Who would have thought that the gender-barrier crusader Hillary Clinton would be in such a tight race against a candidate before whom young women swoon? Talk about vestiges of patriarchy! Nothing like this has been seen since Beatlemania. But we’re not talking about teenagers who have recently shed their bobby socks and bras, hoping for a world different from their mothers’. No, these are “grrrls” who play a tough game of soccer, trot the globe on spring break, and outperform their male peers academically. The boys have caught Obamamania, but it’s the “grrrls” who actually faint.
More than smelling salts navel and cleavage-baring damsels and their slacker hook-up partners need an airing out of the demagoguery that is cutting off their oxygen.
They need poetry.
They certainly have been fed steady doses of Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni. But such paeans to “multiculturalism” and female empowerment cut off the brain’s ability to reason.
I would bet that none in the throngs that greet Barack Obama have read Allen Tate’s “The Man of Letters in the Modern World,” or been exposed to his idea that the man of letters protects democracies from the excesses of democracy. What the man of letters gives “back to society,” Tate says in this 1952 address, “often enough carries with it something that a democratic society likes as little as any other: the courage to condemn the abuses of democracy, more particularly to discriminate the usurpations of democracy that are perpetrated in the name of democracy.”
We have plenty of political poetry to go around and plenty of poets who have assigned themselves the role of political watchdogs. Go to any poetry reading or open mike and you will hear them spewing out their hatred of Republicans—by name and with plenty of profanity. When I participated in a poetry workshop a couple weekends ago, the poet, a very fine teacher otherwise, felt it incumbent to express her support for Obama both verbally and by showing us her Obama pin. In 2003, the poets who garner the most awards, and grants (awarded, of course, by like-minded peers) refused Laura Bush’s invitation to a White House event.
Today’s fashion among poets is to indict the Bush administration with charges gleaned from The New York Times or MSNBC. The outpourings on the “horror of war” come not from those who have served in the military, but from those who copy sentiments from their peers’ Facebooks and get their cues from teachers.
It is no wonder that Obama’s campaign slogan, “We are the hope that we’ve been waiting for,” appeals to adolescents. On the Huffington Post, where about a quarter of contributors appear to be at other times engaged in creative writing, a poet collected some “found poetry” from the Obama campaign trail. (“Found poetry” is a hot genre right now. I learned how to do it in a workshop where we were asked to randomly circle phrases from various newspapers and magazines and then string them together. You can also do it at home with word kitchen magnets.) The swooning Obama fans have been brought up by teachers who have told them that they are all little geniuses who just need to get together into little groups to solve the problems of the planet (while circling the right bubbles for answers on multiculturalism). Why would the junior Senator’s lack of experience concern such voters? After all, they have gotten into their little “groups” and “brainstormed” on such issues as global warming and world hunger and have come up with solutions that pleased their fourth-grade teachers. At the same time they have not had to bother studying the great works of Western civilization and or to learn old-style “linear” thinking--or logic. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Obama got his idea from some fourth-grade teacher preparing her class for a mock UN debate and telling her charges, “You are the hope you’ve been waiting for.”
When the tykes get to college things won’t be any better for they’ll be exposed to the same dogma and teaching methods. Not many will read Allen Tate, that old dead white guy who dared to write poem titled “Ode to the Confederate Dead” and who referred to the “Man of Letters.” Robert Penn Warren too is out of fashion. The educational system also has succeeded in wiping out positive traces of Western culture to ensure that undergraduates recognize no allusions.
It’s a pity, for a solid grounding in poetry would help young people recognize demagoguery. Warren’s poem “Infant Boy at Midcentury” (1956) expresses no particular event or politician but has the effect of being relevant to the current situation. Writing of his son’s birth, Warren states,
You enter at the hour when the dog returns to his vomit,
And fear’s moonflower spreads, white as girl-thigh, in dusk of compromise;
When posing for pictures, arms linked, the same smile in their eyes,
Good and Evil, to iron out all differences, stage their meeting at summit.
Obama’s promise to meet with our enemies, anyone?
Warren, of course, diagnoses his age’s growing acceptance of relativism. It would be well to revisit such poetry whose lasting power resides in its refusal to indict the particularly unpopular politics of the moment, but instead focuses on ideas, or verities, if you will. It would be well to tell college sophomores that the reference to the dog returning to his vomit comes from Proverbs, a very, very old “text” indeed. (“As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly” Proverbs 26:11). At both community colleges and prestigious universities, the overwhelming majority of students have no clue where Warren got this line. (But over the years, I’ve noticed that, as such Biblical allusions become more foreign to students, anthology editors conspire to keep them in the dark by taking out explanatory footnotes.) In the age of relativism, in the age when our young people have been indoctrinated to believe that talking is all that is needed and that people of color hold a special virtue, the grim irony of Warren’s presentation of the meeting of Good and Evil is needed more than ever.