Beyond Ideology: Poetry and the Conservative Mind

The Ideologues

Genius of Burke! forgive the pen seduced/ by specious wonders – William Wordsworth

Conservatives today seem to be pretty good at winning elections. They also seem to be pretty good at spreading their ideas; there are more conservative think tanks, student groups, campus centers, policy organizations, and media outlets than ever before.

And yet those electoral victories and those institutions tend to advance only a narrow kind of conservatism. That’s because since roughly the midway point of last century, conservatives have abandoned their progenitors’ insights into the importance of culture, literature, and aesthetics.

The elevation of transcendent beauty and truth, the intellectual and cross-generational preservation of great artistic and philosophical achievements—these tasks, once central to the conservative project, have been subordinated. Now the quotidian is in the ascendant.

Edmund Burke’s focus on “moral imagination” has been replaced by a myopic focus on practical politics and achieving policy victories. And the conservative world of ideas is increasingly wonky and limited to free market economics, the philosophy of liberty, and constitutionalism.

Right-leaning patrons spend millions funding campus centers so that students can study those ideas. This may be well and good, but without more, humanity’s vast range and mystery is given a gloss. To resonate more broadly, conservatives also must reach for the ineffable, the sublime.

Intellectuals on the Right have at least a vague sense of the link between art and literature, elites, and public opinion. Hence, for example, yearly distribution to college students, by the thousands, of free copies of Atlas Shrugged. This, however, highlights the problem of ideology.

In his profound 1996 Modern Age essay “How Conservatives Failed ‘The Culture’,” Claes Ryn described an almost philistine outlook among “supposedly conservative intellectuals.” For them the “arts are mainly pleasant diversions” or, worse, viewed mainly through a political lens:

More or less consciously, they tend to assess either thought or imagination from the point of view of whether it advances or undermines the political cause that they assume to be incontestable. … Works of thought and imagination are for them not intriguing and potentially unsettling forces that might trigger painful self-examination and unpredictably reconstitute one’s own accustomed views; making sense of them is not so much a matter of soul-searching as of locating them on the political spectrum.

Unfortunately, the ideological mindset Professor Ryn described has intensified in the intervening years. Today the answer to perceived progressive ideological hegemony, whether in the academy or elsewhere, has been at times to amplify an equally strident right-wing ideology.

The issue goes beyond ideologues who disseminate ideological novels—however well-crafted—for ideological purposes. It goes beyond the tunnel vision of radio hosts, op-ed writers, policy wonks, and philanthropists, for whom politics and capitalism are the beginning and the end.

No matter its stripe, ideology subdues the imagination, the artistic spirit, and the intellect, which give life to culture itself. Besides, true conservatism is not ideological; it will be wildly distorted in the long run if its intellectual sustenance comes only from the dogmatists in its midst.

Of course there are exceptions to the trends described here; great minds are at work in every generation. To whom, then, might the bright lights in the contemporary conservative movement turn for inspiration, so as to forge a present worthy of remembrance in the future?

To the poets.

The Summons

Russell Kirk, in The Conservative Mind, argued that a “consumption society,” especially one guided by an elite that is heedless of tradition and prone to hubris, leads to a “conflagration of unchecked will and appetite.” He viewed high poetry as a counterbalance:

[The] enduring themes of serious poetry have been those of order and permanence. After some decades of protest and negation, twentieth-century poetry returns to an affirmation of continuity and lasting truths…. If men of affairs can rise to the summons of the poets, the norms of culture and politics may endure despite the follies of the time.

Kirk was hopeful in part because in T.S. Eliot, as well as Robert Frost and others, he saw a link to Vergil, Dante, Milton, and other canonized poets who had helped to “reinterpret and vindicate the norms of human existence.” Eliot and his modernist peers had assumed the mantle.

Much has been written about Eliot’s conservatism; Roger Scruton’s essay “T.S. Eliot as Conservative Mentor,” for instance, offers an exquisite survey of the topic. Frost also was a conservative. As were George Santayana, W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore.

But among all of them, Stevens was by far the superior poet—which Kirk might have recognized if he hadn’t been so biased toward Eliot and his late turn to Catholicism. “Much like Russell Kirk, Stevens was a student of the human imagination, except that, contra Kirk, Stevens was ambivalent about religious matters,” writes Allen Mendenhall.

