Those of us who are avid readers are tempted to think that literature makes us better people. Recent scientific studies have encouraged us in this belief. “Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer,” Time magazine proclaimed in a 2013 headline. Occasionally, however, a public event occurs that makes us question our assumptions about the civilizing value of literature.
According to the New York Times, the racist and anti-federal-government cattle rancher Cliven Bundy was honored at a party on April 18, 2014, in Bunkerville, Nevada, that was attended by 1,500 people “who wore ‘domestic terrorist’ name tags, listened to cowboy poetry and ate hamburgers, hot dogs and Bundy beef.”
Many people who know of Bundy only because of his astonishingly ignorant and bigoted remarks on what he referred to as “the Negro” may not be aware of the peculiar and disturbing intentional community that sprang up around him in the wake of his armed resistance against the Bureau of Land Management, an effort that earned him a national platform as well as the adulation of possible Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul.
When I considered Bundy, one of the many things I found troubling about him was the fact that his supporters used poetry as one means of expressing their solidarity with him and their desire for freedom from federal overreach. As one of that party’s attendees put it: “This is the beginning of taking America back.”
To people who think that the role of literature, including poetry, is to make us more broadly aware and to sympathetically consider the situation of others unlike ourselves, the spectacle of a bunch of avowedly racist libertarians reciting cowboy poetry to each other is a reminder that this is not always the case.
This episode seems like a useful reminder to people who tend to characterize contemporary poetry as the high-minded musings of tenured progressives. Poetry plays a much broader and stranger role in American lives than it’s often credited for, and that this role crosses political, ideological, and cultural barriers in unpredictable ways.
It also reminds us that poetry—if broadly defined as patterned language or, as Auden put it, “memorable speech”—has no intrinsic content or values. Beautiful and memorable language can be put to any rhetorical end. Poetry is basically salt: it intensifies whatever flavors it accompanies.
We forget that at our peril. Our tendency to do so, though, can be traced back to William Wordsworth and his “Observations Prefixed to Lyrical Ballads” in 1800. In this preface to both his own poems and those of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth famously—and radically—set out to write against what he understood as the calcified mainstream poetry of his time. His efforts to make English poetry accessible to and conversant with the experience of common people was a legitimate aim. But the misstep he made is that he mistakenly identified aesthetics with morals, and that continues to dog poetry to the present day.
Wordsworth explains that his poems take “humble and rustic life” as their subject and as the source of their language because
in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings, and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and, lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.
The perspective Wordsworth is describing here could easily be ascribed to Cliven Bundy and his followers: simple country folk, uncorrupted by erudition and the institutions of urban life.
Also heavily present in both the preface and the Wordsworth poems that follow is the Romantic fetish for the spectacle of individuality, which, it turns out, is as devoid of intrinsic values as poetry itself is. If individuality is one’s primary goal, then one can convince oneself of the value and validity of all kinds of actions, good and bad. One can use individuality equally well to resist tyrants and to exploit one’s neighbors.
This conception of poetry as a standard and bulwark of individuality is not exclusive to the Romantics. It persists as a tendency in poetry to this day. In his 1995 Nobel Lecture, laureate Seamus Heaney said, “The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it.” To be clear, the values asserted in Heaney’s own poetry are consistently generous and democratic. But this assertion is problematic in that it, too, makes the mistake of confusing aesthetics with ethics: it’s fairly easy to think that poetry is automatically delivering insights about the world when really it may be uncritically reinforcing our own perspectives.
Joseph Brodsky was extremely explicit in his connection of poetry to individualism and therefore to morality, although, to be sure, his own experience was colored by his exile by the Soviet government from his homeland of Russia. In his 1987 Nobel Lecture, he went so far as to state, “On the whole, every new aesthetic reality makes man’s ethical reality more precise. For aesthetics is the mother of ethics; the categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are, first and foremost, aesthetic ones, at least etymologically preceding the categories of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.”
In Wordsworthian fashion, Brodsky posits both that the problem is society and the antidote is poetry, and that literature makes us better people insofar as it defines us as independent individuals. “For a man with taste,” he says, “particularly literary taste, is less susceptible to the refrains and the rhythmical incantations peculiar to any version of political demagogy.”
Refrains and rhythmical incantations, of course, are among the chief means by which both Wordsworth and cowboy poetry enact their lionization of the rugged individual. Both Wordsworth and cowboy poets have a penchant for the simple ballad form of four-line stanzas in rhyming couplets of either an ABAB or AABB pattern. “One impulse from a vernal wood / May teach you more of man, / Of moral evil and of good, / Than all the sages can,” says Wordsworth in “The Tables Turned.”
