Monday, March 07, 2005

The Hitler Question - Poets vs. Poetry

All this talk about Tim Yu's departure from the UB Poetics Listserv reminds me of a post that I've been wanting to make for a while. It concerns the Hitler question as applied to the debate over focusing on poetry vs. focusing on poets.

The Hitler Question: If a historical researcher discovered that Hitler was a poet and had written a book of fantastic poems, would you judge solely on the basis of the poetry or judge the poet along with poetry?

The descriptive answer, meaning the "is" answer, for me is that I honestly couldn't divorce the poetry from the poet. I don't think that I could go around proclaiming that Adolf Hitler is a great poet. If I knew Hitler wrote a volume of zesty sestinas, I don't think that I could go around praising his original use of end-words knowing he caused the death of six million Jews. The normative answer, meaning the answer to the question "am I wrong here? should I be divorcing the poetry from the poet?," is open to debate.

I think that this question potentially has widespread implications. I chose Hitler on purpose, precisely because he is a reviled figure. Lots of people sincerely think that they can separate the poetry from the poet. But the question is whether they can pass the Hitler test. And if they pass, should they be passing, that is, should they be openly praising Hitler's poetry and encouraging people to read Hitler's poetry despite the man himself? The normative question is, of course, also an ethical one.

You might argue, come on, no poet is as bad a person as Hitler. And that would be exactly my point. You would be looking at the poet; you would have to be looking at the poet to make such a conclusory remark. The Hitler question stretches the dogmaticism of logic fairly close to as far as it can go.


Blogger Geof Huth said...

Of course, the Hitler question doesn't have to remain academic--so long as we rephrase it a bit.

One of the tragedies of the 20th century was probably that Hitler wasn't accepted into the Vienna art academy he applied to. Such a change in his life would've meant a much much different world right now. (Just consider the ramifications for a moment--tho this assumes no one would've taken Hitler's place, which may be a bit optimistic.)

Some of Hitler's paintings still exist, but they are little known. We could test people's opinions of the paintings first without knowing who the painter is and next after identifying Hitler with them. That would tell us how the identity of the creator, all by itself, changes our points of view.

Of course, I would argue on the absolutist side that we should judge the work, so far as we can, on its merits alone. If not, geez, there are a lot of self-important and obnoxious poets who have written great poems of the years (Frost comes to mind). If we take the creator's personality and goodness into account, then we have a lot of poems we've got to start hating.

But who wants to love a poem created by Hitler? Not at all me.


7:16 AM  
Blogger GJPW said...

Another interesting topic here and one I've been thinking about quite often in recent years, if indirectly. I hesitate to write about it because the topic brings me too much grief as it is and some will insist on labelling me as reactionary. But...

The current president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, fancies himself a poet of sorts. Several of his most important associates are poets (Tarek William Saab, governor of the state of Anzoátegui and Attorney General Isaías Rodríguez, or at least they write poetry). And one of Venezuela's most important and talented poets, Luis Alberto Crespo is a major supporter of Chávez's so-called "Bolivarian revolution."

I won't go into my reasons for opposing what I see as a postmodern form of dictatorship (w/ intimidation of the press, electronic voting fraud, Cuban military intervention in Venezuela, an increase in crime and poverty while using populist sloganeering and expensive PR marketing abroad, prosecution and jailing of journalists and opposition lawyers, etc.) but I will say that I continue to admire and read Luis Alberto Crespo's poetry.

Despite his support for a government that is destroying Venezuela gradually, I find Crespo's poetry to be brilliant. Some of the best being written in Venezuela today.

As for Chávez and several other associates of his who fancy themselves poets, I would say that, like Hitler, they are actually poettasters.

A closing anecdote. An uncle of mine left Venezuela 2 years ago. He told me: "My father escaped the Nazis in Germany during the 1930s and came to Venezuela. Now I've had to leave Venezuela, the country I was born in, for the exact same reasons. Communism and fascism end up being almost exactly the same."

So, I will not stop reading Luis Alberto crespo or Ana Enriqueta Terán or Ramón Palomares (three major poets who support Chavismo) but I do read their work now with a certain hesitancy, a sadness that hangs over each of their pages (for me) as I read them.

Thankfully, the majority of intellectuals in Venezuela are aware of the dangers posed by our semi-literate tyrant.
And I should clarify that, while being tyrannical, Chávez is NOT another Hitler, in the murderous sense.

But this is a topic that's quite complicated and I think I've probably strayed from your post anyways.