At any rate, modernist poetry is almost difficult to imagine now. Its towering figures were not just conservatives, but conservatives who galvanized poetry, aesthetic philosophy, and literary criticism. First and foremost they were unassailable artists—progressive poets “stole” from them, and Frost would even recite a poem at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

Poetry then was at least a somewhat culturally relevant art form, and open to a variety of aesthetic and sociopolitical perspectives. But that dynamism did not last. Poetry readership has declined steadily over time; today less than 7 percent of Americans read a poem in a given year.

And if people now have trouble naming a single living poet, they would be even harder-pressed to name one who also happens to be a conservative.

The Formalist

“Poetry has become a specialty good, something academics and a very small literary community sell and buy with each other,” said Michael J. Astrue in a recent Martin Center interview.

A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, Astrue served as associate counsel in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. He later became CEO of a multinational biotech company. And from 2007 to 2013, he was the head of the Social Security Administration.

But his remarkable career has involved more than work as an attorney, CEO, and civil servant. The poet Paul Mariani, in a 2010 essay for First Things, revealed that Astrue is an award-winning formalist poet and poetry translator who uses the anagrammatic pen name A.M. Juster.

Astrue’s work has appeared in Poetry, the Paris Review, and many other high-profile publications. But his success has not come without obstacles. Navigating the world of poetry as a conservative, especially one who favors formalism (the use of traditional meter and rhyme) rather than free verse, puts him at odds with many of his contemporaries.

He says that over time poetry has become a “guild” controlled mostly by academia. And much of academia and publishing, he argues, is not always welcoming to those, like himself, who have developed their craft outside of the master of fine arts [MFA] paradigm. “Now the MFA is essential to publishing and teaching. It’s a very inbred, incestuous game of sorts. You look at what’s being published, and it’s unreadable in a lot of situations,” he said.

The Game

The first creative writing program—the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—was created in 1936. Today, there are several hundred MFA programs and M.A. programs in creative writing. But there was no academic huddle, no strategic plan in higher education, which led to that rapid growth.

Artists tend to want to learn from other artists and devote as much time as possible to their art. If an artist perceives that his or her peers in MFA programs are expanding their careers, receiving publishing opportunities, and achieving some success, the temptation to attend will be strong.

That mindset, along with the fact that students now have easy access to federal loan money, certainly has been exploited by universities. Each year roughly 20,000 individuals apply to MFA programs. Demand is booming and revenues from such programs total, according to some estimates, $200 million annually.

This article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, despite its grating focus on identity politics, can serve as a basic primer on the MFA’s structural issues. A few takeaways: several thousand MFAs are awarded each year; the vast majority of MFA students do not receive full fellowships—they often are spending a significant amount of their own money or taxpayer money; and most graduates seeking tenure-track MFA teaching positions will find nothing of the sort.

Furthermore, some schools, perhaps in an attempt to carve out a niche in the saturated MFA market, are catering to students who probably are more interested in activism than in literature. Antioch University in Los Angeles, for example, created a MFA program “devoted not only to the education of literary artists but to community engagement and the pursuit of social justice.”

Chatham University in Pittsburgh offers a social justice track as well. But its students also can focus on environmentalism and take courses titled “Ecofeminist Literature” and “Shakespeare: Ecocriticism and Pedagogy.” Here is the actual description of the latter (bear in mind that students not receiving fellowships pay roughly $40,000 to complete Chatham’s program):

Students in this course study Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays from a “green” perspective. This course looks at how Shakespeare’s works engage deforestation, enclosure, (ab)use of animals, stewardship, cultivation, and the exploitation of natural resources. Pedagogical strategies for teaching Shakespeare will will [sic] also be discussed.

The Hollowness

“Increasingly for poets, speaking to people in ways that they can understand isn’t important,” said Michael Astrue. “Now it’s about showing to your peer group how creative you are. You see this with modern architecture. But at least with architecture, you have clients so there’s some constraint. Poets these days are writing in a self-contained universe.”

