Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Artist vs. Government

As we read Milton's tracts against the politics and policies of his time, I found it easy to agree with a lot that he had to say.  As I thought about why that is, I realized that most of the things Milton advocated are things that we have taken for granted, things that are a standard in our society today. I then asked myself, "how would we have reacted to Milton had we lived in his time?"

To explore this, I introduce an example of another literary polemicist who strikes a little closer to home for us. Ezra Pound (1885-1972) was an Idaho-born expatriate poet who is widely considered one of the greatest influences on modern poetry.

As you can see from the picture of Pound, he obviously was involved in much more than poetry. During World War II, he was living in Italy and publishing profusely. Most of his letters, articles, and radio broadcasts were construed as anti-American, so he was arrested and tried with treason during the Army's occupation of the country. While in captivity, he suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted to St. Elizabeth's mental hospital for 14 years.

It is easy for us to side with Milton's arguments, because they eventually won out. Pound's arguments, however, are still relevant. A lot of the literary community like to dismiss them as the ramblings of a broken mind, and focus instead on his literary achievements. I personally feel that his political arguments aren't going away. For instance, he strongly opposed large-scale banking, claiming that it robbed people of culture and adulterated democracy-- an issue that is still present in modern political thought, especially with our economy.

First drafts of Pound's Cantos written
on toilet paper during his imprisonment.

An interesting counter-example of an author who was accepted politically in his time is that of Octavio Paz, a Mexican publisher and poet (and a good one at that-- he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990) who was selected to serve as a diplomat for his country and acted as a strong influence on his nation's government.

So what do we do with our modern prophet-poets? How qualified to we consider our poets, authors, etc. to engage in the realm of politics? Was Pound, like Milton, ahead of his time, and can we rely on his views to guide us in the future?


  1. Cool that you found a few other authors to draw into this. Not sure if this is what you were getting at, but I think when poets and writers are as involved in politics as politicians are, it brings a lot more people towards the issues than it would otherwise. Consider myself: I have no interest in politics whatsoever, but I gobble up every bit of literature I can from select writers. I would be exposed to some issues in that sense that I wouldn't have otherwise.

  2. Maybe I'm unique in this, but I certainly don't know who America's poet laureate is, and of the last five or so I can only name one. If that's any indication of how we regard poets in America, then I think it's safe to assert that we largely ignore them modernly. I think poets themselves have changed a lot over the last fifty years, though, so I don't know that we can really make much of a comparison...

  3. I think the role of poets in larger society, like the governmental issues you've detailed above, is largely based on the culture and tradition of that society. I'd imagine that in somewhere like Ireland, which in my experience regards poetry more seriously than America, poets like Seamus Heaney would and will have more influence.