In response to the question, “Can a bad man be a good poet?” there are only two things to be said: “Yes” and “obviously.” In part, that's because the poetry world sets the bar fairly low for “badness” when we say a poet was a “bad man,” we don't mean that he was a shotgun-toting, baby-kicking monster; we mean that he was unpleasant, disturbed, or a jerk. And considering that poetry’s history is thick with unpleasant, disturbed jerks, the question would seem to answer itself.
Still, smart readers continue to bemoan the disgraceful behavior of poets, and to ask how it possibly can be reconciled with their art. In a recent New York Times review of Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems, for example, Stephen Metcalf tells us that “poets are expected to be more than first-rate talents” and then asks, “How do we square this with Larkin, with his bitterness, his commitment to masturbatory solitude and his slide into gross political reaction?” In raising this question, Metcalf, a Larkin fan, is simply acceding to critical reality if you’re going to review a Larkin book, you’re going to do a lot of sighing over the poet’s racial slurs, spiteful quips, and dirty magazines. But why is that? Why do we feel the need to judge a Larkin or a Lowell or a Pound or at least to judge them morally? What do we mean by “bad,” anyway? And why continue to ask a question about poetic morality whose answer “Yes, obviously” has been proven over and over and over again, century after century, from Blake to Shelley to Rimbaud to Frost?
The First Law of Poetic Morality could be stated as follows:
how we read determines how (and who) we judge. We like to talk about “bad men” and “good poetry,” but we’re the ones handing out the gold stars and demerits, and we may be “good” or “bad” ourselves in ways that affect our views of others. Thus Baudelaire, no stranger to nastiness, throws his sins like a shroud over audience and writer alike “Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère!” and even the empyreal John Ashbery reminds us, “The poem is you.” Often our reading habits playa relatively obvious and uncomplicated role in determining whom we consider “bad.” If we like a poet’s work, for example, we’re more forgiving of his sins, and if we don’t, we’re not. But the way we read can affect our evaluation of a poet’s “real life” activities in quieter and more obscure ways as well. Consider the way we position ourselves in relation to the speaker of Pound’s Canto LXXXI:
Zeus lies in Ceres’ bosom
Taishan is attended of loves
under Cythera, before sunrise,
and he said, “Hay aquí mucho
catolicismo (sounded catolithismo)
y muy poco reliHión”
and he said, “Yo creo que los reyes desaparecen”
(Kings will, I think, disappear)
That was Padre José Elizondo
in 1906 and 1917
or about 1917
Whoever is talking here, it certainly isn’t “one of us.” For one thing, the speaker doesn’t seem to know whether we understand Spanish otherwise, why comment on an idiosyncrasy of local pronunciation (which would be interesting only if we knew the language), but then translate an entire line into English (which would be useful only if we didn’t)? In Canto LXXXI, we’re being allowed to overhear; we aren’t being engaged.
Although we might at first consider it insignificant, the gap between speaker and reader is essential to our judgment of poetic misbehavior. We may understand intellectually that “the speaker” is neither “the reader” nor “the poet,” but when we’re in the business of casting stones and erecting pillories, we’ve already gone far beyond the realm of things we know, deep into the murky territory of things we feel. We’re more often crying out than criticizing. Of course, even in ordinary circumstances, greater distance between speakers and readers creates greater emotional distance between the poet and his audience an effect demonstrated by the scarcity of college students who finish The Cantos saying, “You know, that’s exactly how I feel, too.” But when sin is on the line, the significance of that distance increases. Think about the following remarks, which were broadcast by Pound from Italy on April 23, 1943:
Of course, for you to go looking for my point points of my bi-weekly talk in the maze of Jew-governed American radio transmissions is like looking for one needle in a whole flock of haystacks. And your press is not very open.... Had you had the sense to eliminate Roosevelt and his Jews or the Jews and their Roosevelt at the last election, you would not now be at war.
Now, this is “bad” any way you look at it. But given the way we read poems like Canto LXXXI, we’re in little danger of getting our own interests (or our own selves) confused with Ezra Pound’s or those of his voices. Our condemnation of Pound may be self-righteous or excessive, but it probably won’t involve the blinkered emotion of a betrayed fan. We might say, for example, “This is terrible”; we probably won’t say, “This makes me ashamed,” or, “This is so revolting that I’m going to throw up.”
