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‘Beauty Is Truth, Truth Beauty’: Is That All We Need to Know?

When a book begins by telling readers that a young woman, 19, has vanished into the deep woods, the expected outcome is rarely happy.But in Joyce Carol OatesÍ newest book, "Carthage," perhaps the outcome is not quite so bleak. (MCT)

When a book begins by telling readers that a young woman, 19, has vanished into the deep woods, the expected outcome is rarely happy.But in Joyce Carol OatesÍ newest book, "Carthage," perhaps the outcome is not quite so bleak. (MCT)

Though I ought to avoid self-advertisement, here’s the title poem of my most recent poetry collection. I hope I can quickly explain my motives for quoting it.

“I Was Thinking of Beauty”

I’ve surrendered myself to Mingus’s “Tijuana Moods”

on my obsolete record machine, sitting quiet as I sat last night.

I was thinking of beauty then, how it’s faced grief since the day

that somebody named it. Plato; Aquinas; the grim rock tablets

that were handed down to Moses by Yahweh, with His famous stricture

on the graven image. Last evening, I was there when some noted professor

in a campus town to southward addressed what he called, precisely,

“The Issue of Beauty.” Here was a person who seemed to believe

his learned jargon might help the poor because his lecture

would help to end the “exploitations of capitalism” —

which pays his wage at the ivied college through which he leads

the impressionable young, soon to be managers, brokers, bankers.

He was hard above all on poems, though after a brief appearance

poetry seemed to vanish. It was gone before I knew it.

The professor quoted,“Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty,” then chuckled.

He explained that such a claim led to loathsome politics.

I’m afraid he lost me. Outside, the incandescent snow

of February sifted through the quad’s tall elm trees,

hypnotic. Tonight as I sit alone and listen, the trumpet

on “Tijuana Gift Shop” lurches my heart with its syncopations.

That’s the rare Clarence Shaw, who vanished one day, though Mingus heard

he was teaching hypnosis somewhere. But back again to last evening:

I got thinking of Keats composing and coughing, of Abby Lincoln,

of Lorrain and Petrarch, of Callas and Isaac Stern. I was lost

in memory and delight, terms without doubt nostalgic.

I summoned a dead logger friend’s description of cedar waxwings

on the bright mountain ash outside his door come middle autumn.

I remembered how Earl at ninety had called those verdigris birds

“well groomed little folks.” Which wasn’t eloquent, no,

but passion showed in the way Earl waved his workworn hands

as he thought of beauty, which, according to our guest,

was opiate. Perhaps. And yet I went on for no reason

to consider Maori tattoos: elaborate and splendid,

Jamaicans shaping Big Oil’s rusty abandoned barrels

to play on with makeshift mallets, toxic junk turning tuneful.

“The poor you have always with you,” said an even more famous speaker,

supreme narcotic dealer no doubt i n our speaker’s eyes —

eyes that must never once have paused to behold a bird,

ears that deafened themselves to the song of that bird or any.

Beauty’s a drug, he insisted, from which we must wean the poor,

indeed must wean ourselves. But I was thinking of beauty

as something that will return — here’s Curtis Porter’s sweet horn —

outlasting our disputations. I was thinking it never had gone.

Now, as I have gotten older, I have more and more sensed the inutility, and even the inhumanity, of polemic. So although at some level, the poem above suggests my skepticism of what has passed for literary study in the past generation (and not coincidentally abetted the precipitous decline in college English majors), I trust it does so by indirection.

If literary study was once devoted to aesthetics (which I acknowledge as itself a reductive perspective), it has lately been transformed into a facet of what’s called “cultural studies.” And a recurring theme in those studies is that “established” authors, past and present, have tended to be mouthpieces for racism, sexism, economic repression and all the other usual suspects. The poem notes with some irony that, although capital-C capitalism tends to be a major villain in such trendy theory, the majority of its most radical critics seem to work not in community colleges or in impoverished public school districts. No, they preach at places like Harvard, Yale, Brown, Stanford or Duke. (To which I respond by thinking, well, talk, no matter how high-minded or “progressive,” is as cheap as ever).

