Recently in this magazine David Orr considered the bearing of moral conduct on a poet's work ("Bad Guys," December 2004). He found the pertinent question there not to be "Can a bad man be a good poet?" The answer to that is "Yes, obviously." The real interest lies in the relation between the poet's conduct and the poetry's contract of intimacy. If the poetry does not seem addressed to us, we are inclined to ignore marginal conduct. If the poetry insists on a rapport with us, we may pass judgment on its author as a way of holding him at arm's length and denying our implication in his flaws. In effect we hold poets to different moral standards depending on whether, so to speak, they are close enough to smell.
There are parallel questions to ask about a poet's use of ideas, and about how our critical judgment functions and malfunctions when those ideas fail or fail to match our own. Where bad ideas are immoral, this inquiry overlaps with Orr's, so I will concentrate on areas where they are not. Can good poetry be written with bad ideas? Yes, obviously. But to what extent are fine qualities of the verse redemptive of the ideas? In ignoring the ideas and appreciating the rest, is one being discriminating or irresponsible? We let some poets get away with being shits—do we let others get away with being wrong?
There are simple and complicated ways to be wrong, and beginning in the simplest possible way we might consider errors of fact. A notorious mistake is John Keats's attributing the discovery of the Pacific to Hernando Cortez in "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer." Another is in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," where T.S. Eliot, in drawing an analogy between an artist's use of experience and a catalyst's role in a particular chemical reaction, mistakes sulfuric for sulfurous acid. These errors do not cause or result from lapses of reason, but are nevertheless useful in understanding more consequential cases.
The first thing to be noted is, no one cares. (William Logan remarks that Eliot never altered the passage, even after the mistake was pointed out in a publication Eliot edited.) Both errors occur in a metaphor, where they have a notional quality that does not demand you take them literally. This quality limits their ability to damage their surroundings; they are holes but not cracks. Defenses of this type of error tend to turn on license ("he can have the Easter Bunny discover the Pacific if he wants"), sound ("'stout Balboa' has no ring to it"), or objections to pedantry ("picky, picky"), but the importance of the context is evident if you imagine these errors without a metaphor to couch them. If Keats had written a sonnet called "On the Discovery of the Pacific," or Eliot an essay called "Tradition and the Manufacture of Sulfuric Acid," they would be in deeper trouble. Here is the opening of W.B. Yeats's "Pardon, Old Fathers":
Pardon, old fathers, if you still remain
Somewhere in ear-shot for the story's end,
Old Dublin merchant "free of ten and four"
Or trading out of Galway into Spain[.]
The tax in the third line was really called the eight and six. When someone told Yeats this, he shrugged and said he wasn't up to the rewriting. I am much more leery of the ten and four than I am of Cortez or sulfurous acid, since in Yeats's case the phrase's literalness is as firm as that of the phrases around it (firmer, with the quoted "'free of ten and four'" suggesting an echt expression). As Vikram Seth has put it, if you write a formal poem about olive-picking in February, you had better be sure that olives are picked in February.
The statements so far considered are merely factual. When poets deploy series of statements, though, they use or introduce relationships among facts and may be said to traffic in ideas, and that's when things get sticky. Not all bad ideas are demonstrably wrong in the sense that "Cortez discovered the Pacific" is wrong, and to go further it is necessary to talk about failures of ideas which you might not recognize as failures. Yvor Winters's 1947 essay, "The Significance of The Bridge, by Hart Crane, or What Are We to Think of Professor X?" diagnoses a deep fault in a writer's thinking, but you need not ultimately agree with the diagnosis to get a sense of this type of objection and to find some terms for talking about poets' relationships to ideas in general.
Winters's critique operates almost entirely upstream of the poetry itself, and goes like this: Crane got his ideas from Whitman. Whitman got them from Emerson. Emerson's ideas amount to stock European romanticism: God is pervasive in creation and so in mankind; impulse is divine; reason is opposed to impulse and therefore evil. The Bridge is enervated by an understanding of change as tantamount to progress; without a means for distinguishing good change from bad, the poem cannot achieve its aim, the apotheosis of American tribal experience. Crane's suicide and intermittent ability to capitalize on his immense gifts came of his equation of self-destruction with beatitude. "We have," Winters says, "a poet of great genius, who ruined his life and his talent by living and writing as the two greatest religious teachers of our nation recommended."
