When the right thought of itself as poetry & of the left as prose

"Saturday Review of Literature" cartoon reprinted in 1949

“No, he's not writing a book. He's holding up his end of a literary feud that began in 1903.” (Saturday Review of Literature, August 14, 1943, p. 13. Reprinted in 1949 during the Ezra Pound/Bollingen Prize controversy.)

The choice of year (1903!) seems intended to suggest both that the feud has something to do with the first shocks of the modern era — incited among critics by, for instance, Kandinsky's first exhibitions — and that the message seems in part to be, c'est la guerre. The scene at first seems settled, well-off, bourgeois and perhaps suburban, the home of the culturally mature. But the writer’s wife hints at the domestic dystopia of nonlyricism. The romantic heretical poet-figure has become the settled write-at-night critic-figure, the letter-to-editor writer, entrenched in back-'n-forth prose. Conservatives such as poet-critic Peter Viereck — darling of New Right intellectuals in the 1950s — were at the time explicit in associating prose with liberalism, poetry with conservatism, and hardly anything could irk an antimodernist more than the brazen way in which the communist poet ignored the distinction between the proper stations and functions of prose and poetry. CPUSA-affiiliated poet Eve Merriam for instance in a poem called “Said Prose to Verse”:

Listen, my insinuating poem,
stop poking your grinning face into every anywhere.
I have trouble enough keeping my house in order
without a free-loading moon-swigging boarder around
making like of solid ground.

For Viereck, conservatism “embodies” rather than “argues,” and whereas poetry in the 1930s argued exactly as if it were prose, conservatism could claim a closer connection to poetry than did the liberal left. The liberals of Viereck's time could have prose; poetry — real poetry that did not poke its face into every empirical anywhere — would best be realized by conservatives. Following Yeats’ distinction between embodying truth and knowing it, Viereck wrote, “Poetry tends to embody truth, prose to know it. Conservatism tends to embody truth, liberalism to know it.”