No right wing poet could they findJimmy Carter made the only sane decision of his entire presidency in choosing James Dickey—but Dickey, who pointedly did not attend the swearing-in ceremony, may have belatedly thought better of the whole affair. Dickey’s prudently “experimental” contribution, “The Strength of Fields,” was not particularly disastrous but not especially radiant, a somewhat clotted performance rescued by a strong, understated last line: “My life belongs to the world. I will do what I can.”
Admittedly, Inaugural poems, like most poems written for an occasion, are almost invariably mediocre, but this does not change the fact that, on the whole, contemporary poets resemble contemporary presidents—people who should be doing something else.
The low state of poetry in public estimation is a sure index of a general lack of cultivation, especially in a tweeting culture addicted to sparring acerbics in 140 characters, including spaces and punctuation. Tweets are not haikus where resonant insights can exfoliate in brief compass. Pace T.S. Eliot in The Hollow Men: This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a twitter. But the low state of current poetry itself, given over mainly to triviality, flabby sentiment, pedestrian diction, or cryptic utterance, is an infallible litmus of cultural degradation.
To paraphrase Andrew Breitbart, culture is downstream of language. Language is now chiefly typified by evasion, flatness, and gobbledygook, the default position of most contemporary verse. “Language mediates behavior,” writes political author Ilana Mercer. “To be invested in linguistic accuracy is to be invested in the truth.” One can say something similar about linguistic beauty, about respect for the intrinsic loveliness of language handled with flair and aplomb, maximizing its expressive potential. This is the hallmark of good poetry. But when the language and sensibility of the noble art goes south, we know we are living in the far north. In effect, the last bastion has been breached.
W.B. Yeats, one of the major poets in the Western tradition, concluded his magisterial poem “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” a tribute to the great souls who “said and sang,” with the famous couplet:
Think where man’s glory most begins and ends