This judgment is a long way from talk about line breaks and slant rhyme. But it is not so far from talk about Cortez and sulfurous acid—only Crane's mistakes are at the level of premise, so they ramify. But Winters now has to face a statistical objection: readers of Emerson and Whitman do not, as a rule, hurl themselves into the sea. Emerson and Whitman did not hurl themselves into the sea. Surely Crane was passionate, unbalanced, cornered, perhaps even ill or foolish, independent of his ideas?
Winters personifies this objection in a figure he calls "Professor X." Professor X is an avuncular and pleasant enough sentimentalist. He teaches literature but is not inclined to inquire into its first principles. The homey mysticism of the Transcendentalists is congenial to him, and he does not suspect there might be something destabilizing or artistically limiting in its teachings. He himself is stabilized by conformity, and by a fund of inherited custom he cannot defend and indeed objects to. Professor X claims to be smarter than Crane, but having met both of them Winters rejects this:
The difference here, between Crane and Professor X, is not that Professor X possesses a wider intelligence, for we have seen that he does not, but that he possesses a less intensely active intelligence. The difference, I believe, is this: that Crane was absolutely serious and Professor X is not serious.
"Serious," in this sense, does not mean "somber," "grave," or "humorless." It does not mean "conscientious in craft." It does indicate an awareness of premises, a belief in the validity of those premises to the exclusion of competing ones, and the will to execute them. Gertrude Stein, even at her silliest, is serious. Dylan Thomas, even at his most sonorous, is not. Milton is serious, justifying the ways of God to man; Donne and Marvell, playing with ideas like brokers playing with pork bellies, are not. For now I do not attach any value to the term. (I think Winters would call seriousness a necessary condition of great poetry, but would say Crane's tragic flaw was seriousness in the absence of critical awareness.) You might call serious poets bees and unserious ones butterflies. A poet's relationship to ideas is charged by his or her seriousness, and hedged by the lack of it; it is analogous to reader-writer intimacy in the moral case. When a poet's ideas fail, our judgment, when it exists, is likely to be severe in proportion to the poet's seriousness about them. This is why Crane's fall, if you recognize it as a fall, is so heartbreaking and so far.
Winters was an extraordinarily serious man, and most readers and critics (even those who are not disciples of Professor X) are not such sticklers for soundness of method. There is widespread resistance to the notion that a poem's ideas are a legitimate area of inquiry, and by extension a resistance, presumably, to the notion of "serious" as a useful descriptor in the vein of "formal" or "lyric." You might very well object that Winters's response to Crane is just barking up the wrong tree, and that whether or not Emersonian romanticism is philosophically tenable is irrelevant to the poems' quality. Cleanth Brooks:
one could say that a poem does not state ideas but rather tests ideas. Or, to put the matter in other terms, a poem does not deal primarily with ideas and events but rather with the way in which a human being may come to terms with ideas and events. All poems, therefore, including the most objective poems, turn out on careful inspection to be poems really "about" man himself. A poem, then, to sum up, is to be judged, not by the truth or falsity as such, of the idea which it incorporates, but rather by its character as drama—by its coherence, sensitivity, depth, richness, and tough-mindedness.
By these measures, Winters's critique of Crane is bunk before it even begins. Brooks, a New Critic, wants the art isolated from cultural history; Winters, a humanist, wants the art accountable to it. These two camps can be to some extent reconciled if we take Brooks's statement to apply properly to unserious poems, which by nature treat ideas hypothetically if they treat them at all. If construed otherwise Brooks's position tends to go down the rabbit hole when presented with a poem that has any polemic elements. Restricted to talking about sensitivity and richness, unseriousness has no language with which to answer (for example) partisan political statements, religious heresies, or philosophical contentions.
This problem, the unserious response to seriousness, is particularly acute with devotional poets like Anne Bradstreet and George Herbert, who have undergone a secularization in the modern era and are now in a strange position where nine-tenths of their admirers—and I count myself here—do not share, and have no intuitive understanding of, the beliefs which are the source of their passion. To claim that our present psychologizing idiom gleans everything that afflicts these artists is a flimsy proposition. In a review of a biography of G.M. Hopkins, Christopher Ricks sees the problem immediately:
Hopkins warned a friend against "doing what I once thought I could do, adopt an enlightened Christianity." Insofar as a biographer of Hopkins is necessarily a critic of the poetry, he may need to be warned against adopting an enlightened Hopkinsianity.
