Poetry may outlast these laureates’ woes
You were silly like us: your gift survived it all
-- W.H. Auden (“In Memory of W.B. Yeats”)
As the governors of California and New Jersey now have discovered, living poets can be as inconvenient as they are stirring.
Unlike their dead colleagues -- whose well-bound and edited “selected works” are a reliable source of eloquent platform allusions and uplifting wedding party sentiments -- living poets frequently behave like, well, poets.
Some are prone to confuse the prophetic with extravagant foolishness. Many believe that the ecstatic and the orgiastic are subjects just as suitable as the edifying. Some are sinister fools. Many others are in the process of living the same sort of messy, contradictory lives as everyone else -- though usually more poetically.
Auden himself was no stranger to those facts. Neither are Quincy Troupe, 62, who resigned last week as California’s first official poet laureate, and Amiri Baraka, 67, who is locked in a fight to the finish to hold on to the same post in New Jersey. There already is a tendency to link their names, since both are enmeshed in controversy and both are African American artists. However, any similarity to their situations ends with those superficial facts.
Since his appointment by Gov. Gray Davis in June, Troupe has been an exemplary poet laureate. He resigned -- voluntarily and at his own initiative -- Friday, after a routine background check preceeding his confirmation by the state Senate uncovered a 30-year-old lie on his resume. Though Troupe, who is also a professor of creative writing and American and Caribbean literature at UC San Diego, attended Grambling College in Louisiana, he did not graduate, as his resume says.
None of this has anything to do with his long career as a poet who has produced seven collections of poetry, nor as a writer whose other seven books include a masterful portrait, “Miles and Me,” nor as a teacher whose courses are annually oversubscribed and whose students have gone on to win MacArthur, Guggenheim and Lannan Foundation grants.
Baraka -- the Newark poet formerly known as LeRoi Jones -- is another matter entirely. During a poetry reading last month, he recited a long work, “Somebody Blew Up America,” in which he repeated the discredited slander that the World Trade Center’s Israeli tenants stayed away on Sept. 11 because they had been warned of the impending terrorist attack:
Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away.
Elsewhere in the poem, Baraka repeats another anti-Israeli calumny:
Who knows why Five Israelis was filming the explosion
And cracking they sides at the notion
All sorts of New Jersey groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, reacted with understandable revulsion. Gov. James E. McGreevey demanded that Baraka resign his honorary post and, when the poet refused, the state legislature began drafting a law that will allow the governor to fire the laureate.
As these facts would suggest, the two poets also take entirely different attitudes toward their situations.
“I deeply regret this whole thing,” Troupe said Tuesday. The fabrication, he said, “went on my resume about seven years into my academic career, when I was a lecturer at the College of Staten Island in the City University of New York. Somebody told me I would never get on the tenure line unless I changed my resume. So, I just did it and, since then, it never came up. Since then, I’ve made my living by my chops, writing and publishing books and teaching.”
Troupe said UCSD officials called him at his La Jolla home Oct. 10. “They said this had come to their attention, and was it true? I admitted it immediately,” Troupe said.
“We started talking about what we should do, and I said, ‘I think I should resign.’ I had already talked to somebody else, and they said, ‘If you resign, it will be done gracefully,’ and I agreed with that.”
Troupe said he called the governor’s office and said he intended to withdraw. “Everyone there was extremely sad that I was leaving.” Still, Troupe said, “as a realist, I understand that this is a political season and they are in an electoral race. A lot of political considerations would have come into play. But I’m not blaming anybody -- not the Senate Rules Committee, nor the governor’s office. What I want them to focus on is why they picked me in the first place. This has nothing to do with my performance as poet laureate of this state.”
Troupe said he still is unsure what impact the revelation will have on his professorship. “They gave me every assurance they want me to stay here,” he said. “I’ve given my life to teaching and they know that.”
Baraka, by contrast, not only continues to defend the wicked allegations in his poem but also said he will sue to block any attempt to remove him. “They are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of these hicks by making it seem like it’s possible to remove me without violating my 1st Amendment rights and passing an ex post facto law. Who are they fooling? They’re just trying to impress people with weak minds before Nov. 5.”
Baraka dismisses as fabrication the fact that at least six Israeli citizens died in the World Trade Center. “I have asked the ADL to have a televised debate with me, to put the poem on the wall and to go down line by line. They won’t do it.... This charge of anti-Semitism they’ve made against me is character assassination. I say Israel and the United States knew about this before it happened. Why am I called an anti-Semite for pointing this out? Because assassinating my character is some kind of attempt to maintain the image of Israel as a victim when it is carrying out ethnic cleansing.
“The good thing about New Jersey,” Baraka said, “is that I was picked for this job by a panel of other poets. It doesn’t say anything in the proclamation naming me that I have to follow the politics of fools.”
There is, of course, a long tradition of formidable poets who gave themselves over to sordid politics. Ezra Pound is but the most obvious example. Still, there is hardly a sinister political notion that has come down the pike over the last 30 years that Baraka-Jones has not embraced. There is a good case to be made that the people who ought to resign are those who named him. But even former U.S. poets laureate are reluctant to ask him to step down.
“Poet laureate does not entitle one to anything or oblige one to anything,” Robert Pinsky said. “It is like being given a compliment. You can’t fire somebody from a compliment. The poet laureate of New Jersey has the same right as any other American to make a fool of himself. Compliments can be regretted, but not revoked.”
Another former U.S. laureate, Stanley Kunitz, said, “I am not particularly in sympathy with the kind of statements Amiri Baraka used in that poem. But having said that, I feel a rebuke might be all that is necessary.”
In 1943, four years after he had written his famous elegy to Yeats, Auden mused on the great poet’s flirtation with the ramshackle fascism of Eoin O’Duffy’s Irish Blueshirts and on the Norwegian Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun’s collaboration with the Nazis. Perhaps, Auden told an interviewer, Yeats had been fortunate to have died in 1939, since that foreclosed any possibility of his making “the same disastrous mistake, and for the same reasons, as Hamsun did.”
Such sentiments led Auden to remove lines in which he predicted that Yeats’ talent -- like those of the imperial apologist Rudyard Kipling and the reactionary French Catholic Paul Claudel -- would absolve him.
These are the lines of which Auden repented; readers can decide whether they are true:
Time, that is intolerant
of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week,
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honors at their feet.
Time that with this strange excuse
pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardon him for writing well.