Poets and Caesars

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I
admit it, I am utterly convinced that those who wield the pen ultimately
control the world; they control its design and its fate, for better
or for worse. I'm not always true to this conviction, which you
might think would keep me scurrying around looking for the Next
Great Poet, something I, in fact, don't do.

Or
perhaps you might expect that I would at least realize that the
Bushes and the Rumsfelds and the Blairs and the Saddams and the
Saudis and all the rest of that tiresome ilk are not worth following
in their weavings and schemings. Sorry, I have to also confess that
I do follow their doings rather closely, on the assumption that
the lot of them may shortly blow us all up; and it would be nice
to have a few hours' warning to grab the bug-out kit and head for
the hideout.

I
like to repeat to myself a few choice lines that reinforce my notion
of the radical superiority of the humane arts to the martial and
political ones.

Sextus
Propertius (50 B.C. to about 16 B.C.), reflecting on his likely
ultimate status as versus the mighty of Rome (Pound's translation):

"Flame
burns, rain sinks into the cracks,
And
they [the tombs of the powerful] all go to rack ruin beneath
       the
thud of the years.
Stands
genius a deathless adornment,
       a
name not to be worn out with the years."

Alfred
North Whitehead commenting, as a last thought in his great book,
Science and the Modern Mind, on the relative worth of the
men given over to philosophy and science versus those given over
to power and dominion:

"The
great conquerors, from Alexander to Caesar, and from Caesar to Napoleon,
influenced profoundly the lives of subsequent generations. But the
total effect of this influence shrinks to insignificance, if compared
to the entire transformation of human habits and human mentality
produced by the long line of men from Thales to the present day,
men individually powerless, but ultimately the rulers of the world."

I
recently reread Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard
Bloom." It remains a powerful and authentic threnody even now
(and I think it will outlive entirely the positive reputation of
Lincoln, who inspired it). It seems possible to say now that Whitman
was blinded by the sheer nearness of (what to call it?) the War
of Secession. He was unable to sort out the goods and bads in the
titanic character of the war's lanky victor. In his poet's invincible
naivete, he was entirely taken in (as have been how many generations
of Americans since?) by the indubitable virtues of the man, which
we now see hardly balance his evil effects. But as Lincoln fades
in reality, Whitman's dirge for a "mighty hero dead" loses
nothing.

I
think of the shattering power in The
Gulag Archipelago
of Solzhenitsyn's incontrovertible proof
of the wild, ghastly folly of socialism, which has forced the whole
lot of irredeemable and malicious muddleheads who still favor socialism
to crawl about like cockroaches, mostly in our universities, hoping
nobody grown-up will notice them.

And
I think of the mournful power of Whittaker Chambers in his Witness,
an enormous, trophy book. It recorded a whole, tragic life, profiled
the follies of a half century, and raised high in the sky for all
to see, anytime they care to look, evidence that an honest man can
counterbalance – and outlive – a raft full of dishonest
and bloody fools.

Somebody
else might come up with a thousand better instances than mine to
make my point; these are just ones that have stuck with me. I read
Robinson Jeffers' poem "Greater Grandeur" when it first
came out in his controversial volume, The
Double Axe
(1948).

Jeffers
makes plain in The Double Axe that he thought the 1939-1945
war a great swindle by politicians worldwide, with Churchill and
FDR leading our crowd. In a "Publisher's Note" in the
front of the book, Jeffers' long-term publisher, Liveright, felt
compelled to publicly wash its hands of complicity with the poet's
radically insufficient reverence for the war lately won.

Jeffers'
lines have lodged in my memory all these years:

"Half
a year after the war's end. Roosevelt and Hitler
      
dead,
Stalin tired, Churchill rejected – here is the
Triumph
of the little men. Democracy – shall we say? – has
      
triumphed.
They are hastily preparing again
More
flaming horrors. . .
      
The
tall world turns toward death, like a flower to the sun. . . .
"

This
was, perhaps, a premature announcement, as the nation readied for
the "fabulous fifties," of a culture of death embedded
in the future?

And
Ezra Pound once more: in a U.S. Army prison cage in Pisa, under
charge of treason, after a contentious lifetime, thinking of where
things stood with him at just that moment:

"As
a lone ant from a broken ant hill
from
the wreckage of Europe, ego scriptor."

Perhaps
this seems to you utterly vainglorious. Perhaps it is. But not half
so much as the politicians' habit of putting their faces on the
coinage and commissioning mendacious works of praise of their doings,
almost uniformly anti-humane and universally destructive.

I
find thinking of these repeated defiances of power in the name of
truth and beauty and knowledge necessary for my own will to live.

February
18, 2002

Tom
White [send him mail] writes
from Odessa, Texas.

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