The Conservative Poets:
A Contemporary Anthology
Edited by William Baer.
University of Evansville Press (Evansville, Ind.)
182 pp., $20.00 cloth, 2006.
When you put fifteen important poets (most of them teachers and prolific publishers of poetry, prose, and criticism) together between the same covers, inevitably you will have a book of complex nature. Let us begin with the front cover. It is a joy to discover the timeless painting Allies Day, May 1917 by Childe Hassam gracing this volume of poetry. First rate art for first rate poetry!
In his preface, editor William Baer sees the current culture wars for what they are—a dam across the flow of creativity. While supporting formalism, he recognizes poetic experiment as necessary and valid, so long as it is not mistaken for an end product. He recognizes the “underlying structure of meter as a poetic representation of the provident order of God’s universe,” and believes the poets represented here to be “comfortable” with the six foundational premises that Russell Kirk set out in The Conservative Mind as the supports for a stable social order.
Many of the poets represented here have found themselves either working sub rosa within a hostile academic climate or forced to turn from academe to a barely more hospitable larger world. In a jagged, jumpy world of war, electronics, and obsession with disaster, it would be easy to become distracted from that which endures. Yet, to their credit they remain conservative poets.
Some of the better known poets included here are luminaries such as Joseph Bottum, Anthony Lombardy, Ralph McInerny, and Marion Montgomery, but all will captivate and interest you. If only there were sufficient space here to explore and examine them all in the detail they deserve. That, of course, provides the reason to read and contemplate this book.
Understandably, many poems are full of veiled and not-so-veiled resentment quite justly directed toward the ingrown pettiness of academia. Samuel Maio, a professor at San Jose State, knows what’s wrong, and tells us directly. All his poems, especially “The Company Party” and his sonnet on teaching Shakespeare “correctness” are marvelous examples of this.
In his re-telling of Biblical events, Maio speaks about today’s problems. Here is one significant stanza from his many-layered poem “Pilate”
But who should decide? I? They, or Herod?
The issue is political desire—
Theirs and mine—not crime against the Empire.
Whether or not they are allowed to choose
To free Barabbas or this “king” of Jews,
Rome cannot yield responsibility.
Paul Lake’s “Epilogue to ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’” and “A Lesson in Hermeneutics” are pertinent though coded comments on politics of all varieties. Both Lake and Maio offer a fresh look at Biblical and classical events.
Catharine Savage Brosman’s sensitivity to color and the tactile have survived a sentence in academia. She is one who understands the necessity of going beyond the personal. In her poem “The Gardener,” she uses the metaphor of a garden subtly to describe the growth of a poem. Also couched in natural terms, “On Her Sixty-Sixth Birthday” is a beautiful coming to the conclusion of life.
Frederick Turner has a lot to say, and says it with great aplomb. “At the Casa Paredes” (Santiago de Compostela) is both subtle and lovely. With its consideration of life as a whole and approaching death, it is a fitting companion piece to Brosman’s “On her Sixty-Sixth Birthday”. Unfortunately, too often Turner finds himself stuck in the joys of self-contemplation, which detracts from his otherwise insightful work.
Seeing no need for careless, or “off” rhyming, David Middleton comments subtly and with style on a strange bird, a suicide, and a blossom. In “Blue Essences: The 1890’s”, he gets inside the poignant atmosphere of a nineteenth-century Paris café. His translations are clear and direct; all his works reveal his faith in God and order. I quote in part from his incisive poem “For the Woman Who Shrieked at Couplets”:
Free love is like free verse, wedded love’s like rhyme,
True freedom found in law, timelessness in time.
Such wisdom exists beyond the single man
So let us try to attain it if we can
By studying God’s details, the vivid facts
From which conceptual mind then abstracts . . .
This poem, unfortunately too long to quote in its entirety, is quite simply a gem of the politically incorrect—a shrewd analysis of a woman who eschews tradition. It relates to Joseph S. Salemi’s “A Feminist Professor Lectures on The Rape of the Lock,” also included here. Read them both for a peek into the world of contemporary poetry and today’s classroom.
