Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Hitler Question Revisited - Poets vs. Poetry

(Note: I have edited and added to a post on "The Hitler Question" that I made earlier, which I find interesting and worth revisiting.)

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 relatively more 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 person of the poet to make such a conclusory remark. It does matter to us who the poet is.

And if it matters to us who the poet is, we must ask ourselves, is it ethical for a poet who is not a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing to represent him or herself as such, as happened in the case of the Yasusada hoax? I do not find the idea of a non-Japanese or Japanese-American poet representing her or himself as such as troubling or interesting as the idea of any poet, in general, trying to pretend that his or her work of art is not his or her own creation and thus both disavowing any responsibility for it and decontextualizing it from its individual and societal source.

Of course, there have been many works of literature throughout history that are anyonmous or pseudononymous, but my radical claim is that our knowledge of these works is necessarily incomplete. In other words, I am saying that an anonymously penned or falsely accredited poem may reveal only a limited piece of the full picture of a poem. A poem has the capacity to show us who the poet is and what type of society, in history or in the present, helped shape the poet as an individual and artist, and this knowledge is lost through anonymity, pseudonyms, or misrepresentation. Perhaps that is what makes scholars so passionate in debates over the "true" identity of the authors of literary works. The identity of the poet can give us fuller insight into the grandeur and significance of the poem.


Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

hi Roger,

I remember when I ran across poems by Mao in an anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry. I was a little horrified. Isn't he a bad guy?

What do you think of Mao, as a leader, as a poet? As this site has it, "Mao is ... considered one of the 20th century most brutal dictators. It has been estimated that he was responsile for well over 70 million deaths." The essay goes on, "As a poet Mao continued the tradition in which educated people composed poetry simply as an accomplishment. His texts showed talent, and he did not use the most banal idioms familiar from the works of Communist writers of his own generation." (Most of the rest of the essay is biographical.)

I didn't like Mao's poems. Much depends on the translation, of course. I know I looked at Mao's poems with extra skepticism. But, you know, there are many many poems I don't like, most written by good people.

What about Hitler's paintings? Do his later genocidal ambitions & acts inform your viewing? I can't say as the paintings are the kind of thing I'd put up in my house, but I wouldn't turn them to the wall if they were in my hotel room (and I didn't know they were painted by Hitler). I don't think I could paint a building that looked like a building, but he could. Hitler hadn't killed anybody at the time he was creating his paintings. Does that change anything?

Is Mein Kampf well written? Says Eric George, "My first discovery was that the book is BORING! It is badly written, repetitive, tedious, simple-minded, there was absolutely nothing to make you want to keep reading it. If it was not for Hitler's subsequent history, it would not have sold more than a few copies and would certainly not be available today."

I suspect evil people are not good artists. Good art asks you to see several things at once, to shift in and out of points of view. Evil demands tunnel vision, a very restricted seeing that shuts out alternate ideas.

But, like Hitler's paintings and Mao's poems, there is art created by people who have committed amazingly abominable acts. Review some of it, test your theory.


10:26 PM  
Blogger Ed Sodergran said...

Hello Roger and Glenn,
What comes to me are questions:

Aren't we mixing ethics and aesthetics here?

Or is it as Wittgenstein said: "ethics and aesthetics are one and the same"?

How should we think of Ezra Pound? - He was a terrible anti-Semite, yet he is the grandfather of American poetry.

Why the "poets against the war" movement produced lots of bad poetry?

Can there be a good war poem?

In aesthetics, you can't judge using an outside criterion: only the work.

Yet, I struggle with this concept a lot. The full separation of aesthetics and ethics turns poets into professionals: The technocrats of language. This is not good, I agree. But I don’t know if there is a possible way to think out of this.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Lyle Daggett said...

While it's possible, in a limited sense, to consider a poem (or other creative work) separate from, or in insolation from, the question of who wrote it or the historical context in which it was written, such a limited consideration will not give us a true comprehension of the poem, what it is, how it acts in the real world in which it exists. Truth demands context.