Conversely, isn’t it strange that so many of our canonical writers, those reactionaries and repressors, seem to have been very ill served by what they allegedly championed? I think, for example, of the older Melville, for all intents and purposes chalking Xs on travelers’ bags at the custom house he manned, and in the end being called Henry Melville in his Times obituary; of writers from Hart Crane to Ernest Hemingway to John Berryman taking their own lives, many besieged by alcoholic despair; and the list could be almost infinitely protracted.

But having dispensed with such oddities, and too quickly, I concede, I need to consider something more central: namely, that I have yet to meet a single cultural-studies theorist who had even a faint clue about what goes into the actual composition of poem, story, novel or even non-academic essay. How, then, can they so confidently discuss a process that’s utterly foreign to them?

In order to make such an observation, however, I’m merely reversing the microscope through which the trendy critics look at us. Essentially, as the brilliant Marilynne Robinson has pointed out, their assumption is that we don’t know what we are doing, that we are somehow mindless serfs in service to great cultural forces that we can’t grasp. (Isn’t it curious how the most brilliant of our artists remains unaware of his or her intentions, while the theorists are so sharp that their own are infallibly well informed?)

To be fair, there is some truth to one part of that notion of artistic unawareness. In my own case, at all events, I never know where a piece of writing is going, at least at the outset. In that sense I am, yes, unaware. Or I’d better be: if I’m too clear on where I’m headed, I will experience no discovery in whatever I fashion; I will simply have illustrated ideas or convictions I already knew I owned.

A more serious charge from the hip professoriat is that some of us artists know damned well that we are promoting ideology, of a sort that by the theorists’ lights must inevitably be ugly. And yet, no matter I’ll grant that some writers are ambitious to illustrate “political” ideas acceptable to their constituencies, that some do have agendas and theories of their own, the work that results is almost without exception as dreary as you might expect. This is not a matter of left or right, reactionary or progressive. Check the annals of Soviet socialist realism if you doubt me, or the work of Hitler’s small but slavish cadre of artists.

I would insist that few truly memorable pieces of writing have ever derived exclusively, or even primarily, from theoretical premises or from ideology. Writers may, of course, generate theories and even elaborate them into the ideology; but I think such theoretical postulation tends to arrive ex post facto. I’d claim that Ezra Pound’s “imagism,” for example, ensued upon his writing a broad range of lyrics in an instinctive way, and then erecting his manifestos based on what they showed him. I bet even he was surprised.

I know, of course, that any modish theorist who reads this will instantly charge me, again, with not knowing what I am up to. I number quite a few such folks among my friends, after all, and I’ve learned that for me to deny their aspersions is merely to convince them further of my ignorance. That’s a frustrating experience, a bit like denying your Oedipal instincts in a Freudian’s presence. He (Freudians are all but inevitably male) will attribute your denials to repression ... which of course owes itself to your Oedipal anxieties.

The final irony: all those “progressives” behave (in word if not deed) as if they were champions of the downtrodden and the oppressed. But, to repeat myself, they spend virtually all of their time in one another’s company. Though I won’t for a single embarrassing minute pretend to be a worker-poet, I have spent a lot of my life, for reasons I needn’t go into, in the presence of the dispossessed, especially of people who — talk about downtrodden! — are illiterate or subliterate. It’s telling to me that, like the African-Americans in our own South who picked up the musical instruments jettisoned by retreating British military bands and produced music that’s the jewel in America’s cultural crown; like the Jamaicans in my poem, who took the rusted barrels left behind in the wake of Big Oil’s Caribbean exploitations and turned them into steel drums: like these other oppressed people, our contemporary society’s most destitute and most “culturally deprived” seem perennially to treasure story, song, lyric.

They cherish beauty, that shibboleth of reactionaries.

But of course, I guess, they incline to the beautiful, or to rich narrative, or to memorable character, simply because they have not had their eyes opened by the ones who speak for them so gallantly, from behind the ivy.

Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont. He lives in Newbury.