My grandfather was a self-made man, a child of immigrants, and a dandy. In later life, he lined his closets with neckties and waistcoats, with bowler hats and two-toned bucks. He enjoyed cutting a figure, as they say, and fancied himself a public man, an entrepreneur, a man of influence. I can remember rooting around in his study as a boy and discovering numerous books on public speaking, filled with apothegms and off-color jokes meant to tickle an audience or frame an argument. I’m not sure how often he was called upon to ascend a dais, but he was well prepared for the occasion.

As his collection of toast-master chrestomathies attests, he understood the power of quotation: that, when addressing a crowd, one may be bolstered by the sayings of others, of a writer or thinker, for instance, whose words capture a truth that can then launch an argument or anecdote of one’s own. A sly convention, it deflects judgment from the speaker until he’s had a chance to clear his throat. I suspect Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations was my grandfather’s bible at such times, and his oxblood copy is still on my parents’ shelves.

Greater speakers than he have relied on this profitable technique, routinely used by orator, pundit, essayist, and poet. Montaigne, for instance, must have had a glorious Latin edition of Bartlett’s at his disposal. For poets, the use of epigraphs works a similar magic, as when Coleridge floats lines from the “Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence” above his “Dejection: An Ode,” forecasting the turbulent tone of his poem with the ballad’s promise of “a deadly storm.” Skim a magazine or newspaper and one finds the practice in excellent health in the news media, as well, and politicians, in their turn, routinely poach on the felicitous formulations of others to add heft to their utterances.

Among the stores of the much-quoted, poetry makes a particularly juicy addition to any speech or swath of journalistic prose. Due to limitations of space, however, poems rarely appear entire or even in excerpts of more than a few lines. The ideal poetic mot, from a journalist’s or speaker’s point of view, can be delivered in one line. Writers necessarily co-opt such bright squibs out of context and with varying degrees of fidelity to the original. Often they have their own ends in mind, which augers poorly for the poem quoted.

“They also serve who only stand and wait” exemplifies the sort of multipurpose truism regularly misappropriated by sages of the podium and page. Never mind that it is Milton wrestling with the fact of his blindness (“When I consider how my light is spent”), that the argument of the poem is theological, or that the master being served is his “Maker.” Endlessly misapplied, the motto has come to refer most often to service to the state, so much so that one enterprising company now engraves the line on gold heart-shaped pendants for servicemen to give as gifts to their wives back home. Violence of this kind by Bartlett’s abusers goes largely unlamented, as if poems were measured by the multiplicity of uses to which we can put them.

Then there is Blake’s prefatory poem to his long work Milton, immediately recognizable in its musical setting by Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry: “And did the Countenance Divine/ Shine forth upon our clouded hills?,” etc. As F. W. Bateson has noted:

Blake’s poem is now a popular hymn and is in process of becoming a sort of unofficial national anthem. No doubt it owes its popularity primarily to Parry’s vigorous setting but the adoption by Churches and women’s organizations of this anti-clerical paean of free love is amusing evidence of the carelessness with which poetry is read today.

Bateson’s mockery of the slipshod appropriation of poems appeared in his English Poetry: A Critical Introduction of 1950, and the carelessness he describes continues to run rampant.

Consider, as another example—this from the political sphere—the Kennedy brothers’ fondness for Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” quoted first by John F. and Robert and later by Edward in his speech to the Democratic National Convention in 1980. At the close of Tennyson’s masterly monologue, Ulysses, safely home in Ithaca, envisions one last uncertain voyage:


Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Poetry dragooned into public service frequently rebels, treating those who handle it roughly with equal brutality, and “Ulysses” has had the last laugh (or sigh) in this case, as well. Did no one on Senator Kennedy’s staff think to mention that Dante’s Ulysses, whom Tennyson’s closely resembles, sails off to his death, or that the soaring last line is not an unalloyed affirmation but, at best, a deeply qualified and melancholy one? A forgivable oversight, I suppose, but could not the Senator himself discern the poem’s dramatic irony or the undertow of despair and resignation tugging at the voice in its hoping against hope? Perhaps he could, and that is why his version of the poem, as it was spoken at the convention in 1980, ran as follows:


I am a part of all that I have met
Tho much is taken, much abides
That which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts
strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Cobbling together the expansive sentiments while dispensing with the dolorous ones in this way not only turns the meaning to mush but also pulverizes the verse to prose —and this from someone who professes to love Tennyson. In the end, the emotional complexity of the poem resists the rallying cry.

Selective sloganeering of this kind regularly strays so far from the intent of the poet that the excerpt takes on not only a different meaning but also a completely different life. Such is the fate of Horace’s “ut pictura poesis,” which in Ars Poetica suggests a similarity between painting and poetry. To set the line in context, here are a few verses from Ben Jonson’s translation:


As painting, so is poesy. Some man’s hand
Will take you more, the nearer that you stand;
As some the farther off: this loves the dark;
This fearing not the subtlest judge’s mark,
Will in the light be viewed: this, once the sight
Doth please: this, ten times over will delight.