The radical question about this honorably unradical biography is that of its engagement with Hopkins's unenlightened Christianity, his beliefs, his sensibility, his allegiances, even his violences and superstitions. And here Martin falls short, or at any rate stops short. I don't know whether Martin has religious beliefs; I do know that I don't. I don't know whether there would have been imaginative ways in which Martin could have made good his enlightened pluralistic good nature in the face of Hopkins's passion and partisanship; I do know that for me the book dithers and hedges.
An unserious reader (the biographer) has encountered a serious poet, and the immiscibility of their premises limits how closely the one can approach the other. This immiscibility does not make Hopkins's poetry incomprehensible or hopelessly alien. But it does bar the reader from a depth and quality of response available to those who share (or doctrinally contest, perhaps) the poet's beliefs. And I would argue that mildly denatured readings of this type are generally in effect for Hopkins, and even for Dante, with whom we slip, easily and by long habit, into an enlightened Danteianity (wherein the Divine Comedy is a kind of theme park for medieval theology). Ricks notes that when Hopkins's friend Robert Bridges patronized Hopkins about his religious beliefs, Hopkins wrote this to him:
It is long since such things had any significance for you. But what is strange and unpleasant is that you sometimes speak as if they had in reality none for me.
Recognizing that Hopkins is serious, we are at least likely, if we are not serious ourselves, to be more circumspect, less blithe, less likely to mistake the poet's investitures for attractive tchotchkes.
If one accepts the validity of seriousness as it applies to poets, it becomes possible to talk about bees or butterflies without damaging the habitat of the other. Speaking critically about a poet's ideas is in serious cases potentially ennobling or damning, and in unserious cases quite beside the point. Not every poet is a pure example of either type, and a poet may change over time—W.H. Auden waffled, and famously repudiated his two deepest excursions into seriousness, in "September 1, 1939" and "Spain." I find myself most flummoxed by poets of obvious facility whose ideas are questionable, but whose relationship to those ideas is not immediately clear. Two thorny examples in this category are W.B. Yeats and James Merrill (particularly in The Changing Light at Sandover). My intent in considering these poets is not to bludgeon them with rationalism, but to dramatize a case of a reader encountering inassimilable premises he may or may not be being asked to assimilate. My uncertainty about the poems' value, you could say, is an uncertainty about their seriousness, and an uncertainty about whether seriousness, as a concept, is adequate to them.
Yeats was already fifty when his father John Butler wrote this to him about William Blake:
You will remind me that Blake was a mystic. I know that Blake's poetry is not intelligible without a knowledge of Blake's mystical doctrines. Yet mysticism was never the substance of his poetry, only its machinery.... The substance of his poetry is himself, revolting and desiring. His mysticism was a make-believe, a sort of working hypothesis as good as another. He could write about it in prose and contentiously assert his belief. When he wrote his poems it dropped into the background, and it did not matter whether you believed it or not, so apart from all creeds was his poetry.
Cleanth Brooks would not have put it differently. The father is saying, to put it in our present terms, that Blake is not serious. This galled the son, who had spent his entire career trying to cobble together a mythology that was not make-believe and was more than hypothetical—who wanted, in other words, to be serious. This drive for the sublime sent him, often by way of the ridiculous, to obsession after obsession, no one of which proved entirely satisfactory. His interest in the supernatural folklore of his Mythologies failed to overlap with any interest in actual folk. An enthusiastic apprentice of Madame Blavatsky's theosophist lodge in London, Yeats was excommunicated because his incessant experiments (like trying to induce certain dreams by placing certain items under a pillow) were causing muttering in the ranks. Four days into his marriage to George Hyde-Lees, George began intensive episodes of automatic writing which Yeats collected and systematized in A Vision. It featured, among much else, the figure of the spinning interpenetrating cones, or gyres, which represent copulation, objectivity and subjectivity, life and death, beauty and truth, and any number of other dualisms. (The gyre makes its most famous appearance in "The Second Coming," but shyly, sharing the literal shape of a falcon's flight.) In the thirties Yeats wrote marching songs for the Irish blue shirts, then backpedaled from the movement. In his last year he published a pamphlet decrying class miscegenation and racial decline in Ireland, writing to the secretary of the Eugenics Society for data: "Is there any record of the intelligence quota [sic] among people living upon inherited money? One would expect it to be pretty high."
