July 24, 2003

On the Field of Life, on the Battlefield of Truth.

On Frederick Turner and American Poems in the Key of Life

The universities were thick with lies.
Ten thousand poets would betray their name
To buy the good opinion of the liars.

-- Frederick Turner

Was Frederick Turner the only one of our poets who felt a wave of revulsion sweep over him when the "herd of independent minds" that fancy themselves as 'important' American poets formed a viscous slab of drivel around opposition to the war?

It may well be the case since I am not aware of any other American poets that stood apart from this wholesale hijacking of an art form. "Poets Against the War" was an Internet driven round-up of poets hot to resist America's plan to set 25 million Omars free, and make Iraq a place where poets critical of their despot would not have their eyes ripped from their sockets and their throats cut. It was a shameful roster of poets so deeply ashamed of themselves and their work that they were willing to consign other poets in the present and future Iraq to silence, torture, and death that their hate of America in general, and George Bush in particular, might prevail. Having fattened at the table of America, they were determined to let the world know they were not at all grateful.

Little has been heard of this rag-tag gang of scribblers since the fall of the despicable regime they struggled to sustain. Indeed, only epitaph is a preening farewell note from Commandante Hamill on their web site that, while humping and pumping his own achievements, proclaims, in the mock bombast that is his signature style:

We have drawn our line in the sand. Our tools are everyone's tools: the simple words we use almost thoughtlessly every day, but use in our art with scrupulous honesty and precision. I am Confucian enough to believe that "All wisdom is rooted in learning to call things by the right name." And we poets understand why Dante put the defilers of language into the seventh circle of his Hell.
If that is true, then Mr. Hamill will understand Dante even more clearly upon his future arrival in said circle.

But not all living American poets signed on to this shameful agenda. Many simply stayed aloof or held their peace. Not a brave stance, but who would risk being tossed out of a safe sinecure just to voice a mild dissent?

Frederick Turner has been many things in his career, but mild is not one of them. From the moment of Poets Against the War's inception, Turner made it clear he was not going to join these hapless babblers when he wrote:

"Never till now was I shamed by the name of poet.
What could it even mean, if five thousand "poets"
Sign the same misspelled and malicious manifesto?
Is not a poet a truth-teller, a seer of inner visions?
Why do they make this smell, like the back seat of a taxi?

How can they slander the honest officers of the State?
What is this rage, this stink of outraged vanity,
This resentment that finds at last its lusted-for target,
This thick warm glow of the narcissist's solidarity?
Why do they always adore the strongman with the mustache
(The strongman who takes great care of his personal hygiene
And always leaves behind him a sweetness at meetings)?
Why do they gnaw and slaver at the hand that feeds them?
Why do they hate so this dear dear America
That ploddingly over the decades hauls the world into decency? "

Which is just about as concise a damnation of the entire American 'creative-writing cottage industry' as one could wish for.

But good poets and, indeed, great poets, do not live in the mire of negativity and hate exemplified by the 'Poets Against the War. " The struggle of the true poet, it seems to me, is to somehow, under all circumstances, find and compose in the key of the affirmative. And while all "good" poems do not sing in this key, all
"great" poems do. Homer to Chaucer to Dante to Shakespeare to Milton to Whitman to Dickinson and so on in an unbroken line of poets who find and sing in the affirmative, in the key of life.

A poem that fails to ring the affirmative may find a readership in this time or at that place, but it will not be valued and carried forward. It will not achieve that most elusive laurel, immortality. Whitman achieved this in the 1855 edition of "Leaves of Grass," and it remains America's dominant epic poem nearly a century and a half later. Our era's Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, was hardly a lover of the government under any circumstances. He wrote many political poems that I'm sure Mr. Hamill and his ilk would treasure and point to as proof of Ginsberg's ghost being with them, as I am sure it is. But for all that, and for all of Ginsberg's poems counseling peace and the end of all governments, all those poems will, in time, fade and his single great work will be seen not as the blithering "Howl" but rather as the sublime "Kaddish." Why? Because of all his long works, it alone sings in the affirmative. And, finally, the one who is probably our greatest poet, Emily Dickinson, took a cloistered, shut-away and seemingly sterile life and wove thousands of small precious stones into a vast tiara of poems that illuminate the private souls of all Americans with "a shovel of stars for keeps," as Sandberg observed in one of his greatest works, 'The People, Yes."

It is interesting to note that few of our outstanding poets belonged to, or drew their livings from, creative writing departments. This is less true today when the society makes it possible to be a salon poet; to exist on the leavings of endowments in academe as long as one toes the "Poets Against the War" line; to be tolerated and even paid as long as one does not write anything that undercuts the petrified Groves of Academe.

This is the bargain our endless legions of third-rate poets have endorsed with their whining manifesto. Even so these pet poets know that it is, to a great degree, a shameful way for a poet to make a living. Nothing kills the affirmative more quickly than a round-robin of student poets struggling to say something meaningful about fifth-rate verse.

Ah well, they have chosen the path to an easy mortgage payment and an even easier oblivion. And in a way, it is just nature's method of making poets disappear lest we be overwhelmed. Even a country as rich and tolerant as the United States could not possibly sustain all the angry, depressed, and otherwise technically inept and abysmal poetry our half-baked bards currently emit. There aren't enough terabytes in cyberspace to store their screeds, and whole forests weep at their approach. America has always struggled with a poetry glut. There is no need to see it stricken by a poetry tsunami.

It is best to let the Iowa Workshop oblivion machine deal with them, and to pension the worst of the lot off to the Poetry asylums of leading universities to have their egos fed by generations of callow freshmen. Let them persist in their shared hallucination that they are teaching poetry when they are only teaching how best to preen, and organize other preeners so that their preening can be core-dumped into one plump title ("Poets Against the War") than can then be successfully ignored. Call it the muse's method of culling the "herd of independent minds."