Horace’s general comparison, which has little to say about the actual methods shared by the two art forms, points up the differences between them at least as much as it succeeds in allying them. In common usage, however, the phrase has taken on a blanket meaning, painting = poetry, despite the fact that Horace suggests nothing of the sort. A poem reduced to catchphrases flaunts its apothegmatic ornaments but goes afoul of itself when the whole poem wishes to have its say.

Preeminent in the rogues’ gallery of Bartlett’s abusers, the media make particularly inhospitable hosts for poetry. This is not to suggest that poetry isn’t frequently in the news; lately it has received an inordinate amount of attention from the press, and mostly for the wrong reasons. Beginning with reports of the public’s resurgent interest in verse following the attacks on the United States in 2001, poetry has provided fodder for newspaper headlines with the profligacy of a Hollywood murder scandal. Readers receive the stories from week to week: Ruth Lilly’s gift of $100 million to the Chicago-based Poetry magazine; Amiri Baraka’s laureateship of the state of New Jersey torpedoed by his own incendiary verse; Tom Paulin’s invitation, then apparent disinvitation and subsequent reinvitation, to speak at Harvard; Laura Bush’s cancellation of her “Poetry and the American Voice” event due to a threatened protest by participating poets; and, finally, the Poets Against the War gatherings across the country staged to defuse impending war with Iraq.

Descending from the high ground of providing solace and occasioning introspection after September 11, poetry has slipped into fens of controversy and polemic over the last year and a half. Following the terrorist attacks, reports in The New York Times and elsewhere offered up poetry as the art form best suited in times of public crisis to address our deepest feelings of fear and loss. That countless people turned to poetry cannot not be denied. What the media chose to quote in the aftermath of September 11, however, in particular some half-understood lines by W. H. Auden from a poem he ultimately renounced as “infected with an incurable dishonesty,” fails to shed light on poetry’s particular power to foster contemplation at such times.

As Peter Steinfels argued in The New York Times in December 2001, “there is a new demand [since September 11] that ideas and language, especially about war and peace but also about religion and moral obligation, be precise and explicit.” This is just what poems, including Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” are not. Great poems provide solace of a particularly complex kind, offering the considerable balm afforded by the appreciation of a beautiful object and of the moral measuring of language. This begs the question of whether or not poetry is well suited to argue the specifics of a particular political crisis. Poems encompass nuances of tone and language that make them particularly incompliant pieces of writing, especially regarding those sureties demanded of them in recent days. Political rhetoric, by contrast, tends to simplify language and argument in order to persuade or to incite a desired action.

“Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” Robert Frost suggested. Rendering a poem —which is a work of linguistic subtlety that pays special attention to music, rhythm, diction, figurative speech, and the connotative power of words—in another language is to reconstruct the mosaics of the Basilica San Marco using tesserae of other sizes and hues. Certain recognizable shapes of the original may emerge, but the glory of the whole will be travestied. The very problem that Frost discerned when moving from language to language applies when moving from one kind of language to another. To extend Frost’s formulation, it could be said that poetry is what gets lost in polemic. The poet and the political advocate have much in common and nothing in common. Both may use for effect the same rhetorical strategies of exordium, narratio, confirmatio, etc. Both may incorporate metaphor, parallelism, personification, hyperbole, and so on. Yet the language of poetry mingles uneasily with the language of politics. The poet and the polemicist have different jobs and venture onto each other’s territory at risk to their separate projects.

As the great and cussedly idiosyncratic poet-critic Yvor Winters has explained, the work of the poet is to render in language a human experience, taking great care to match the connotative or emotional charge of the language used to the motivating impulse of the poem. In other words, a poet’s unique responsibility is to the moral management of the emotional content of language with regard to a human experience. If the poet errs in either direction—toward excessive or unmotivated emotion or toward the aridly journalistic—he or she quickly arrives at sentimentality or bathos.

Winters reminds us that language carries weight beyond its literal, denotative meaning, each word containing an affective charge produced by the connotative penumbra surrounding it. When a poet deploys words in a poem, he must be in control of the associative power of language in order to convey reasonably and responsibly the essence of his subject. He does this in a very particular way that prose writers cannot manage as precisely. “Writing, as it approaches the looseness of prose and departs from the strictness of verse,” Winters explains, “tends to lose the capacity for fluid and highly complex relationships between words; language, in short, reapproaches its original stiffness and generality.” Political discourse can be sly, subtle, filled with emotion and figurative language, but it lags behind poems in the aesthetic attention paid to the interrelation of words and to the fine-tuned calibrations of emotion they embody.

