Friday, 11 May 2012

Are poets intrinsically evil?

Recently, on facebook, my States of Independence colleague Jonathan Taylor posted: "I'm with Shelley, who wished for a world of poets. At least that would be better than now, when we have a world of too many murderers, too many war criminals, too many bent politicians."
The debate that followed concentrated on whether there was a shortage of poets or just good poets. Curmudgeonly as ever, I argued with Jonathan - and Shelley - suggesting that just because someone is a poet does not make them a good person, who might improve our world. I call as expert witnesses the shades of Stalin and Mao Zedong, two of the three biggest mass murderers of last century. Poets. At least Hitler stuck to art. They were not the only poet-leaders with a penchant for doing people in. Ho Chi Minh wiped out the biggest Trotskyist party the world has ever seen, which did not stop British and American Trots dancing through the streets chanting "Ho Ho - Ho Chi Minh". Ho Chi Minh could have suggested something that scanned better.
I cannot comment on the poetry of those mentioned, but I can say that some of the most moving lines on the death of a father appear in Egils Saga (see the Everyman edition, translated by the Five Leaves writer John Lucas), when, that is, Egil could break off from describing the assorted delights of chopping people to bits. So even good poets can be murderous. We also have the recent book of Taliban poetry, indicating that the nexus between murder and poetry is modern as well. Indeed, one could easily put together a Bloodaxe Anthology of Poems by Mass Murderers, and my choice of Bloodaxe is because of their name, and the man who inspired the name, not a criticism of their anthologies.
Even the poetic canon is not devoid of people of dodgy opinion - Ezra Pound for one, or the anti-Semitic TS Eliot. Stevie Smith was not a lot better. And what of the homophobic and anti-Semitic Wyndham Lewis? I am something of a fan of Lewis' paintings, but I would not like to be in a poetry group with him. Nor with TS Eliot - "Come on Tom, that Waste Land poem is OK - can't see anyone publishing it though - but all that stuff about Bleistein and his cigars?"
On the propaganda front... how about Hatikva, the Israeli national(ist) anthem, based on a poem by Imber. Most towns I've been in in Israel have streets named after Bialik, the Zionist poet. Indeed, Jabotinsky, as close to a fascist you will get in Israeli history, was also a poet. And what of Uri Zvi Greenberg, poet supporter of Herut and a Greater Israel occupying the whole of the West Bank?
Sorry Shelley, sorry Jonathan, but personally I would not like to live in a world of poets. The only art form I can think of where the artists are free from mass murderers, occupation justifiers, racists and the like would be jazz. No army has every marched to war with a jazz band leading it.
For the record though, not all poets are mass murderers, war criminals and bent politicians! Especially Jonathan and Shelley.

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