Politics & Policy

Progressing from Bad to Verse

A liberal think tank is out to change America, one unrhymed line at a time.

One of the biggest raps against conservatives is that they’re a bunch of L7s inhabiting their own private Squaresville. This has never been true in any strict sense, but I’d be dishonest not to admit that there is a reason that people have the impression that the conservative movement is an army of Alex P. Keatons. Enter the Heritage Foundation — the largest conservative think tank in D.C. — and you’ll immediately find yourself swimming in a sea of Brooks Brothers and business-appropriate hemlines. So much so that you begin to suspect that somewhere within their imposing Massachusetts Avenue edifice, a janitor is hunched over a toilet bowl trying not to get his tie wet.

The folks who think such buttoned-down conventionality is a bad thing probably haven’t considered the alternative. When I arrived late for a recent event at the Center for American Progress — the five-year-old, John Podesta–led think tank that styles itself as a liberal counterpart to the Heritage Foundation — I took one of the few remaining seats in their conference room only to find that the guy sitting on my left was homeless. Forgive me; at the Center for American Politics, I believe the preferred term for “homeless” is “involuntarily thrown to the mercy of the elements as a result of George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy.”

#ad#Of course, I am not sure that he is homeless. But judging by the condition of his sweat pants (the odor suggests more the former than the latter) and the fact that his facial hair is more an ecosystem than a beard, I’d say homeless is a pretty good guess.

Perhaps I’m being crotchety; letting the homeless show up at a public event and have a free sandwich is a laudable display of charity — though it’s less laudable if you’re sitting next to him. But it drives home the fact that liberal and conservative think tanks definitely attract very different audiences.

Another difference is that conservative think tanks tend toward sober policy discussions. Sure, they discuss policy at the Center for American Progress — but today’s event is on “Progressive Poetry,” a topic you’re unlikely to find on the docket at Heritage.

That may be because poetry is, for the most part, intellectually and artistically bankrupt. A daring statement, I know: but quickly name one well-known poet from the last 25 years other than the overrated Maya Angelou, the darling of Oprah and the Clintons? A small percentage of you probably came up with Robert Pinsky’s name, but I’m guessing that was primarily because the former poet laureate lucked into a pretty significant cameo on The Simpsons.

The sad state poetry is in may have best been revealed when George W. Bush made Billy Collins poet laureate — an appointment that caused quite a stir in poetry circles. Allow me to quote one opinion that’s largely representative of the academic establishment’s feelings on Collins: “[Collins] hits the popular jugular with a vengeance because he thrives, absolutely thrives on one thing: accepted mediocrity. . . . There is no challenge. Cozying up to reading lower to middle class vernacular and objects they are also likely to diddle with and muze [sic] over in that part of their spare time reserved for poetry.”

Let me translate that for you. Other poets hate Billy Collins because regular people — you know, the plebeians without Masters degrees in fine arts — enjoy his poetry. As it happens, in his capacity as poet laureate, Collins wrote some very fine poems about the events of September 11. One of them, “The Names,” was read in a joint session of Congress. In a better age, where academic elitists hadn’t already marginalized the art form, the poem would be remembered as one of the better tributes to come out of that tragic event. The poem itself is also a fine example of poetry in politics, at a time when too often it’s the other way around. 


So when E. Ethelbert Miller, the first “literary activist” on the panel, makes an offhand reference to Collins’s “interesting” 9/11 poems, I hold out hope that the panel won’t be a complete waste. But alas, this event is about “progressive” poetry, after all. The first poem Miller reads is Ariel Dorfman’s “Last Will and Testament” which we are informed was written in the early 1980s when “Nicaraugua [was] in the news.” The poem is ostensibly from the vantage point of a political prisoner. (You can hear playwright — and certified left-wing nutcase — Harold Pinter give a dramatic reading of it here.) Someday, I’d like to hear a poem about the Sandinistas’ wholesale slaughter of thousands of Moskito Indians — but, given his political leanings, Dorfman probably won’t get around to writing that one.

#ad#I’ll let the second panelist, Naomi Ayala, author of Wild Animals on the Moon, introduce herself. She begins her performance at the podium thus:

Like, uh, most of you I’m sure I have many political concerns. Most of them start off the root I find myself in my daily life thinking my thoughts and addressing my concerns as a person in all the groups in which I am a part is my political concern for work and the work that we do and how all of us do that work and the spaces we inhabit and how those spaces allow us or keep us from inhabiting ourselves. So I’m going to start off with a couple of [makes air quotes with fingers] womyn’s poems, body poems . . .

I’m sure the guy sleeping in a cardboard box next to me would find her concern about how “spaces we inhabit and how those spaces allow us or keep us from inhabiting ourselves” really touching, if he had the slightest clue what she was talking about. With Ayala, it is hard to tell where the unedited incomprehensible thoughts end and the poetry begins.

The final panelist, David Gewanter — an associate professor at Georgetown — reads one of his own poems. Compared with his present company on the dais, he is refreshingly down to earth, reading verse evocative of readily enjoyable slices of life. Like the time the Secret Service paid a visit to his mother: “Working in a museum gift shop, she hears that Reagan had been shot and says ‘Hinckley botched the job.’ Was it that or was it her rebuking letters, each one signed ‘an ex-Republican’ so it hurt more. Something put her on a list because a Secret Serviceman comes to question her.” He recounts, too, his mother’s terrorist threats: “I’d wear a dynamite girdle and blow them up, they’d never check me I’m a grandmother.”

Gewanter clearly means the poem to be funny — and heck knows, I’ve got enough stories rattling around the mental attic to script an entire season of Senescent Relatives Say the Darndest Things — but, uh, killing the president? Really? Further, I’m afraid that the poem takes on unintended import when read to a room of “progressives” who are uncomfortably sympathetic to the idea of an alternate reality where Reagan met an untimely demise.

At this point I’ve had enough. As it turns out, a quick Google search reveals Russell Kirk once gave a lecture on “The Politics of T. S. Eliot” at the Heritage Foundation to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the poet’s birth. I guess you can put poetry right next to sensible attire on the list of things that the squares at Heritage do better than the supposedly open-minded liberals at Center for American Progress. Take my word for it, reading the Heritage lecture is a far better use of your time than a discussion of “progressive poetry.” Smells better, too.

– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

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