Camille Paglia is one of my heroes — or should I say heroines? She has no qualms about jousting with politically correct types nor does she have any fear of their retribution. In her new book, Break, Blow, Burn Miss Paglia discusses poetry and maintains correctly, that there are no worthwhile poems being written today. She puts much of the blame on the current crop of literature professors. A March 27 Newsday.com review of her book, quotes Miss Paglia’s complaint about the professors’ "pseudo-sociological critical eye" which causes them to focus on "racism, sexism, homophobia, imperialism" rather than the quality of the poem.
Not only has political correctness clouded the judgment and taste of academia, it has had a similar effect on society at large. This is what happens when people have been intimidated into silence; intimidation being the most powerful weapon in the politically correct arsenal.
Many think that political correctness developed during the 1960s, but it is actually a continuation of Marxist philosophy that had been around for years. One aspect of Marxism is an economic theory that has as its ultimate goal a classless society; a society that can be achieved by a redistribution of wealth by the state. But there is another aspect of Marxist ideology: cultural Marxism. This phase of Marxism extends the state’s control to other aspects of society: its culture and religion. Obviously, for the state to be all-powerful, religion must be sanitized, marginalized or even obliterated. Furthermore, Marxists maintain that in a truly classless society, there can be no distinctions between higher and lower expressions of culture in its works of art.
Early Marxists described the paintings, sculpture, and high architecture of the Renaissance as "conspicuous waste"; an idea that was elaborated on by sociologist Thorstein Veblen. Not only did these works of art serve no utilitarian purpose for society, but the artists and their patrons were unfairly awarded a social status above that of the masses. Marxists opposed religion because it was considered a "universal structure"; the ultimate arbiter of ideas and ideals.
Cultural Marxism maintains that there is no universal structure but rather an assortment of "social constructs" that change to accommodate shifts in political ideologies. Each artistic endeavor is given the same relative worth. Consequently, there are no great works of art anymore. In one of his essays, George Reisman, Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University calls it: " the explicit obliteration of distinctions between levels of civilization." This unhealthy trend, cultural Marxism — political correctness, has ruled for too long.
But Camille Paglia and others are beginning to raise their voices against this trivialization of art. In the introduction to her new book, she states: "Poststructuralism and crusading identity politics led to the gradual sinking in reputation of the premiere literature departments." (Poststructuralism, like cultural Marxism, maintains that there is no universal structure but only many diverse and constantly altering structures. These structures change as political goals change, and one structure is as valid as another.)
To illustrate Miss Paglia’s claim about the scarcity of high-quality poetry, I will simply compare a poem from a prior century to one from today. In order to make a fair comparison, I selected celebrated poems by two famous Poet Laureates.
Certainly, it was difficult to choose from the list of English Poet Laureates. There were so many outstanding practitioners. I finally chose William Wordsworth just because he is one of my favorites. Wordsworth achieved neither fame nor financial success until his last days. He lived off a bequest he received from a friend until he eventually had to take a low-paying job in order to survive. He was one of the first of what came to be known in England as a "romantic poet." Wordsworth eschewed the old forms and often stylistically wrote in "conversational blank verse." Public recognition came at the end of his life. He was made England’s Poet Laureate in 1842 and he died in 1850.
This is a section from Wordsworth’s "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey." (1798)
"For I have learned To look on nature, not as in the hour Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes The still, sad music of humanity Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power To chasten and subdue. And I have felt A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things."
As an illustration of contemporary poetry, I have chosen the most prominent of all the United States Poet Laureates: Dr. Maya Angelou. Her accolades are too lengthy to list here, but they include having been honored by not one but three United States presidents. President Ford appointed her to the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission; President Carter appointed her to the Commission for the Observance of International Woman of the Year, and President Clinton chose her to compose and deliver his inauguration poem. The African American Literature Book Club describes her as "a remarkable Renaissance woman." Dr. Angelou has received the Ladies Home Journal’s Woman of the Year award; the National Medal of Arts award, and was given a lifetime appointment as Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. She has also been awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters by at least two colleges, and this allows her to employ the designation of "Doctor."
The following poem typifies her work and is from a collection of Dr. Angelou’s best poems.
"When I Think About Myself" (1983) "When I think about myself, I almost laugh myself to death, My life has been one great big joke, A dance that’s walked A song that’s spoke I laugh so hard I almost choke, When I think about myself. Sixty years in these folks’ world The child I works for calls me girl, I say "Yes Ma’am" for working’s sake Too proud to bend, Too poor to break, I laugh until my stomach ache, When I think about myself. My folks can make me split my side, I laughed so hard I nearly died, The tales they tell sound just like lying, They grow the fruit, But eat the rind, I laugh until I start to crying. When I think about my folks."
You can evaluate the relative merits of these two poems for yourself , because reactions to poetry must be individual and cannot be determined by a show of hands.
In my opinion, the Wordsworth poem meets the criteria of a great work of art. Miss Angelou’s poem does not. Angelou has a gift for words and employs a clever turn of phrase but her poem is limited in range and the reader isn’t motivated to ruminate over its larger meaning, or if indeed it has a larger meaning. Wordsworth’s poem soars, rising above the commonplace into a mystical, spiritual plane. This is the artistic passion of a man who refuses to be restrained by his worldly situation. The simplest things of nature are enough to elevate his emotions and he invites the reader to share his joy.
On the other hand, even though Angelou’s narrator "laughs," it is the caustic, sardonic laughter of one who feels trapped in a bleak and hopeless situation. Wordsworth poem uplifts us while Angelou’s is simply fatalistic. Miss Angelou’s poem is cast in colloquial language which obviously conveys the mood she is seeking. But it does not stir readers in the same way as Wordsworth’s more literary language does.
Wordsworth’s 200-year-old poem still moves us today. But will people still be reading Maya Angelou’s poem 200 years from now? I do not believe her poem will stand the test of time. If it is remembered at all, it will simply be as a curio, representative of the age of political correctness. And while academics may continue their attempts to ban Wordsworth as a Dead White European Male, I predict that his art will remain ageless and immutable.