Imagine, though, how we would feel if the above broadcast had not been made by Pound, but had instead been delivered by the author of these lines:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
Whitman is “ours” and his statements are “ours” in a way that Pound and his work aren’t. Not because Whitman is a better writer than Pound, but because of the relationship that develops among reader, speaker, and poet in Whitman's poems. If we were to discover that Whitman had written a series of newspaper articles in which he asserted, à la Pound, that a “dirty gang of kikes and hyper-kikes” had caused the Civil War, the reaction even today would be for many readers something along the lines of, “I think I'm going to puke.”
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Which brings us to the intriguing case of Philip Larkin. As many poetry readers will recall, Larkin’s biography and
Selected Letters revealed that a poet who generally had been considered a wry, self-deprecating Everyman had in fact been the kind of guy who called Morocco “coonland,” viciously belittled his peers, lied to his various lovers, and collected pornography. As Martin Amis noted in a 1993 article, the critical reaction to these revelations concerning Larkin’s private life took on a very particular cast:
Thus the reception of [Andrew Motion’s biography of Larkin] was marked by the quivering nostril and by frequent recourse to the pomaded hanky, the smelling salts and the sick bag. Writing in the Times, Peter Ackroyd attributed “a rancid and insidious philistinism” to the “foul-mouthed bigot.” Similarly, Bryan Appleyard saw, or nosed, “a repellent, smelly, inadequate masculinity” in “this provincial grotesque.” A. N. Wilson, in a piece graciously entitled “Larkin: The Old Friend I Never Liked,” said that “Larks” was a “really rather nasty, prematurely aged man,” and “really a kind of petty-bourgeois fascist,” and “really a nutcase.”
“Rancid,” “repellent,” “smelly,” “grotesque,” “nasty,” “a nutcase” this isn’t the language of either artistic criticism or moral judgment; it’s the patois of disgust. As Martha Nussbaum reminds us, disgust is a peculiar and irrational sensation: “Disgust appears to be an especially visceral emotion.... Its classic expression is vomiting; its classic stimulants are vile odors and other objects whose very appearance seems loathsome.” In the socio-political theater, Nussbaum argues, disgust is a means of separating ourselves from undesirables, of making sure that “we” are considered normal, while establishing that the object of disgust remains firmly in the camp of the abnormal.
But why would Larkin’s boorishness inspire this particular response, rather than simply irritation or impatience or disappointment? After all, the critics mentioned above presumably read about worse unpleasantness every day in the newspaper without having to hustle to the bathroom with their hands over their mouths. They’ve probably even read about worse behavior by Larkin’s peers a letter in response to Amis’s article, for example, asserts that Anne Sexton’s "emotional and sexual abuse of her daughter, Linda, is surely more ‘unforgivable’ than Larkin’s hole-in-corner bigotry and misogyny.”
Again, though, the difference lies in our reading habits. We are unlikely ever to see ourselves in Sexton’s poems her work insists on being the product of an unrepresentative consciousness. (This is why readers are almost never disgusted by confessional poetry: someone who is confessing to us is unlikely also to be us.) Larkin's poetry, however, is more determined to engage the reader’s sympathy than the work of any other major twentieth-century poet. His diction, his syntax, his calculated shifts from the first person to the third person plural, his tone, his humor, even (as Stephen Burt has pointed out) his use of the word “fuck” all of these factors encourage the reader to take sides with Larkin’s speakers, despite the unappealing conclusions that those speakers often reach. Think of the beginning of “Sad Steps”:
Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon's cleanliness.
Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There’s something laughable about this
The colloquial language immediately links speaker and reader we may not all know what Pound means by “Zeus lies in Ceres’ bosom,” but we have certainly taken a piss. This is the Larkin persona at work: the protagonist remains quirky (or cranky) enough to be distinct, yet average enough to establish a rapport with the typical reader.