There is good reason, in all of these instances, to be unsure about Yeats's seriousness: Yeats slathered belief on top of skepticism and contradiction on top of contradiction. He was an elitist folklorist, an experimental theosophist, an empirical polemicist, an apolitical fascist, a mystic who did not believe his own findings well enough to deploy them in his art. He could make no label stick to himself nor desist from trying to make them stick. Yeats's much-quoted lecture notes present an ideal of seriousness:
A poet is by the very nature of things a man who lives with entire sincerity, or rather, the better the poetry the more sincere his life. His life is an experiment in living [it is no little thing] to accept one's own thought when the thought of others has the authority of the world behind it.
With respect to this ideal, which may very well eventuate in either a hero or a fool, he understood himself as falling short. He was tormented by the possibility that his skepticism was diffidence in belief, but if he had ever won his way to seriousness, his poetry would have given itself over to inanity. But it does not follow from this that he was unserious either. From the introduction to A Vision:
Some will ask whether I believe in the actual existence of my circuits of sun and moon.... To such a question I can but answer that if sometimes, overwhelmed by miracle as all men must be when in the midst of it, I have taken such periods literally, my reason has soon recovered; and now that the system stands out clearly in my imagination I regard them as stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawing of Wyndham Lewis and to the ovoids in the sculpture of Brancusi. They have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice.
Belief has occasionally suborned his reason, but in the aftermath of these episodes he is left with symbols which remain compelling, even though the systems they are drawn from no longer hold sway over him. And here we have the essence of Yeats's peculiarity: his capacity for belief is not constant, but waxes and wanes; his skepticism is strong at its strongest but prone to go into abeyance. We can say then that Yeats is sporadically serious, and with this understanding I believe it is possible to admire the poetry in full consciousness of his ideas and their shortcomings. It is as if the ideas are molten: by the time they are cast in his poems, they are cool, and though they may be ugly in form need no longer burn.
There is a certain amount of scatter in the responses to James Merrill's work too, where the critical push-and-shove has tended to concern the private and the political, the solipsistic and the engaged, but does not exclude questions of belief. The Changing Light at Sandover is a series of conversations Merrill and his companion David Jackson conducted with spirits from the afterworld by means of a ouija board (a scene similar to that of the newlywed Yeatses). The couple's communicants include a first-century Greek Jew, a peacock, some angels, many lost friends, and famous personages, all chiming in with characteristic verbal tics. As the vast transcript dribbles one letter at a time through the spigot of a sliding teacup, Merrill sketches in a seat-of-the-pants cosmology simultaneously rigid and playful, the poet a sort of sandbox-tyrant building and revealing theories of reincarnation, biology, doom, the nature of the soul. He is occasionally blithe and self-deprecating about the project ("very beautiful all this/Warmed-up Milton, Dante, Genesis?/This great tradition that has come to grief/In volumes by Blavatsky and Gurdjieff?") and, it would seem, explicitly unserious:
Not for nothing had the Impressionists
Put subject-matter in its place, a mere
Pretext for iridescent atmosphere.
Why couldn't Science, in the long run, serve
As well as one's uncleared lunch-table or
Mme X en Culotte de Matador?
Ideas seem to be useful only insofar as they make the atmosphere iridescent. On the other hand, Merrill has not written a five-hundred-page folie, and it is not easy to read the book as pure fantasia. The fiction of the two men over the ouija board is left intact—that is, it does not reveal itself as a fiction—and the ritual of the board appears to have been truly vital to the composition of the poem. Sandover makes what may be reasonably read as cumulatively serious statements about the eternal, about the transforming power of love and the stabilizing power of language. There is, as in Yeats, some reason to be confused about the poet's seriousness. And so on the one hand there is Harold Bloom saying "nothing since the greatest writers of our century equals it in daemonic force," and on the other Peter Stitt calling it "an intellectual sham," "as inartistic as the content is fatuous." If you are somewhere in the middle you may feel, as David Bromwich puts it, a "peevish empiric" niggling away.