Baer himself, currently director of “The Richard Wilbur Poetry Series,” contributing editor to Measure and poetry editor and film critic for Crisis, has found time not only to edit this book, but also to contribute to it. In his sonnet “Lecture,” through a choppy choice of words and tempo, Baer delineates a problem specific to more than poetry: specifically, the present great generational communication gap. This poem is one to remember!
Bryce Christensen honors the dead in capable sonnets, mostly from a narrow, autobiographical stance, then breaks loose in a four line poem, “1492”:
Braving uncharted roundness, they sailed on!
In harbors mapped, in a flat mortgaged world,
We drop our anchor, pursue no horizon.
Our ships decay to hulks with all sails furled.
Small and potent, this poem clearly maps contemporary poetry’s major fault. Bravo!
I have saved Salemi for penultimate mention. Salemi, perhaps the most prominent formalist poet today and whose book Masquerade was reviewed in a previous issue of this journal, consistently throws a window wide on the outer world. If he were to apply a nice glaze of humble conformity over his poetic skills he would be a much more widely accepted poet. Others may travel the road of comfortable compromise; Salemi rides outside in the storm, pointing out signposts.
Here is his poem “The Honors Committee Writes a Letter of Recommendation for a Model Student”, in which he nails the current and most horrific problem of scholarship to the committee bulletin board:
You showed up every day; you never dozed;
You listened, taking notes at all the lectures.
Your essays were quite plausibly composed;
You never brought up troublesome conjectures.
You needed little guidance or correction;
You modified your viewpoints when required.
You learned the in-house jargon to perfection—
In fact, we’d say your fluency’s inspired.
How often do good students lose their way
Despite our careful planning and endeavor!
They slip to old allegiances, or stray
Through dark, unsanctioned modes of thought. However,
In your case you lived up to expectation:
We recommend you without hesitation.
While very different from Salemi, Robert Beum is just as interesting. As we march through our increasingly organized, bureaucratic world we thirst for such variety. In his poem “844 E. 5th” Beum travels beyond recollection into reflection:
A child’s play of rooms, no two
The same windows above time,
All careless, falling apart
High turrets and gables up,
Up, lifting you to your heart.
Past everything bare, square, flat,
Up a high slattern cracking,
years freshen to ruin, last
in it—for ruin’s high home,
children grow into the past.”
This book is perhaps the beginning of a fine wedge of dissent that, as it probes deeper into the defects of our poetry world, will ultimately send the dead wood crashing to the ground. It is the strongest reason for Baer to have put this book together. There is no question that the academic milieu commands self-restriction within a narrow cage of pseudo-radicalism. Rigid “New Age” academic automatons react with feeling only to the perceived “correctness” of certain issues. The world of political correctness is flat.
Though many write what they think they “know” and are considered “modern,” they delight to confuse and distract us by poems containing little or no rhyme, odd arrangements of lines, and language straight from office memos and a psychiatrist’s notepad. Most “in sync” contemporary poets play a ragged, one-stringed lyre. This lyre, like the ubiquitous teenager’s guitar, exists in a comfortable cocoon of lyric introspection. The quality of personal knowledge found in such lines is rarely considered. Beauty is most often won with great difficulty. At first reading, the better poem may seem harsh and painted with a rough brush. Later, on reflection, it may become strong and beautiful.
Only through the music of such poems as lie within the covers of The Conservative Poets may a drowsing muse be awakened. Once her eyes are open she will be hungry; not for insipid and particularized sweetness, but for substance and sharp comment. In an era ripe for the bite of the ripostes of a Dr. Samuel Johnson or a Dorothy Parker, we are in desperate need of more direct and vigorous attacks on the dithering and obtuse. Satire is, after all, an American tradition.
The poets such as the ones in this book are able use their considerable arsenal of talent, conservative values, honors, and position to mow down the poetry-workshop sycophants by the dozen. In a grey and desperate time for poetry, these poets may be the only ones who care enough to save it.
Sally Cook, a painter and a poet, recently won third prize in the Best American Poetry Challenge II for her poem “As The Underworld Turns.” She has also received prizes from Dr. Alfred Dorn’s World Order of Narrative and Formalist Poets Contest. Her essays and poetry have appeared in publications as First Things, The Chimera, Chronicles, Iambs &Trochees, Pivot, and the New Formalist.