Poetry and Politics
[In 1929 Marcus Graham compiled and edited An Anthology of Revolutionary Poetry, a collection of modern and earlier verse composed by poets from twenty countries who championed freedom. Ridge served on the book's Publication Committee and contributed "Reveille." Poets and critics Lucia Trent and Ralph Cheyney wrote a lengthy introduction which is actually a version of leftist aesthetics. Careful readers of the following excerpts can extract the features of a poetry and a poet that Trent and Cheyney believe can reshape the modern world.]
Lucia Trent and Ralph Cheyney
Excerpts from the Introduction to An Anthology of Revolutionary Poetry
The world is tumbling about our ears. The old order has collapsed. "The World War brought to an end the illusionment of bourgeois idealism." We stand among falling débris. America is becoming or has become industrialized. Individualism of the pioneers has fallen away before standardization. The trust has risen and capitalism expanded. Youth is more aware and articulate. Women are less willing to be dominated by men.
Labor is slowly but unmistakably reaching the realization that to it belong all things and the resolve that it shall possess them. No economic, industrial, social and cultural system can endure long which is based on the fact now true of the United States: that two per cent of the population, conservatively speaking, own seventy-one per cent of the wealth, while more than sixty per cent of the people own but twenty per cent of this world's goods. No system can go on long which denies a job to one out of every nine working men. Five million unemployed is a host which may light the spark of revolution.
The creation of some valid order of values is the most fascinating and imperative task the intellect faces today. The creation of values in the emotional realm is the primary function of poetry. Chaos gives birth to a dancing star only if we breathe into it that visible, audible fragrance of passion which is poetry. The world will be new-born only with the spread of that consciousness which is creation, and poets are the pioneers of consciousness. They, therefore, are naturally among the leaders in the development of class-consciousness. Life is faith. Without faith there can be no poetry, and without poetry no civilization. But intelligent faith can come only after complete, hard-boiled disillusionment with the supernatural and with bourgeois idealism.
Poetry and propaganda are two sides of the same shield. Without passion there can be no poetry, and all who feel strongly burn with a zeal to have others share their feeling. True poets are also propagandists, even though their propaganda may be simply for the love of life and the life of love.
A poem is a rune, spell, incantation, evocation. Poetry throws open mental windows and doors, pushes back horizons, reveals a new heaven and leads us back to Mother Earth with a fresh vision of how to regain Eden. What we see often, we do not see at all, a fact which blinds us to the evils of the present industrial and social system. The statement of Simonides, "Literature is spoken painting," should stand beside Madame De Stael's "Architecture is frozen music." Poets clear our eyes and sharpen our ears. Poetry serves civilization and helps usher in a happier world as no other human activity can. For the very essence of poetry is SYMPATHY. [The ancient Greek poet Simonides wrote elegies honoring slain warriors, and the French writer and critic de Stael introduced romanticism to France.]
There is no other art which can emphasize more concretely and more beautifully the spiritual values of human life. "We cannot live by bread alone" is a trite phrase, but one which contains a generous measure of truth. Too many today lack bread itself. Savages and civilized men are alike in their blind groping for an explanation of the hidden sources of the universe. Authentic poetry gives utterance to the eternal adventuring in search of spiritual truths and the Promised Land, long prophesied but to be realized only through the uprising of united workers.
The poets who rebel against the smug, superficial materialism of the age in this imperialistic nation and contribute thought as well as words are in the main pessimistic. Their poems are question-marks. They face frustration and see the hole in the universe. Not seeing the hope of a new, true civilization that is rising in the East, notably Russia and India, their eyes are fixed on the downfall of the Western World and they despair. Their world is staggering like a drunken man, toppling like a shot deer. For most of them are of the bourgeoisie, and they feel, even if they do not see, that their class is decaying and disappearing. The collapse of a class is foretold in the disruption of its ideals and arts, though their echoes may ring through the ages. Much that is gracious and lovely endures from the times of feudalism, but aristocracy succumbed to plutocracy and the middle class came into power. Now the days of the middle class are numbered--and their end is to be seen by the disillusionment among bourgeois poets and other artists, by the prevalence of spiritless manufactured-by-formulae imitations of art and by the new interest in primitive and folk contributions to the arts.
Is there not some fair and fertile virgin soil beyond the wasteland, some faith on which poets may seize?
"Yes," the answer must be, if poetry is to survive. For, as Emerson said, "Poetry is faith." Where can the poets of today find a living faith, how can they make their work a force in the life of today? To our mind, there can be but one answer: The poets can find faith only where it is found by the workers: in the movements dedicated to ushering in the Co-operative Commonwealth.
Honor to the poet who can find poetry in stunted city trees and the parched flowers in a tenement window, who sings the humdrum life of a factory hand or an office clerk! Honor to the poet who shouts against the infamy of lynchings and prisons and the red-eyed monster of war! Such poets are working with the mortar which will build a more enduring social structure. They are the standard-bearers of a new emancipated humanity. These are the poets whom the present may crucify, but whom the future will honor.
