Art, of course, has nothing to do with politics, and the artist who dabbles or throws himself and his work headfirst into the political realm probably had little interest in creating worthwhile art in the first place, and risks fatally compromising whatever small artistic gift he may possess. These self-evident truths occurred to me on Monday, when I happened upon the web site of Poets Against War, an organization new to me. I used Google to double-check, but found no evidence of Pipe Fitters Against War or Osteopaths Against War.
The egotism of the self-described political artist is appalling. Good sentiments make bad art, and they generally change nothing except to further inflate the already swollen ego of the artist. Fortunately, art is not democratic. In fact, it’s autocratic, despotic and thoroughly unfair. Good intentions count for nothing. All that matters is grace and hard work. The rest is delusion.
Not surprisingly, the poets featured at Poets Against War are bad poets – i.e., propagandists. First up is an essay by Adrienne Rich, “Poetry & Commitment.” You know trouble is coming when an essayist quotes Shelley in the first sentence. Next is a photo of a participant in the “January 27 March: Beauty and Dissent!” The benign looking fellow carries a photo of Pablo Neruda, winner of the Stalin Peace Prize in 1953. When Stalin died that year, Neruda wrote an ode for the man responsible for an estimated 20 to 60 million deaths, among whom was the poet Osip Mandelstam. Neruda’s poem contains the lines “To be men!/That is the Stalinist law!” (Note the consistent use, across generations, of the exclamation mark – for emphasis, I think.) Neruda also called Lenin the “the great genius of this century.”
Elsewhere on the site, Poets Against War publishes poems submitted by – people with no gift for poetry, it seems. Among them is Nancy Johanson, 57, of Cincinnati. Here’s the bio accompanying her poem, spelling and punctuation retained:
“I am a poet, writer and mother of five, grown children. I have a healing energy practice in Cincinati and my husband and I work together to bring healing and restoration to land and houses.”
And here’s one of her poems, “Death Poem”:
Oblique trees stand
wrapped in fog
like bandaged soldiers
returning from Iraq
Perhaps Johanson could take some of that good Ohio healing energy and apply it to the language she has abused. I happened to be rereading W.H. Auden’s The Prolific and the Devourer the day I stumbled on Poets Against War. It’s a book of aphorisms and reflections the poet worked on for much of 1939, abandoning it a few weeks after the Nazis invaded Poland. The full text wasn’t published until 1981, eight years after Auden’s death.
The year was pivotal for the world and Auden. He was shedding the vestigial sentimental Marxism he had once embraced and began his return to the committed Christianity of his childhood. In the words of Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor and editor of The Prolific and the Devourer, late in 1939 the poet “began to turn from an optimistic humanism to a pessimistic Christianity.” Almost 70 years on, Auden is remarkably astute on the subject of art and politics. Here’s a selection of his thoughts:
“In our political activities there is a larger element of old-fashioned social climbing than we care to admit. To receive social approval, to have one’s work praised, even for the wrong reasons, is always gratifying, but it does not make for either artistic or political success.”
“There are many people, and they number some artists among them, who today seek in politics an escape from the unhappiness of their private lives, as once people sought refuge in the monastery and convent. Driven by envy and hatred they spread discomfort wherever they go and ruin everything they touch. A wise political party will have nothing to do with them.”
“Artists and politicians would get along better in a time of crisis like the present, if the latter would only realize that the political history of the world would have been the same if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted or a bar of music composed.”
“If the criterion of art were its power to incite to action, Goebbels would be one of the greatest artists of all time.”
By 1941, Auden had rejected the pacifism he clings to in The Prolific and the Devourer, and he told Stephen Spender:
“I have absolutely no patience with Pacifism as a political movement, as if one could do all the things in one’s personal life that create wars and then pretend that to refuse to fight is a sacrifice and not a luxury.”
Political art fails as both art and politics, and no one cares about it save a small coterie of misguided friends. In a lengthy commentary he posts on the web site, Poets Against War founder Sam Hamill asks, agrammatically, “May our poems continue to speak for the conscience of our country, as we asked in founding Poets Against War four years, countless lives. “
Speak, please, for yourself.