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May 28, 2009


I don't think it's because poets are better or more noble than anyone else. Maybe it's because a)they tended to be more obscure, so they were perhaps more able to fly under the Nazi radar than novelists and journalists, and b)they tend to be more solitary, less trustful of authority in general, so they weren't likely to collaborate with anyone. Just a guess...

This, like LO's heartfelt post earlier this week, is a solid contribution to our never-ending discussion of these vexing questions: Should we expect more from our artists and writers? Does their bad behavior, whether in their private or political lives, bear on how we view their works? It would be comforting to draw a clear distinction -- as between church and state -- between the work and the life, but that's too neat, a debater's trick, and there seems little choice but to take each case on its own merits.

The mind, capable of proceeding despite the contradictions in its path, can enjoy Eliot's poems and essays despite the anti-Semitism that surfaces in them. But what Pound did and said was much worse, and you can reasonably argue that the crazy thinking that led Pound to propagandize for Mussolini is also what doomed his life-work to incoherence and failure.

On the other hand, I do not understand academics who say that Heidegger's Nazi allegiances are irrelevant to his philosophy of life.

Sidebar: do you think we would like Hemingway's stories more, less, or equally, if we had met the man in Paris in the 1920s or in braggadocio mode in New York twenty years later? Maybe it's wisest not to meet the artists we most admire.

DL, as usual, you open a number of possibilities for reply. I've been mulling over Laura's post the past few days. I'm nervous about any proclamations about "The Law," even when (frankly, especially) the proclaimer is on my "side" politically; there's a possible absolutism about that which never bodes well. "Either-or" doesn't get it, in this sense; Pound died a broken man, saying he "botched it." Not saying he shouldn't have, only that he did. Walcott's transgressions were 25 years ago; maybe he's an arrogant man who's never faced up to his folly, but I don't want to be on that jury. Whereas, slimy back-stabbing campaigns to get yourself what you want seem more creepy to me--and frightening, in the sense that, okay, the guy you hate and whom you've made an absolutist judgment on is the victim this time; but what about next time?

My point in my post was not an evaluation of the relative "badness" of the examples, rather that poetry, art, whatever, is not an excuse for any of it.

However, I'll jump into the middle of things here and say I think that there are times when absolutism is called for. Call me old fashioned; call me a self-righteous old harridan; but at some point, wrong is wrong. Where that point it, well, that's up to each person's judgment and, as DL says, a question of taking each case on its own merits (or lack thereof). But in my view, Pound and Heidegger are both cases for this. It's good that Pound "repented," but the damage was done, and he did nothing to undo it. I mean, with Pound we aren't talking about stealing a job away from someone; we're talking about aiding and abetting, willingly and with relish, people who were perpetrating genocide. Again, that doesn't take away Pound's contributions to poetry and poetics, but I wonder if people would be less likely to overlook or excuse his actions if he had been an inarticulate boob. Would he be a more reprehensible character if he had never written a line of poetry?

That's the kind of relativism that bothers me, because in a sense it's elitism - intellectual elitism, not socio-economic elitism - but it sets up a double-standard for the artist and the "ordinary" person. And that was what infuriated me about the whole discussion of Walcott and Padel. Whether I think either of them is an appropriate choice for the post is a different question, and one I'm not prepared to answer here. (Buy me a drink in September, and I'll answer it then.)One other thing I will point out is the question of appropriateness involved teaching, not writing poems, and those are two very different things.

I also think it's interesting that we seem to have this discussion only about poets - not sculptors; not musicians; not novelists; not painters. No one seems to have trouble acknowledging both Richard Wagner's Nazism and his music; Picasso's cruelty and his art; Henry Miller's misogyny and his novels. It's all part of the story. There seems to be a resistance to this with poets, and I think it may be connected to that romanticizing of poets and poetry that we have talked about here in another context. We've never gotten over Shelley and his silly (and self-serving) pronouncements.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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