“May God damn for ever all who cry ‘Peace!’”
— Ezra Pound, “Sestina Altaforte”
There’s grumbling over at The Nation, which is usually a good sign at a political magazine. At issue is the magazine’s groveling apology for having published a poem that irritated some of its readers, who objected to the use of black vernacular by a superabundantly white poet, Anders Carlson-Wee. (John McWhorter gives an excellent account of the relevant linguistic issues in The Atlantic.) The poetry editors, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, jointly apologized for “the pain we have caused,” and the poet, to his shame, did the same.
Grace Schulman, who was The Nation’s poetry editor for 35 years, was rightly disturbed by this display of editorial cowardice in the face of the familiar social-media mob, and criticized the decision in the pages of the New York Times. “One wonders if editors would have the courage to publish Robert Lowell’s ‘Words for Hart Crane’ or Ezra Pound’s ‘Sestina: Altaforte’ today,” she asks.
I think the answer to that is fairly obvious: No.
Ezra Pound was a genius and a crank. In our time, people irresponsibly throw around the word “fascist,” but Pound was the real deal, an energetic servant of Benito Mussolini’s government who might justly have been sentenced to life in prison for treason, a fate he avoided only by being declared insane and incarcerated in a mental hospital, where he eventually grew quite comfortable. Pound’s “Elizabethan” period was his time in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, not a period of submersion in the works of Philip Sidney. (“Or other heroes of that kidney.”)
After his release from the bughouse (“This would be a good year to release poets,” Ernest Hemingway said after accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature), Pound continued in his accustomed way, impenitent, associating with American neo-Nazis and white supremacists, recommending anti-Semitic propaganda as required reading to his acolytes, landing in Italy and greeting the gathered press with a fascist salute, etc. Can anybody doubt that if New Directions Publishing began bringing out Ezra Pound today the writers of The Nation, if not The Nation corporately, would be among the first to denounce them as enemies of the people? One suspects that The Nation’s editors would strangle themselves with their own guts before publishing a poem written by a vocal supporter of Donald Trump, much less one written by a man who once described Adolf Hitler as a saint.
(Forgive me if I have missed a Steve Bannon pantoum; I do not read The Nation as often as I used to.)
In the morally illiterate idiom of the moment, a white poet’s ‘appropriation’ of Black English serves ‘white supremacy,’ putting it in the same category of things as lynchings, cross-burnings, and segregation.
The American Left, having lost the contest of ideas — the Left’s last big idea was Marxism, which never has been successfully replaced as an intellectual foundation — is in the grip of moral hysteria, and its main occupation is heretic-hunting, inventing ever-more-absurd pretexts for simply declaring beyond the pale any idea or intellectual opponent progressives cannot successfully engage or, nearly as often, to bounce any white male occupying cultural space the heretic-hunters covet.
(Don’t take my word on that: Sarah Jeong, now of the New York Times, made it clear enough. One of the great untold stories of our time is how abjectly terrified nice liberal white men at the commanding heights of culture are, expecting at any moment to be disgraced and displaced for newly invented offenses. But that’s a story for another time, and you’ll have to buy the book.)
Writers in The Nation have been cheerleaders and excuse-makers for violent campaigns to suppress unpopular political speech at Berkeley. They characterized Megyn Kelly’s decision to interview conspiracy nut Alex Jones, lately de-platformed in a coordinated move by Facebook, Apple, and Google, as “unconscionable.” Conservative media is, in The Nation’s headlines, “dangerous,” and Fox News and talk radio put Americans “at risk.” This is familiar stuff: “My views are free speech, your views are violence.”
In the morally illiterate idiom of the moment, a white poet’s “appropriation” of Black English serves “white supremacy,” putting it in the same category of things as lynchings, cross-burnings, and segregation. The Nation is neck-deep in that nonsense.
“Never did we apologize for a poem we published,” Schulman writes. “We saw it as part of our job to provoke our readers — a mission we took especially seriously in serving the magazine’s absolute devotion to a free press.” That absolute devotion is a thing of the past. Schulman’s admirable invocation of Thomas Jefferson — “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it” — is out of fashion on the left, and, in any case, Thomas Jefferson was a white, male, slave-owning such-and-such.
Provocation is, in the current progressive understanding, a sin. (Funny thing: “Calling out,” which is what the Latin root of provoke literally means, is a buzzword.) Provocation causes discomfort, which is a species of pain, which the poetry editors of The Nation promise not to cause.
Some people have compared the current hysteria to the Red Scare and the Salem witch trials. But what it really reminds me of is Tipper Gore. Some of you children of the Eighties may remember that the former Mrs. Gore was the great scold and secular puritan of the time, fixated on the idea that the lyrics of rock and rap songs were driving America’s youth to drug abuse, violence, suicide, satanism, and what have you. The divorce rate peaked in 1980, we were being instructed to duck under our desks in case a thermonuclear warhead was detonated over our heads, and some forgotten back-street chemist had invented crack, but Twisted Sister was the real threat to humanity. No one seriously thought that listening to “We’re Not Gonna Take It” was going to lead to a riot, just as no one today seriously thinks that having a histrionic Kentish homosexual speak on the campus of Berkeley is going to lead to lynchings in Oakland. Even Tipper Gore must have known better. It was just that by repeatedly stepping over the line of acceptable mainstream discourse, Ozzy Osbourne and Ice Cube effectively disqualified themselves from . . . nothing much, in the long run, and both of them have had subsequent careers more successful than that of Tipper Gore. Yesterday’s parental-advisory notices on Ice-T albums are today’s trigger warnings. Every generation has its stunted souls.
But hysteria subsides. Ezra Pound wrote a bit for National Review, toward the end, and scholars and readers are still trying to figure out what to make of the mess of his mind, a subject about which Evan Kindley had a very interesting essay in The Nation. I doubt very much that in the future anybody will care very much about what Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith thought about anything, except as a specimen of the pathology of the times. Robert Lowell went to prison after sending Franklin Roosevelt a polite letter declining his offer of full-time employment in the army. Anders Carson-Wee put his toes on the line.
“This would be a good year to release poets,” Hemingway said. Yes, yes, it would. Let’s do.