That rapport, which involves a careful manipulation of distance, is Larkin’s greatest achievement. In the average Larkin poem, not only is the reader encouraged to identify with the speaker, but the distinction between “the poet” and the speaker is blurred an effect so subtle that many critics simply assume that the speaker of, say, “Dockery and Son” “is” Larkin himself. As Larkin readers know, that poem involves a speaker who attends a funeral for a former college classmate named Dockery, and who afterward reflects on the paths that led them to different ends “for Dockery a son, for me nothing.” Prior to the publication of the biography and Selected Letters, the poem was taken by some critics to be a relatively straightforward transcription of Larkin’s own thoughts, proceeding from ruefully observed social detail to philosophical conclusion without complication. After Larkin’s dirty laundry was aired, this critical misconception wasn’t corrected; instead, it was duplicated but in reverse. In an article published shortly after the biography and Selected Letters, Marjorie Perloff, ordinarily a penetrating and persuasive reader, offered her new interpretation of “Dockery and Son”:
To invent characters named Dockery and Son and then to allow those characters no role but to represent the bourgeois choice of “increase,” is itself, I would argue, a form of prejudice very like the racism, sexism, or xenophobia Larkin practiced in his life.
There are many profound problems with this theory, but the most obvious is that Perloff, like Larkin’s early critics, fallaciously connects “the poet himself” to one technical aspect of the poem at the expense of all the others. Why, for example, can we find the truth about Larkin's attitude toward other people in the speaker’s alleged attitude toward Dockery, but not in the poem’s relatively simple diction, straightforward syntax, and accommodating tone? After all, those qualities could be seen as generous and democratic. Perloff elsewhere says that Larkin was “eager to have the hypothetical reader sympathize” with him, and she belittles him for this supposed eagerness. But isn’t the desire to be understood by other people a way of empowering those people? Don’t Larkin’s poems demonstrate nothing so much as the desire to belong to someone, anyone?
Larkin is often called a “poet of solitude,” but he doesn’t write out of solitude (as does, say, Stevens), but rather about solitude. His poetry is obsessed with acceptance and exclusion, and consequently also with abnormality and its attendant emotions, shame and disgust (“Love again: wanking at ten past three”). As Nussbaum tells us,
all societies contain a composite image of the ‘normal” person that is actually embodied, as a whole, by more or less nobody.... People who lack any of those desirable characteristics are made to feel shame; so more or less all of us feel shame about something.
When Larkin’s defenders and detractors find themselves debating whether the poet can speak “for us” whether he is,
in essence, “normal” they’re acting out a script written by the poet himself, who all along has been less interested in aphoristic wisdom than in dramatizing the individual’s emotional relationship to the group. Larkin’s poems demand a personal connection, and responding to them with disgust is every bit as personal as responding to them with love. Pound, in many ways a less complicated poet than Larkin, never forces us to relate to his art in this way when we ask, in reference to Pound, “Can a bad man be a good poet?” we aren’t covertly wondering about our own normalcy. But when we ask the same question about Larkin, we’re often really saying, “Could we really be anything like this?” He needs to be bad so that we can stay good.
This theatrical element in Larkin’s writing is related to what we might call the Second Law of Poetic Morality: how a poet acts can be as important as what he does. We want poets to play particular roles, and we’re less forgiving of poets’ misbehavior if the misconduct also seems to be a departure from these personae. In this, we’re not unlike William Bennett, the famous moralist, Clinton assailant, and slots player. As Judge Richard Posner writes in An Affair of State, his book on the Clinton impeachment scandal:
Bennett wants the nation’s chief executive to behave and present himself in such a way as will make him an exemplary figure.... Bennett desires this not because a better performance in the head of state role might enhance a President’s effectiveness as the head of the government, but because a President who personifies the nation’s moral aspirations can inspire the people to be better. Bennett, the stern moralist, has at root a theatrical conception of the Presidency.