Astrue says that Ben Lerner “represents the vast majority of poets in this country, and the trend is probably overall going in his direction.” Here is the beginning of one of Lerner’s poems, “[By any measure],” which Astrue analyzed last year in an essay for the Claremont Review of Books:

By any measure, it was endless
Winter. Emulsions with
Then circled the lake like
This is it. This April will be
Inadequate sensitivity to green.
I rose Early, erased for an hour
Silk-brush and ax
I’d like to think I’m a different person
latent image fading

Lerner, a MFA graduate, was a Fulbright scholar and Guggenheim fellow, and in 2015 received the MacArthur fellowship. He recently became a distinguished professor of English at Brooklyn College. One can imagine MFA students, pining for similar literary fame, spending countless workshop hours “fine-tuning” equally uninspiring and unintelligible poems.

And yet one also can imagine the opposite. For instance, Best American Poetry 2016 contains poems written mostly by either MFA graduates or writing professors. Many poems are at least good enough to deserve a second read; others have real resonance. One highlight is “Barberism,” a poem by Terrance Hayes, who received his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh. Here is an excerpt of the opening lines (first published in the New York Times):

It was light and lusterless and somehow luckless,
The hair I cut from the head of my father-in-law,

It was pepper-blanched and wind-scuffed, thin
As a blown bulb’s filament, it stuck to the teeth

Of my clippers like a dark language, the static
Covering his mind stuck to my fingers, it mingled

In halfhearted tufts with the dust. Because
Every barber’s got a gift for mind reading in his touch

Hayes’s sonic playfulness (e.g., “light and lusterless and somehow luckless”), slant rhymes (e.g., fingers/mingled), and overall musicality stand out, and help to beautifully juxtapose the poem’s somber undertones. The suddenness of “dark language” jolts the reader into a more contemplative state as the speaker begins to reflect on the limited time he has left with an aging loved one. This poem is meaningful, emotive, and skillfully wrought. We hope only that poems such as this lead a longer life than those steeped in Ben Lerner’s hollow postmodernism.

The Challenge

In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot was writing to poets, but his message might also be applicable to conservatives today:

[I]f the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.

The challenge now is to engage in that “great labour,” to work to restore the conservative tradition to its “wider significance.” We have seen recent generations of intellectuals devoting energy mainly to public policy and party politics, sometimes turning ideological along the way. But if more conservatives instead can rise to the summons of the great poets, as Kirk put it, they might in some way help to restore beauty and truth to the wider culture.

Michael Astrue seems to be working along such lines. He successfully lobbied National Review and the Weekly Standard to begin featuring poetry. “I argued that conservative culture was being set back by not publishing like the Atlantic and others do,” he said. “It would even be better if the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal published.”

Others have argued that philanthropists should begin funding their own writing programs and fellowships to boost conservative presence in what often is viewed as a liberal-dominated publishing establishment. There are a number of problems with that idea, though, as Micah Mattix explained here. Art promoted for political or “culture war” purposes is usually bad art.

Besides, as Michael Davis wrote in the Imaginative Conservative, “The poet definitely should not rely on how correct he thinks his politics are, as it won’t compensate for shoddy poetics. Rather, a poem dwelling on political themes should be held to the same standard as a poem dwelling on nature, or love, or religion: the poetic standard.”

Beauty and truth, “the poetic standard”—these go beyond worldview and politics.

“I am a progressive in many ways, but if that means having no standard of value, no regard for tradition, no aesthetics, [and] no moral judgment, then I side with T.S. Eliot,” said the poet G.H. Mosson in a recent Martin Center interview. Mosson, who graduated from Johns Hopkins University’s prestigious Writing Seminars program, now is an attorney in Baltimore, Maryland. He still writes and publishes poetry.

“Poets are working in the fields of human truth,” he said. “And the truth speaks for itself; it has to be reckoned with. Even if it takes ten, twenty, thirty years for it to diffuse into the educated population and into the policymakers and the politicians. And they may not adopt it, but they may have to reckon with it.”

Echoing Percy Bysshe Shelley’s claim that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” Russell Kirk wrote that “No less than politicians do, great poets move nations, even though the generality of men may not know the poets’ names.”

The time is now for us to know their names.