Poetry leader to Joe McCarthy: 'Good job!'
I wrote this commentary post back on September 27, 2007 and I thought I would reprise it now:
There’s a story on the front page of the arts section of today's New York Times that begins by the usual condescending reference to "[t]he cloistered community of American poetry." After that, the lead is: “The board of the 97-year-old Poetry Society of America, whose members have included many of the most august names in verse, has been rocked by a string of resignations and accusations of McCarthyism, conservatism, and simple bad management.” (And there's "august": is that word ever used unironically any more? Made more ironic here by its being rocked by "rocked.")
The story is: the conservative orientation — conservative in the sense of aesthetically cautious, and conservative (here and there) in the sense of right-of-center political views — of the PSA led to an award given to John Hollander, which led to resignations, which led to interest at the Times. Here's the whole article.
I've looked into the PSA's politics (or non-politics, which at certain moments amounts to a very definite politics), especially in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. As usual with daily journalism, there's no long context, no sense of whether this sort of thing is a hiccup or part of a continuity. The continuity (what in journalism is unfortunately called "trend" — as in "a trend story," as in "let's make this a trend story") tells us that PSA has always been more or less like this, and that in turn would lead us to reject the opening-gambit assumption about poetry being usually "cloistered."
There was, for instance, the position expressed in 1947 by the poet A. M. Sullivan, President of the Poetry Society of America, who confidently told a New York Times reporter that good American poets are simply “not whimpering about social problems or ideologies which belong to the field of journalism.”
Sullivan, the self-consciously Catholic poet and beloved president of the PSA, who in 1953 had to “admit” his view “that [Joseph McCarthy] was doing a good job and behaving himself,”** knowingly participated in a redefinition of contemporary writing that would successfully pass the anticommunist test. In staking out his anticommunist position, that is, he went around announcing that good, beautiful poetry is never political — never has anything to say about the political situation.
The damage done by the Hollander flap (even the Times reckoned it was not nearly as big as the Ezra Pound/Bollingen fracas) is minor if you think of it as a blip. But why must such "events" always be thought of in such a way? The answer is, partly: journalistic ignorance about culture — and I should say, what they think of as high culture.
** Although Sullivan had once “wandered a trifle left of center,” voting for socialist Norman Thomas despite registration as a Democrat, by 1954 he “certainly applaud[ed] [Joseph] McCarthy’s clean-up of the U.S. Printing Office.” The quoted words and phrases are his (in an unpublished letter).