You've got to accentuate the positive,
Eliminate the negative,
Latch on to the affirmative,
Don't mess with Mr. Inbetween.

You've got to spread joy up to the maximum,
Bring gloom down to the minimum,
Have faith, or pandemonium's
Liable to walk upon the scene.

-- Johnny Mercer

A poet does not need to take a class to find the affirmative. It is a tone that can be neither learned nor bought. He can only hope to find it in himself, and even then it is not a daily discovery. A poet needs to endure the harsh winds of life with both a certain attention to detail and a need to see deeper into the miracle and mystery of our existence. And then, seeing it as it is and as it always has been, all he needs to do is to report his experience of it as truly as he can. Fail at the truth and you will fail at the affirmative. Speaking and sounding lies popular amongst your peers will not avail you. A certain languid depression may help a poet for a short time, but a depressing poem will be unlikely to make it into a Best-Loved collection and remain there for a hundred years. And for all the snobbery and jobbery of our current poetry establishment, the 'Best Loved' collections are where Americans store the poems that matter.

The compelling thing about Turner's work is, it seems to me, his unremitting effort to achieve the affirmative. An impossible task, but one that Turner repeatedly approaches like a man going off in the morning to a job of work. He knows, as Eliot knew, that the poet who would work in the affirmative begins always in a state of doubt and longing, always knowing that:

"...Each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shoddy equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling."

But he also knows that this truth is not there to dissuade the poet, but only to keep him mindful that:

"...what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious."

In terms of the squalid and sodden landscape that forms the bulk of American poetry today, Turner must often feel that the times "seem unpropitious" when hate-spumming hacks such as Baraka are honored, if only for a moment, with a laureate's status; an award that speaks more of a cynical demographic analysis of New Jersey than a knowledge of the work of "men whom one cannot hope to emulate." Still, with the advent of his latest long work, "On the Field of Life, on the Battlefield of Truth," one can hear Turner's unabashed struggle for the affirmative going forward in spite of all the minor obstacles of an enfeebled and self-aggrandizing poetry establishment, and against the greater tides of the failing of the body and the breath.

The full poem, which I have read, will not be out from Pivot Press for several months, but the excerpt below, taken from a longer excerpt published at TechCentral will give you an idea of the scope and tone of the work. In a time when posing poets merely strut and fret upon their Slamming Stages, it is both refreshing and inspiring to find a few voices that are not those of a poet's poet, but of a man's poet still ready to sound his barbaric yawp over the roof of the world.

From Freedom, Lies and the Constitution:

The following is an excerpt from a longer poem, entitled On the Field of Life, on the Battlefield of Truth. The poem concerns the experience of major illness and hospitalization, and the sense of being trapped that results. It sets out to investigate the nature of freedom, in nature, in the interrelation of species in an ecosystem, in the human mind and spirit, and in society. This section explores aspects of political liberty and its enemies.

Now all this time a war had been preparing,
And as I fought the swarmed bacteria
That I myself had cultured in my guts,
And groaned from the worse agonies of cure,
The abscess of a swollen tyranny
Was lanced and bled its pus across the world.
And what's the worst thing about such regimes?
It's not the cruelty or the sadism,
It's not the theft of human property,
It's not the murders, that are honest evils,
It's not the rapes, though at the heart of rape,
It's not the fear, though fear is its companion:
It is the lies. For lies insert their tongue
Like a proboscis or the penis-dagger
Of that acanthus-headed worm, that kills,
Jerking its sperm into another male;
Lies bloat and puddle the clear light of being,
Rotting the public discourse into hate,
Seeking the cynic or postmodernist
Or those among the Press who know hate sells,
Or that resentment of authority
That grows in those not authors for themselves,
Or any weakness of the mind or spirit
That leaves a fertile ground of cowardice;
And lies are worse than death, for they're the poison,
The only poison, that can kill the source
Of liberty and cauterize its root.

Or is it that a poet's chief enemy
Is lies, since language is the milk he sucks
Each day out of the sweet breast of the world?
It was not only the incompetent
And weakling malice of an al-Jazeera;
I heard the lies in the United Nations,
The New York Times, the nightly network news,
Even the trusted CNN and BBC.
The universities were thick with lies.
Ten thousand poets would betray their name
To buy the good opinion of the liars.
Only the soldiers and the simpletons
Who knew what evil was and what was good,
Kept one part of the world sweet and whole;
Focussed the one thing clearly in their eyes
That this abuse, this endless festering,
This filthy rant beneath the black mustache,
Must cease, and his poor people be set free.

How do I come then by this certainty?
Does it not make me dangerous to freedom?
Perhaps--if I had any skill in power;
But even if I had it, I'd prefer
The pleasure of debate that seeks the truth;
Surely I'm wrong; I've been wrong many times,
And always happy to be proven so;
But though these words would banish me at once
From the polite society of "poets",
I tell the truth the inner voice tells me.
Forgive me, and persuade me, if you differ.
And there are still friends who would disagree
Without hypocrisy or partisanship,
And you know who you are. Every sincere
Opinion and belief in this Republic
Is one more neuron in its wise old brain;
We can't afford to lose one communist,
One southern Baptist, one conservative,
Or even one quite clueless liberal,
And would they might debate in all respect
As brothers should, as sisters in our cause
Of liberty and justice, dear old words.
We are the cedars, willows, oaks and chinquapins
Of this great land of springs, America;
And in the battle of our roots and branches
We brew a rich soil for the seeds we cast.

Posted by Vanderleun at July 24, 2003 9:49 AM
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