“On a roundup in the spring way back in eighty-two, / A Texas man was ridin’ with some northern buckaroos. / Now this Lonestar cowboy was just what you’d expect, / From any Texas puncher with a lick of self-respect,” writes contemporary cowboy poet Andy Hedges in “Texas Braggin’.”
In his essay "Cornucopia, or, Contemporary American Rhyme,” Stephen Burt writes that rhyme may
represent the past, a supposedly outmoded form of verse to match an earlier form of life, with its own more predictable (but not necessarily happier) rhythms and rituals. Indeed, the largely (though not entirely) disappointing territory of self-proclaimed U.S. New Formalist verse, which attempts to revive background rhyme for a world that has lost it, has shown a consistent (sometimes unintended) appeal to political conservatives who want to bring back earlier forms of social life too.
Of course, Burt has also pointed out (on Twitter) that none of this is inherently rhyme’s fault. Rhyme and meter are as readily available to demagogues as they are to Romantic poets or to cowboys. Regardless of who is using them, rhyme and meter can function much like, say, a concealed handgun: they provide a sense of reassurance even though they aren’t actually protecting you from any forms of coercion to which you’re actually subject (and may therefore just make your exploitation more tolerable, and make you less likely to actually question it).
In short, rhyme and meter might be deployed in a good poem as well as a bad one, and in support of conservative or progressive ends. There’s nothing intrinsic to poetry or the people who write it that guarantees a particular politics—left, right, or otherwise.
If this is the case, then what are those studies that say that reading literature makes us better people actually measuring, if anything? Last October, a study published in Science found that “reading literary fiction temporarily enhances ToM”—an abbreviation for Theory of Mind, a concept that is defined as “understanding others’ mental states” and which is considered “a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies.”
The researchers also suggested that “More broadly […] ToM may be influenced by engagement with works of art.” (It is worth noting here that plenty of scientists stepped up to criticize these types of studies. Wired magazine headlined one such post: “Reading a Novel Alters Your Brain Connectivity—So What?”)
Poetry that exerts a plausible claim on making us better people functions in exactly this way. The poems of Robert W. Service, for example, a major influence on cowboy poetry in the 20th century, frequently use rhyme and meter to encourage the reader to imaginatively encounter unfamiliar characters and situations, as does much of the cowboy poetry that both preceded and followed him. The patterned language induces readers to go somewhere mentally that they hadn’t necessarily been inclined to go—for instance, to think about people working at miserable labor, as in “The Telegraph Operator”:
I will not wash my face;I will not brush my hair;I “pig” around the place —There’s nobody to care.Nothing but rock and tree;Nothing but wood and stone;Oh God, it’s hell to beAlone, alone, alone.
Come for the rhyme and meter, stay for the misery.
But whether it is narrative—as Service and cowboy poetry tends to be—or lyric, poetry doesn’t automatically guarantee any particular outcome, certainly not making us more empathetic. Poetry can also be an opportunity for us to perform our assumptions for ourselves, to tell ourselves that we could not be more right about the stuff we already believe and that all decent people agree with us. The same poem, read by different people, can simultaneously do both of these things.
Another odd wrinkle in all this is that back in March 2011, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—who recently condemned Bundy and his supporters by saying, “Those people who hold themselves out to be patriots are not. They’re nothing more than domestic terrorists”—fought on the Senate floor to preserve federal funding for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, held annually in Elko, Nevada. The event attracts roughly 6,500 to 7,500 attendees each year and in the past has received money from the National Endowment for the Arts. If anything, Senator Reid’s support indicates that cowboy poetry—and all poetry—is morally, ethically, and politically neutral, as well as that ideas about what art does or does not do to make us “better” people are best framed with the knowledge that even “better” itself is a seriously moving target.
Famed contemporary cowboy poet and erstwhile NPR commentator Baxter Black wrote a poem called “Legacy of a Rodeo Man” that he was invited to shorten and revise for inclusion in the 1994 film 8 Seconds. The edited version is called “Cowboy Is His Name” and begins this way:
There’s a hundred years of historyand a hundred before thatAll gathered in the thinkin’Goin’ on beneath this hat.
When a poem shores up the inaccessible sovereignty of the individual instead of encouraging it into dialogue with other perspectives, it’s very difficult to know what values are being defended or put forth. In other words, we cannot make assumptions about what is going on under anybody’s hat, necessarily, when it comes to poetry and morals.