In this book are sung the real modern wonders of the world. What are the modern seven wonders of the world?
We suggest as the seven modern wonders: the increasing recognition that equal, unrestricted opportunity belongs to all individuals of all races and creeds or lack of creed; the labor movement; the rising opposition to violence and murder, whether they be expressed in lynching, capital punishment, or war; the emancipation of women; modern psychology and the extensions of consciousness; birth control; and the development of machinery to lessen labor and increase production. The poet who cannot find inspiration in these wonders is no seer, no humanist, no prophet, no voice of the spirit crying aloud in the wilderness--in short no true poet.
In a land where rich men and athletes are adored and poets scorned, a land whose appropriate symbols are the cash register and the time-clock, sensitive souls are crucified. If not on the electric chair like Sacco and Vanzetti, they nevertheless are seared. In the standardization of a machine age there is tragic need but scant room for the nonconformist. Our wings are clipped from birth, our souls mangled by wheels. Most of us, even we poets, are willing to let our souls sicken and succumb or to keep them like canaries trilling monotonously in a small gilt cage. Some few there are, however, who struggle for the integrity of their spirits and mint from the consequent agony dynamic song.
The poet has a real task in the work of the world. He is filling a needed rôle [sic]. There are two main types of poetry--that of escape from the world around us and that of acceptance of it and affirmation of the beauty in it; the first sedative, the second stimulant. If poetry is to be only a soothing syrup for the comfortable classes who have time to kill and are ready to stamp out the springs of all nobler poetry, we are tempted to recommend that both poets and poetry be poisoned.
Modern psychologists are maintaining with increasing emphasis that people are influenced not by purely logical and intellectual processes alone, but also by their emotional impulses. A pamphlet giving statistics of a coal strike, stating the issues at stake, the number of evictions, the number of homeless miners and their families, is not as likely to rouse the liberal public to indignation or to generous donations as a stirring poem describing in graphics and harrowing detail the plight of the strikers, telling how mothers are feeding dry cracker crumbs to their babies and how their little children are dying from cold and exposure.
If there be any among the radical movement who ignore the poet as a practical factor in the fight for freedom, let such recall the lives of Milton, Byron and Shelley, not to mention the successful influences of Thomas Hood and George Crabbe in mitigating the cruel laws of Great Britain.
Although, as the Frenchman said, "All generalizations are false, including this one," it is fairly safe to say that the greatest poets of the past have been the rebel and humanist singers who have shaken the thrones of tyrants with their rebellious music and risen to the defense of the martyred Saccos and Vanzettis of their own generations.
Every age has its poets, but this dark age of electricity, this mechanistic era, blackened by the monster shadows of giant machines, is essentially a harrowing age for poets. For the poetic mind lays emphasis on the human values of life rather than on those upheld by a standardized and crudely materialistic civilization. Therefore, the poet is stifled to-day [sic] perhaps more than he has ever been in the past, and if the radicals will not listen to him, will not welcome him, who will?
[Excerpt from part] V
When the workers are free, and only then, can we have real culture and real civilization. In the meantime all cultures are but night-blooming flowers, hidden from most men, women and children by smoke and steam, grime and soot, the fog and poisonous fumes loosed by capitalist-controlled schools and newspapers, churches and theatres--hidden also by the darkness of ignorance and fear. When the red day breaks and reveals the free society, these night-blooming flowers will droop. But in their place will gleam in the sun and dance in the breeze the true flowers of labor and dream.
The dark rivers of tears and blood that swell this sea rush chiefly from hearts, bodies and spirits crushed by the mills of the over-lords--which, unlike those of the gods, grind fast but exceedingly sure. Foully feeding every other misery stand overwork and law-protected robbery: underplay and underpay. Wage slavery is little better than chattel slavery. Without industrial and social democracy political democracy is a tragic farce. An unacknowledged caste system which can be broken in a few instances by grasping or lucky individuals is crueler in its hypocrisy and tantalizing, unkept promises than a frank caste system. "Plutocracy" is named more aptly than most realize, for Pluto was Lord of Hell.
Many poets forget that the Tower of Ivory is built of ivory-white bones and is shadowed by the Tower of Babel! But the wiser and greater poets know that none is safe when pestilence tramples the earth, be it the fever of disease that ravages the body or the fever of Capitalism which ravages bodies and all else human and humane. They know that we are "members one of another" and that it takes the joy of all to make the joy of one.
You will find their poems in this book. Some attack war, prostitution, child labor, the deadening effects of too long a workday, unemployment and other evil effects of Capitalism and exploitation. Others attack the present evil system in its entirety. Some voice the protest of the Child. Others sing the Women's Revolt. Most acclaim the Labor Movement, which includes the revolt of women and children. Still others prophesy of the Golden Age they see AHEAD when the reign of gold shall be ended.
From Lucia Trent and Ralph Cheyney, introduction, An Anthology of Revolutionary Poetry, ed. Marcus Graham (New York: Active Press, 1929) 34-38, 40-41.
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