Most of us the wise and tolerant poetry reading audience have a similarly theatrical view of The Poet. Admittedly, the role we have in mind isn’t the same as the part Bennett wanted the President to play, but it is a role it has nothing to do with the basic function of a poet, which presumably is to write poetry. Of course, this kind of thinking has more to do with gut impulses than measured conclusions. When we think carefully about who poets actually are, and what they actually do, and who actually listens to them, then our ideas about The Poet tend to be less theatrical. But the point is that we usually don’t think carefully; we’re fans, and unexamined assumptions are nine-tenths of the joy of fandom. The contemporary poetry reader’s view of The Poet therefore remains a combination of old and sometimes discordant ideas: The Poet is immensely learned (Eliot), but also an innocent (Blake), and possibly a kind of idiot (Plato); he can’t help but speak the truth (Plato again), although his natural territory is fiction (Stevens); he has a heroic public voice (Emerson), despite being deeply private (Dickinson); and he’s a kind of aristocrat (Shelley), yet still a common man who understands common concerns (Whitman). Generally speaking, we want poets to be active and righteous; if only subconsciously, we often agree with Carlyle that the “poet who could merely sit on a chair, and compose stanzas, would never make a stanza worth much.”
These ideas may seem scattershot, but they’re often specifically related to the way we interpret poets’ misbehavior. Take Larkin’s alleged misogyny, for example. Assume for the moment that the case against the poet could be stated as follows: he punched his first wife in the face and broke her nose, threw a subsequent lover on the floor and tried to strangle her, deserted his second wife and their child for another woman, and then appropriated his second wife’s letters (written under the stress and pain of desertion) into a book of poems addressed to his third wife. Given this dismal record, you could see why some critics would be tempted to accuse Larkin of hating women, no matter how pleasant his poems were.
But the above incidents weren’t part of Larkin's life, they were part of Robert Lowell’s (the end of that description was borrowed from Adrienne Rich’s review of Lowell’s later books). Collected versions of both Larkin’s and Lowell’s poems were released this year; many of Larkin’s major print reviews involved the word “misogyny,” but not one of Lowell’s did. The point here is not to suggest that Lowell should have been called a misogynist he shouldn’t but to show that we view different poets’ behavior differently, depending on the way in which the misbehavior seems related either to the poet’s art or to one of our ideas about The Poet. In this case, Lowell’s work often has to do with madness, excess, and violence, so it isn’t particularly surprising to find that he could be mad, bad, and dangerous to know. And as most recent reviews of Lowell’s Collected demonstrate, critics are still at least as in love with an idea of Lowell as they are with his poems. Lowell performed a version of The Poet that we like that of Raging, Aristocratic Hero and he never broke character. Larkin played a part we thought we might like Common Man yet he did things we don’t want to think are common at all. That we find hard to forgive.
But would we really want Larkin to be forgiven? When we ask, “Can a bad man be a good poet?” we’re also reinforcing our belief that poetry is an active moral force. That it can make things happen. Every day that we spend arguing over a poet’s dirty doings is a day in which the writer in question avoids the oblivion of mild approval we give far more power to poets when we consider them too wicked to be read than too boring to be bothered with. Perhaps, then, the most disturbing thing about the question of “bad men” and “good poetry” is how seldom those “men” turn out to be women. We might say that’s because the great female poets of the twentieth century have been, on the whole, pretty nice people, at least as compared to the men. We might also suggest that female poets are less vulnerable to delusions of Shelleyhood, and hence less inclined to behave badly for no reason. But what about Plath? Or Millay? Or Sexton? It seems that some part of us (but now, who are “we”?) may still be reluctant to accept the idea that female writers can be just as lousy as men and by extension, just as good as men. It may seem perverse to want to see a critic argue for the immorality of Elizabeth Bishop, but wouldn’t that be preferable to William Logan’s recent description of her work (in a review of Robert Lowell, no less) as “charming and endlessly resourceful... so much charm and not a particle of intellect”?
Or Adam Kirsch’s description of her poetry (also in a Lowell review) as “modest”? Are we comfortable with the idea that Pound, Larkin, and Lowell are capable of sin, but that Bishop is capable only of being charming? Perhaps when we’re making our judgments and carefully not making our judgments we should bear in mind the wisdom of someone who thought more about morality than most of us, Friedrich Nietzsche: “It is not enough to possess a talent: one must also possess your permission to possess it eh, my friends?”
Editor: Christian Wiman
Managing Editor: Helen Lothrop Klaviter
Assistant Editor: Fred Sasaki
© 2004 by The Poetry Foundation.
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission.