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Poetry and Politics

 [Davidman's poems about the Spanish Civil War in Letter to a Comrade oppose General Francisco Franco and support freedom fighters associated with the Loyalists.  The following excerpt by Malcolm Cowley reflects the position that, according to Daniel Aaron, most American communist and non-communists intellectuals believed.  The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) was a power struggle between the elected Spanish government (the Loyalists) and the Nationalists, the rebels in the Spanish army led by Franco.  The war's international dimension, in which the communist Soviet Union supported the Loyalists and fascist Italy and nazi Germany supported Franco, shaped the lens through which American leftist intellectuals interpreted the war.  According to Daniel Aaron, they believed that backing the loyalists was equivalent to supporting "democracy and morality" and rejecting totalitarian fascism (Writers on the Left 157).  American critic Malcolm Cowley clarifies these political terms when he defines the opposing parties as representing two approaches to life that correspond to the larger class problem of the dominator and the dominated.]

Macolm Cowley
From "To Madrid: V"

 Back in the states . . . people of my sort were more deeply stirred by the Spanish civil war than by any other international event since the World War and the Russian revolution.

. . .

It seemed to me then--and it still seems-- that the conflict between two systems of life was clearer in Spain than anywhere else in the world.  On that side were the landlords, the generals, the bishops, the banks, the old tradition of class intolerance. . . . But on this side were the peasants, the artisans, the small tradesmen, the painters and poets, the human sympathy, the aspiration of a poverty-stricken people toward more knowledge, more freedom, more of everything.  And unless this side won in Spain, then the same process of revolt and foreign intervention might be repeated in Czechoslovakia, in France, in all the free nations of Europe.

From Malcolm Cowley, "To Madrid V," The New Republic, 6 Oct. 1937: 237; pt. 5 of a series, To Madrid, begun 25 Aug. 1937.

 [See also Langston Hughes.  In "Negroes in Spain," Hughes applies a similar anti-fascist lens to Black people.]

Shaemas O'Sheel
Introductory Note to Seven Poets in Search of an Answer

 [In 1944, Thomas Yoseloff edited Seven Poets in Search of an Answer, a poetic symposium in which Maxwell Bodenheim, Joy Davidman, Langston Hughes, Aaron Kramer, Alfred Kreymborg, Martha Millet, and Norman Rosten attacked fascism.  Davidman contributed "Spartacus 1938," "The Dead Partisan," "Dirge for the Suicides," "For the Nazis," "Elegy for Garcia Lorca," "Trojan Women," and "New Spiritual."  This invaluable anthology illustrates that modern poets engaged crucial issues and, as Shaemas O'Sheel explains, their involvement continues a long and venerable tradition of political activism in Western and American literature.]

Poets: are they delicate creatures dealing with sweet sentiments and mystic fancies, but not with stern social and political issues?  The notion is dear to scoffers, but down the ages the great voices refute it: Euripides' social-political challenge; Dante lashing tyranny; Shakespeare dissecting injustice; in the stormy dawn of the democratic era, Byron and Shelley, Hunt and Blake championing political and intellectual freedom; and in the Nineteenth century, the Brownings, Swinburne, Morris and Blunt in England, Heine, Hugo, Carducci and many another on the Continent, winning new frontiers against superstition and privilege and crying out against exploitation and imperialism.

When in this native land of modern liberty singers of stature arose--Bryant, Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes--they thought it was natural to use poetry as a weapon against slavery and secession.  And Whitman, increasingly as he matured, used his mighty chant to cheer on democracy on many fronts.

It has been said that today's poets shirk their place in today's battle.  From a wealth of contrary evidence, consider only two exhibits.  When the Spanish people stood up to fascist treason and invasion, their poets as one man served them with song; so that when the civil war was only a year old it was possible to gather fifty translations from thirty Spanish poets, which twenty-seven American poets adapted to make the book . . . [sic] And Spain Sings, published for the benefit of Spanish relief.  And a book issued last year, War Poems of the United Nations, assembles three hundred poems vibrant with the horror and heroism of the world's present agony, by one hundred and fifty poets of twenty countries.  Fifty-five are Americans; and among them are five of the seven poets whose search for an answer is the theme of the present volume.

They are in the great tradition; it is unthinkable that poets worthy of the name could ignore the terrifying question confronting our times.  Man has made some progress, painfully through millenia, toward knowledge, toward intelligent use of his powers and the resources of the world he lives in, toward justice, toward dignity: shall this progress be brutally halted and reversed?  Man has conceived the ideal of brotherhood and a good life for all: shall this ideal be choked in his blood?   Shall science be perverted to the sole service of exploitation, and art become the whore of the exploiters?  A society at last is taking form in which all shall share in the fruits of intelligent cooperation; but the unlaid demons in human nature say this shall not come to pass; greed and avarice, hatred and violence say the world shall be a place where a few shall enjoy the abundance produced by millions, toiling under the lash, brutalized, and in their misery smiting each other in the names of race and religion.  Such are the issues making up the question to which these poets are seeking and finding an answer.

 In this hour of the world's agony, of flaming cities and dying men, of murdered women and children, in this hour of the heartbreak of parting, they have found these particulars of the answer: to cry out; to resist; to resume the great tradition of poetry as a sword against evil; to turn a fierce light on features of the beast; to tear off the masks of fascism; to mourn fallen heroes and praise their deeds . . . .

. . .

And what of the problems we posed: to learn the clarion-call, to move men to anger and action?  In older days the people were often fired and welded by ballads sung on the streets and sold on penny broadsides.  Perhaps we need that sort of poetry again, to seize the popular imagination and stir the people's emotions; that will set more feet marching against fascism, upset the plots of traitors and force the timid hands of statesmen.  And perhaps such poetry would get written if poets came together and made their art, to the necessary measure, a cooperative one.  I would like to see poets meet, survey the needs of this tremendous hour, map deliberate campaigns: books of high poetry; ballads celebrating our heroes and our cause; doggerel to take the hide off Hitlerites; lyrics for rousing popular songs; I believe earnestly that in cooperation and emulation they find the joy of becoming truly singers of, by and for the people.

This very book is more than an ordinary anthology.  It is a kind of cooperative assault upon the fascist horror darkening the world. . . .

From Shaemas O'Sheel, introduction, Seven Poets in Search of an Answer, ed. Thomas Yoseloff (New York: Bernard Ackerman, 1944) 6-7, 9-10.

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