The example of Ezra Pound also came to my mind immediately. If one has read any of the vile poisonous anti-Semitic blather Pound wrote on various occasions for Nazi-and Fascist-sympathetic publications, and for his radio broadcasts from Fascist-governed Italy during the Second World War, the hypothetical question about Hitler writing a poem almost becomes unnecessary: we have the existing writing of Pound. And the ideological distance between Pound and Hitler was not great.

(Robert Bly once compared Pound's Cantos to the seemingly endless expansion of an imperial city-state sucking up and devouring the world.)

The context in which a poem was written (including who wrote the poem) definitely has a bearing on the aesthetic value of the poem. The example of Pound is an easy one for me -- perhaps too easy -- I don't like Pound's poetry much, considered "purely" as poetry.

A different kind of example is the group of "Marichiko" poems Kenneth Rexroth wrote in the later years of his life. (Rexroth is a poet whose work I generally have liked very much -- considered, again, "purely" as poetry.)

Rexroth wrote a series of poems, purportedly by a contemporary Japanese woman named (or pen-named) Marichiko; many of them poems with intensely sexual content (though not all; some with vaguely Buddhist content, and other subject matter). He went so far as to write and publish romaji renderings of the (non-existent) Japanese originals.

When I first read the Marichiko poems in Rexroth's books, I liked them very much, assuming them to be (as Rexroth stated) by a woman of contemporary Japan. I didn't learn of their true origin until about a year after Rexroth's death.

The difference is a stark one; a intimate sexually audacious poem by a woman now becomes a jaded pornographic fantasy about an Asian woman by an aging American white man who teaches at a university in the United States. (I'm not insisting on exactly that contrast or interpretation, just trying to convey some of the shift in perception that happened for me when I found out Rexroth had made up the poems himself.)

5:44 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hi Glenn, thanks a lot for the post and links! I did look them over. I think that my answer would be that, had I not know the author/poet of those works, that I would've thought that both the poetry and paintings are mediocre but passable. But I would've been a necessarily incomplete evaluation/judgment there.

If I did know identities of the artists Hitler and Mao, I think that my views of the artwork would be colored by my knowing the artists. I'd be more inclined to view the pieces unfavorably, though to what extent it would change my opinion -- whether it could move a "thumbs up" to a "thumbs down" -- is debatable.

I think that there are many people who could, in fact, totally disregard the fact that, for example, a poem was by Mao, in making a critical evaluation of the poem. Many critics can separate the poetry from the poet. I'm suggesting here that maybe they should not, or at least should think twice about it, which is admittedly an ethical question.

10:00 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hello Ed, thanks for stopping by and posting! I'll try to answer all your interesting questions quickly:

Yes, I'm mixing aesthetics and ethics.

No, I don't think that ethics and aesthetics are the same. I think that Wittgenstein was just trying to be a diva when he said that. You go, Witty!

I don't think of Pound as the grandfather of American poetry. I'm not a fan of his work, even though it's not because of his anti-Semitism.

I agree that many of the recent anti-war poems haven't exactly advanced past the "not whiny" stage. I'm not sure why, but I imagine it's because lots of such poems get written all the time, and Iraq's always at the top of the headlines, so that's what people have tended to write about.

Maybe there can be a good war poem.

If I used that definition of aesthetics, I would be saying there's no such thing as aesthetics.

Yeah, I'm not saying that I have all, or any, of the answers. :) Certainly, I'm not the final word. But I think that it is worth thinking through.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Lyle, yes, thanks for the very thoughtful response. I think that I may have responded in the earlier posts, but I just want to add here that it does fascinate me the exttent to which the person/ identity of the poet actually matters in the interpretation of the poem.

Like, don't quote me here, but I remember a couple years ago, the poet Joseph Donahue was talking about the discovery of an original copy of Emily Dickinson's work and how people were using scientific technology to restore it.

I'm not sure if I have the facts quite here, but your post made me think of that. And how, even if we have Emily Dickinson's poems as is, that somehow isn't enough. We want more. We want the "actual Emily Dickinson" poems. Or at least some of us do. Same with Silvia Plath. I'm drifting away from the original topic somewhat here, but I find it intriguing that the originalism of the work, knowing where it came from, is somehow so important to us.

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