A poem’s language, the degree of truth it achieves in describing experience, and the greatness of its subject matter constitute its bid for universality. Difficulties arise as soon as poets begin to use poems to address a specific political viewpoint as opposed to the larger question of human experience, every political situation generally having multiple viewpoints. Political didacticism in poetry runs the risk of seriously limiting a poem’s relevance outside of the finite context of a given issue or debate. The rhetoric of political persuasion lacks universality by definition. As the poet Eavan Boland has said, once a poem is made to speak for a particular constituency it is diminished.

Certainly, there have been great poems that have addressed political concerns; in fact, many of the greatest poems in the Western tradition deal with politics. The Divine Comedy and the plays of Euripides are just two examples. Then there are Milton and Blake, whom I’ve already mentioned, as well as the poets of Eastern Europe in the twentieth century, with their coded political critiques. In order to fully appreciate these works today, it is necessary to bone up on our history, which is fair enough: from Dante’s Whites and Blacks to the government of ancient Athens, and from the English Civil War to the reign of George III to recent European history. Finally, though, the political context of these works is for contemporary readers a kind of background music to the spiritual and human dramas enacted in them and to their textures as works of art. Without their signal aesthetic qualities, they would be read by weedy doctoral candidates and by few others.

Perhaps, Euripides’ greatest political victory came after his death. As Plutarch tells us, the poetry of Euripides saved Athens from destruction following Sparta’s conquest of the city at the end of the Peloponnesian War. A call went out from certain quarters to have the city razed, and

Erianthus, the Theban, gave his vote to pull down the city, and turn the country into sheep-pasture; yet afterwards, when there was a meeting of the captains together, a man of Phocis, singing the first chorus in Euripides’s Electra, which begins “Electra, Agamemnon’s child, I come/ Unto thy desert home,” they were all melted with compassion, and it seemed to be a cruel deed to destroy and pull down a city which had been so famous, and produced such men.

There is nothing overtly didactic or political, no humanitarian plea, in the passage in question. If Plutarch has gotten it right, it was Euripides’ poetry itself that saved the city, through the force of its remarkable beauty. Furthermore, the strange efficacy of the passage as a political tool has little to do with why it remains in print today.

Regarding Euripides’ descendants—those composers in verse of contemporary criticisms of the state—a spate of Op-Ed columns and reported pieces told the story of the rebellious throng of poets who collected antiwar poems by e-mail and threatened to turn Laura Bush’s literary tea party into a publicity stunt. When Mrs. Bush cancelled the event, poets protested not being allowed to protest by staging events around the country, as peace poems piled up on the Internet by the thousands.

It is every poet’s right and responsibility to participate in the political process, just as it is the right and responsibility of every citizen. It is perhaps not surprising that, moved to participate in public discourse, a poet would want to call upon the eloquence and affective powers of poetry to both make a statement and to draw attention to that statement. But do poets, by their very vocation, possess a certain moral authority or a higher degree of insight when it comes to questions of state? Given that their medium is language, and language is the basis of political discourse, perhaps they are better suited than, say, painters in that regard. But from where does their unique moral authority derive?

A poet’s moral authority, essential to the well-being of culture, derives from the truth contained in his or her poems. Achieving this truth is no mean feat; on the contrary, it is one of the crowning achievements of humankind. To subjoin this project to the furtherance of a political end is, on the one hand, no great matter. Politics is part of our experience and may be described as such. But if a poem produced by a specific political struggle lasts it is because it has outlived that struggle, as well as whatever power it may have had to incite action in that struggle. What remains is its power to affect the reader through the beauty of its language and what Winters called its moral content, which lives in the handling of that language.

How does the poem’s moral content relate to human action? Winters explains:

In the situations of daily life, one does not write a poem before acting: one makes a more rapid and simple judgment. But if the poem does not lead to a particular act, it does not prevent action. It gives us a better way of judging representative acts than we should otherwise have. It is thus a civilizing influence: it trains our power of judgment, and should, I imagine, affect the quality of daily judgments and actions.

In other words, poetry does not instruct the reader to act in a prescribed way; it is not a spur to a particular action but a tempering force that better equips us to judge our actions whatever the situation. It cannot tell us the right thing to do; rather, it seasons us to make those decisions for ourselves.

It would be impossible to suggest through quotation the effect that reading poems can have on our moral sensibility, but perhaps the conclusion of George Herbert’s “Church Monuments” (which Winters prized) partially suggests it through metaphor:

Dear flesh, while I do pray, learn here thy stem
And true descent, that when thou shalt grow fat

And wanton in thy cravings, thou mayst know
That flesh is but the glass which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust. Mark here below
How tame these ashes are, how free from lust,
That thou mayst fit thyself against thy fall.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 8, on page 17
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