Sandover is on the face of it an unlikely project for a poet of Merrill's medium-range elegance and formal bent. Merrill inherited topical and public ambitions from his friend, the Greek writer Kimon Friar, but knew he could only have spoken topically and publicly from a very peculiar and elaborate soapbox. This limitation required conceiving the poem in such a way that Merrill did not know what was going to happen—he grew bored when he had nothing to be ignorant about, when no gaps were available to interpolate with his imagination, and the ouija board provided a domestic source of exotica. Merrill was able to be very coy about its role ("David often foreknew the messages") while happily availing himself of its possibilities. When interviewed Merrill was asked in various ways how this could be so. How real is Sandover's mythology to you? "When you are caught up in it you believe it wholeheartedly; when you cool off you see it as a stylization of various things in your experience or in the world's experience." So, did you make it all up, or what? "If it's still yourself that you're drawing upon, then that self is much stranger and freer and more far-seeing than the one you thought you knew."
The resemblances to Yeats's statements are strong: the reported mercurialness of belief, the insistence on the symbolic and stylistic value of its aftereffects, the end justifying the means. Merrill has, like Yeats, a relationship to truth that is not hypothesis and not belief. You cannot quite paraphrase his position by saying, "It might be true," or "I don't know," or "Who cares?"; it is a slipperier slipperiness. I have heard a professor at a major American university maintain that James Merrill and David Jackson were in fact in communication with the spirits of the dead, but even Merrill does not quite make this claim. Merrill adopts an enlightened Merrillianity. Adopting one ourselves (and this does take, for me, quite a bit of energy), we need neither let Sandover affront our skepticism nor suspend it.
Merrill and Yeats have the ability to morph from bee to butterfly and back, and it is tempting to uphold them as some kind of solution to or advancement of questions of a poet's relationship to ideas. Seriousness is constantly beset by the suspicion that it cannot account for the complexity of experience, unseriousness by the knowledge that it cannot say anything true. Merrill and Yeats are beset by neither; they have their cake and eat it. But I have to refrain from calling their capacity a talent. There is a story that the mathematician Jon von Neumann, Jewish by birth, sent from his deathbed for a Catholic priest—the odds, he said, were better. Merrill and Yeats are not this cunning and opportunistic, but something in their procedure does similar violence, I think, to the nature of belief.
If there is no viable model of belief in these poets, they do not necessarily need to be followed. Seriousness and unseriousness, much like innovation and tradition, are individually vigorous and vigorously opposed. Modernity seems on the whole to have been a little less kind to the bee: the butterfly is less prone to bombast, it can contain multitudes, and it makes a vice of consistency, which, we assure each other, is an affliction of small minds. Robert Pinsky's poem "Essay on Psychiatrists" is about the shift away from seriousness at the societal level, and how strange it is that the health of the psyche—the place where seriousness does or does not take place—has been entrusted to a group of rather ordinary people ("bourgeois savants") who at any given moment would prefer to be playing tennis or going to a restaurant. In the quality of its anthropology the poem seems to me a tour de force. Near the end a monitory Yvor Winters appears, or some facsimile of him, addressing a class of incoming students:
"I will tell you
What this course is about. Sometime in the middle
Of the Eighteenth Century, along with the rise
Of capitalism and scientific method, the logical
Foundations of Western thought decayed and fell apart.
When they fell apart, poets were left
With emotions and experiences, and with no way
To examine them. At this time, poets and men
Of genius began to go mad. Gray went mad. Collins
Went mad. Kit Smart was mad. William Blake surely
Was a madman. Coleridge was a drug addict, with severe
Depression. My friend Hart Crane died mad. My friend
Ezra Pound is mad. But you will not go mad; you will grow up
To become happy, sentimental old college professors,
Because they were men of genius, and you
Are not; and the ideas which were vital
To them are mere amusement to you."
Whoever holds ideas to be more than mere amusement will at the very least risk being unappealing. But I will leave a light on for these kinds of poets who, precisely because they are in a position to be preposterous, exhibit a quality I am prepared to call courage. Louise Bogan (though serious herself) once wrote to a friend about Robinson Jeffers: "What an ass that man is! Him and his Pacific Ocean!" Fair enough. But better his ocean, perhaps, than Cortez's.
Poet, critic, and editor D.H. Tracy earned an MFA at Boston University. In his formally engaged poems, often infused with sly humor, he explores themes of intimacy, perception, and loss. His debut poetry collection, Janet’s Cottage (2012), won a New Criterion Poetry Prize, and his work is featured in The...