The Separation of Stanza and State

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"[I]ndifference
amounting to relief" was poet and author David
Lehman's initial sentiment on hearing there would be no Inauguration
Day bard
. "At least we'll be spared the usual inaugural
doggerel," he added.

Lehman's
"second, more considered response is that the incoming administration
can be charged with squandering an opportunity to signal, if only
symbolically, some sort of commitment to culture and the arts."
He cites as a counterexample Robert Frost's "The Gift Outright"
for John Kennedy's inauguration: "a conjunction of poetry and
power at the height of the Cold War: the aged Frost reciting a poem
affirming America's manifest destiny while the dashing young president
exhorted idealists and patriots to ask what they could do for their
country." Nuclear brinksmanship and intensified intervention
in Southeast Asia – manifest destiny indeed!

Lehman
polled "estimable pals" on the poet-less inauguration
and concluded that "everyone seems to be operating on the assumption
that the Bush administration is either hostile to poetry or simply
clueless about it." Here are the more spirited responses:

"I
imagine he and most of his cabinet have only the vaguest idea that
there's such a thing as American poetry, and it has no interest
for them. To be a poet or lover of poetry is to be a traitor to
the only thing they care for, money, power, and the NRA." (Charles
Simic)

"We
are the first of the many who will be made invisible by George W."
(Claudia Rankine)

"What's
the point of reading a poem to a bunch of Republicans, anyway? I
mean, it's not like they're going to get it. And [Bush] probably
thinks most poets are gay – it's too risky to alienate Jerry Falwell."
(James Cummins)

The
haughtiness here corresponds to a Bolshevik temperament. Poet Tom
Disch (who dislikes Bush) comments, "[A]ny poet who would have
agreed to lend his lyre to the occasion would have been trashed
by all his peers. So why ask someone to volunteer to become a pariah?"
Nyet, tovarishe, thou shalt not consort with the right-wing
devils! (It comes as no surprise when Executive Director of the
Academy of American Poets Bill Wadsworth tells us that "most
poets are Democrats.")

Add
to this Cummins and Simic's insipid condescension mixed with Rankine's
portentous prognostication. One can imagine further commentary:
"Those God-fixated philistines probably think Macbeth is
a new fast food chain!" Such is the sophistication of our poetic
patricians. (Don't bring up the devout's conversance with the Book
of Psalms – facts get in the way of the literati's disdain.)

This
reinforces one's aversion to state-sponsored art. As the great poet
A.R. Ammons observes, "Artists should be left alone to paint
or not to paint, write or not to write."

Those
so fervent for government-subsidized creativity should take a cue
from their secularist friends. To borrow a slogan from the latter,
we need a wall of separation erected between stanza and state.

Of
course poetry is a vital inheritance. Wordsworth's "Thoughts
that do often lie too deep for tears," Crane's "gleaming
cantos of unvanquished space," lines 949-956 of Nabokov's Pale
Fire – such artistry reflects the magnificence of the human mind
and deepens our introspective capacity.

But
the State should have nothing to do with our edification. That coercive
entity vitiates and bureaucratizes artistic excellence, converting
Shelley's unacknowledged legislators into arid spokesmen. Indeed,
we have reached the point where Lehman describes Maya Angelou's
inaugural recitation of "On the Pulse of Morning" as "a
major cultural event with profound implications." (It's an
accurate description, but not in the sense he intends.)

We
should engage and encourage the verse that has captured our common
condition. From Homer to Seamus Heaney, from Robert Burns to Joseph
Brodsky, a tradition of sublime reflection summons our immersion.
Government can only intrude upon this endeavor.

January
25, 2001

Myles
Kantor lives in Boynton Beach, Florida.

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