Being a good poet or artist does not preclude being evil. But, I think it's safe to say that Hugo Chávez is very far from being a "fantastic" or good poet.

1:36 PM  
Blogger GJPW said...

The comment above is mine.


1:37 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Great posts! More from me later today or tomorrow. Contrary to my verbose posts, I am unfortunately a bit behind schedule this week. :)

5:29 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Geof, yes, great point about Hitler being a painter. I'd forgotten about that while I was making the post.

Not only Frost but someone raised Pound and Eliot as well. I still think, though, one at least subconscioly comes to the conclusion that, for example, Eliot is not as bad a person as Hitler, and perhaps judgments of the poetry may be conflated with that of the poet.

9:28 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Guillermo, sorry for the slow reaction time. Wow, what a thoughtful and informative post!

If I was attempting a preliminary answer at my questions, I would say that there are readers who can divorce the poetry from the poet, can say a poem is great even if the poet is not-so-great a person and vice versa.

I think that the more difficult and interesting question is whether they should. I am not sure that I can easily answer that question, and maybe, the best approach would be to go on a case-by-case basis, but I guess, even there, one would have to be looking at the poet.

And as I've posted before, just conversationally, you often hear people speaking of Poe, Eliot, Dickinson, etc. and not a particular poem or even a book of poems of theirs, which suggests that the power of the poet's person at least looms in most people's subconscious.

9:37 PM  
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6:48 PM  
Blogger said...

The problem with all of this is HISTORY is written by the winners. Everyone here thinks Hitler killed 6 million plus people and that simply is not the truth.

There were barely 150,000 jews in Germany, and only about 5 million in all of europe. Do your own research on this. Check the Wannsee Conference at: to get more info. The Germans never mention in any text a plan to exterminate the jews. Rather, they planned to expell jewish people from Germany. "The aim of all this was to cleanse German living space of Jews IN A LEGAL MANNER."

Sure, during that time period Russia had 5 million or so jews, but why would Hitler transport them 2000-3000 miles just to kill them?

Look, im not saying Hitler didnt do bad things (and thats an understatement), Im saying I think this 6 million number has been fudged with. Hitler and the Nazis surely killed an off'ed a lot of people, but I really dont think 6 million was accurate.

In Russia during the 1920's, over 5 million people died of typhus (typhoid fever). It was a short amount of time. And if you had hundreds of thousands of jews in different camps in close quarters, and someone got or had typhus, then you know it will spread like crazy. Wouldnt it be more plausible that jews became sick, died of lack of food and medicine before being killed by Nazis? Why gas people with expensive chemicals when bullets are much much cheaper?

Just think about these things. All of us who are 40 or under are all growing up with a jewish controlled media teaching everyone "Germans killed 6 millon jews. Germans killed 6 millon jews. Germans killed 6 millon jews." like we are all zombies or something.

As I said before, HISTORY is written by the winners every time. What about the cowboys killing indians in America? Dont hear much about that do you? We slaughtered american indians up to about 30 years before WWII, yet after the war, America was trying Nazis who killed people no different than the way Americans killed indians. How quick people forget about the mass destruction America did during WWII killing hundreds of thousands in Japan, or 40,000 in one night in Dresden, Germany. If Hitler had won the war, Americans would have been tried and executed, like we did to the Nazis.

Before saying the 6 million figure again, hopefully you will think twice.

3:51 PM  
Blogger kingbuxton said...

"growing up with a jewish controlled media teaching everyone "Germans killed 6 millon jews. Germans killed 6 millon jews. Germans killed 6 millon jews."
?!?!?! Man get a life. And secondly, when posting a reply try to post something remotely relevant to the topic for godsake. Idiot.

6:11 AM  
Blogger thought.drunk said...

Perhaps it's immoral, but I think that if a character like Hitler showed through his poetry that he was capable of empathy, it might mollify my opinion of him as a man--not as a leader, but as a man--significantly.

I cannot dismiss talent, nor its lack. If you made me choose between a book written by a fascist filled with phenomenal poems and a book written by a sweet old hermit filled with trite B.S., I'd have to pick the fascist's work. It would just be more interesting.

If a guy like Hitler wrote beautiful poems about loving his fellow man, I wouldn't be able to take them at face value, but I would appreciate the art in them, and I wouldn't be ashamed to emulate the goodness in them. I probably wouldn't quote them to my friends, but I surely wouldn't discriminate against good water that came from a shitty well.

To me, art isn't about being a good person; it's about being human, whatever that means.

12:14 PM  

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