthday,” one of the best poems by her I have read: 

“This measure is an artifice, and still,
old time surrounds me, running as it will,
the waters deeper now, the current slow,
but bearing my becoming in its flow. 

“A moment’s pause, and what begins as dream
inhabits its fulfillment in the stream:
the rocks and rough impressions disappear;
the rivulets are one; a bay is near; 

“and vast marine perspectives through the trees
propose lucidity and azure ease.
The motion steadies, and the world and I
Meet in the pure gratuity of sky.” 

Seek out The Conservative Poets, a hopeful, satisfying collection of poems that will not insult or bore you. Take Baer at his word: “There’s still an active remnant, and it can increase in size and influence.”

No comments: