Special Report

Where Have All the Poets Gone?

Surely patriotism and associated values like honor, courage and respect for tradition and heritage are still worth celebrating.

By 1.25.07

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The absence of patriotic poetry that is both popular and poetically acccomplished in the present great clash of civilizations and cultures is odd. America has a population of 300 million people. If one in a million is a real poet of ability -- which I think is a realistic guess -- surely there should be some patriotic, positive, affirmative ones among those 300 who can create words that sing and inspire.

Add a possible 130 real poets from the rest of the Anglomorph world -- Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc., plus again some from the large English-speaking populations of India, Africa and elsewhere, at the same ratio of poets to population and the lack of such good patriotic poetry (there is any amount of rubbish written) becomes even more notable.

Yet patriotism and associated values like honor, courage and respect for tradition and heritage are surely worth celebrating -- in fact they are celebrated by most non-poetic people -- look at the success of The Lord of The Rings.

Previous ages, from that of Homer to that of Rudyard Kipling, thought there was nothing odd about patriotic poetry, or about the idea that great poetry could rouse and rally and inspire a nation is a difficult struggle.

But perhaps Kipling was the last great patriotic poet who was also technically accomplished, with highly effective use of imagery, metaphor, rhyme, rhythm, assonance, onomatopoeia, symbolism and even, sometimes, understatement. He combined poetic strength and vigor with artistic sensitivity and intelligence. It is sometimes forgotten that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature relatively young. Also, of course, his patriotism wasn't mindless. He could be very bitterly critical of his country with many poems like "Rimmon," and "The Lesson," and his earlier poetry about the failings of British Imperialism in India could be savage indeed, but his criticisms were made from a position of basic loyalty. Further, his poetry was all the stronger because he was able to face the horrors, blunders and squalor of war, failure and official stupidity and corruption realistically and without euphemism.

In the 19th century Tennyson in Britain and Whitman in the U.S. wrote patriotic poetry, but it was neither their best nor their best-surviving work (though Tennyson's line from Morte d'Arthur, "The last dim weird battle of the West," has a certain grim echo in the mind now). Others, like Macauley and, later, G. K. Chesterton wrote some stirring sagas, but their best works were set in past eras, like Macauley's "Lays of Ancient Rome," and Chesterton's "Lepanto" and "The Ballad of the White Horse," the latter a huge, breath-taking epic telling of Alfred the Great's victory over the Vikings.

In 20th century Britain T. S. Eliot and John Betjeman wrote some patriotic poetry, but it was largely wry, thin, spectral stuff. Robert Graves remarked how odd it was that so few of the major poets of the 20th century had military experience.

Alfred Noyes, Walter De La Mare, and John Masefield were among those who made contributions (Masefield, a former sailor, also wrote a stirring prose account of Dunkirk), but again, these are not their best-remembered works.

"Political" poetry of almost every description gradually became predominantly the province of the adversary culture, though in Britain Roy Campbell (partly the inspiration for Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings) roared out ballads against the left like a great wounded bull.

In America the last major patriotic poet was probably Robert Frost, who died in 1963, and even in Frost's case his patriotic statements were largely indirect. Jack Kerouac, who died in 1969, was, at least towards the end of his life, patriotic in his personal values (patriotism and Bohemianism are not necessarily incompatible), but cannot really be called a patriotic poet. E. E. Cummings could perhaps be called a maverick patriot, but again not primarily a patriotic poet.

The best post-war British poet, Philip Larkin, was a patriot and a cultural and political conservative, and some of his satires against the left, like "Naturally the foundation will bear your expenses," still bite, but his work is filled with defeat, failure, grayness and nihilism. The present British Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, commissioned to celebrate important national events in what it was hoped would be imperishable verse, commemorated the death of Princess Margaret in February 2002 with a leaden prosody. At the beginning of 2003, when war with Iraq was imminent, Motion expressed his concern in a 31-word ode ungrammatically titled, "Causa [sic] Belli":

They read good books and
quote, but never learn
a language other than the
scream of rocket-burn.
Our straighter talk
is drowned but ironclad:
election, money,
empire, oil and Dad.

Just the stuff to give the troops! One can imagine the British soldiers in Basra quoting the Queen's poet to one another. Or perhaps not? In 2004, he commemorated English World Cup footballers in verses whose infantilism -- "O Jonny the power of your boot/And the accurate heart-stopping route" -- might have made any poetaster cringe.

I know less about the major U.S. poets today, but those I do know of appear to be mainly campus-tenured radicals, producing pale, far-off copies of the style if not the substance of Whitman, much of it being attempts to assert a self whose lack of assertion would more welcome, very largely unreadable and unread.

Australia's best contemporary poet, Les Murray, has taken on the adversary culture with work like the defiantly-titled Sub-Human Redneck Poems, and his work is, for poetry, very popular. Murray has shown that it is still possible to write on affirmative themes and say positive things about the best of his country's traditional culture and values without falling into bellicose nationalism or Jingoism, without whitewash or euphemism, and while maintaining the highest technical standards of poetry.

The very peculiar thing is that patriotic poetry is actually flourishing: browse the Internet and you will come across groups of poets with collective names like "I love America," and "Support Our Troops!"

Unfortunately, the resulting poetry, as poetry, is generally very poor, in its way almost as bad as that of the British Poet Laureate -- filled with cliches and bathos as well as limping, centipede rhymes and broken-backed meters as well as spelling and grammatical errors. It seems as if there is nobody to teach would-be poets of patriotic or conservative inclination the art.

I don't say this to be unkind, but in the culture-war poetry could be a very potent weapon if the edge of the blade was sharp and well-balanced. Criticism of what is too often produced by well-meaning amateurs is frequently impossible and it would be pointlessly cruel to attempt it. (For example: "The terrorists shot and killed/My glorious brother, saw his last/With bullets he was filled"). Sometimes, however, one comes across efforts, such as that containing the line "Isn't forever worth fighting for?" that have a certain resonance about them. These are a hint of what might be done.

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About the Author

Hal G.P. Colebatch, a lawyer and author, has lectured in International Law and International Relations at Notre Dame University and Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and worked on the staff of two Australian Federal Ministers.