(On hearing a young poet dismissed as ‘only a foul-mouthed rapper’)
And how am I to face the odds
Of man’s bedevilment and God’s
I, a stranger and afraid,
In a world I never made?
On its face, Housman seems to have stated the existential quandary we all experience, but he did so as a man and a poet. We universalize at our own risk. Was he perhaps trying, and succeeding, to define the poet as an outsider? Not an exile, for that suggests defeat accepted, even isolation. Not a rebel, for that implies Shakespeare’s ’bootless cries’ against Heaven. Certainly not the outsider as gangster, not Housman, but simply as a worker outside the drifting, repressive mainstream of human perceptions and values.
For it is the nature of mainstream juggernauts to repress and the necessity of individual poets to expose that repression. Mainstreams are the aggregate views or consensual patterns by which most people comfort themselves in daily living, the opinions they assert as facts. Repression is denial, mindless, murderous rejection of uncomfortable realities intruding into those lives. It is the function of a poem to alter perceptions, however small, introducing an altered reality. Unable to ignore his own perceptions, the poet cannot quietly shuffle along with a mainstream. Like the soul that cannot make the ‘leap’ to accept faith as the answer to mystery and so puts herself outside Christianity’s embrace, the poet places himself outside the tormented embrace of the mainstream.
And the mainstream is tormented. Selecting its patterns from received values of older and extinct mainstreams, it accepts the consequences and implications of those values without examining them. Driven to preserve those values, torment impels the mainstream as it denies implications and represses its own members to deny and ignore contrary evidence. Do your diamonds sparkle? Never mind that they were acquired with the hacked and bloodied limbs of impressed miners. Was your lunch as pleasant and filling as mine? Never mind that ¼ of America’s children go each day with one meal or less.
Housman was homosexual, a fact which could have earned him imprisonment in his society or confinement to a mad house and psychiatric abuses. His mainstream could not tolerate that men could love and have sex with other men, that women could find fulfillment in each other. Housman, a renowned Latin scholar, would likely have scoffed at the term ’gay’ while he never shied from the designation homosexual. ’Gay’ implies that ’straight’ is the sole standard and that all other forms of sexuality are twisted and distinctly substandard, that there are only two genders, ‘studs’ and ‘bitches’ existing in strict, unaltered hierarchy. A line is ’straight’, passions never. Housman’s sexuality was central to him and cathartic; it was the human condition he found sad and only occasionally comic.
One hundred years ago and until after World War II, the cowboy outlaw was America’s heroic outsider. Riding alone, facing oppression and hostility, the lone figure of the gallant outlaw battling railroad conglomerates, corrupt towns and heartless bankers became the icon of generations. Seventy years of warfare have given us another icon; the operative. The Agent as outlaw, perhaps, but the Agent as loner certainly. Quietly accumulating information, masquerading as ’one of us’, bravely sabotaging the plans of the Opposition, living within the mainstream but working outside of it, sometimes provocateur and sometimes collaborator, possessor of a hard and lonely morality centered on duty, he has become the explicator of our age.
Poets are agents too and can appreciate the irony of the New Outsider. Poets come in all colors, sexes, sizes, backgrounds and abilities, yet each is an agent of change, each looks into the consequences of our mainstream values and writing reorders our perceptions of those values. Each must live within the mainstream and yet observe it from the outside; none is truly welcome in either location. None can live without others, and yet none can renounce her conclusions, his perceptions, his writing which is the price of comfortable inclusion in a mainstream, for the mainstream functions on exclusion and renunciation.
To show us what is human poets expose the repression that exists around us all and in most of us. That is their crime. That any one of them may be black or female or homosexual or Islamic or that they speak to us in rap rhythms or blunt, four-letter words is the excuse to repress. And repress the mainstream does. Poets are labeled as ’rap artists’ or ’black poets’ or ’gay writers’, segregating them into literary ghettos and signaling to members of the mainstream that they may (and should!) ignore such writers and their works.
Ezra Pound called poets, “the antennae of the race.” Antennae sense and warn. Have you noticed that even when angry, poets are rarely murderous? Sensing, questing, it seems, as Housman showed us, leads to loving and affirming, not repression and murder. Even as the complex and complicated Agent stealthily engaged in acquiring new information, even as provocateur in moral rage, the poet seeks to embrace those who will not be embraced, who shun her for her insights, who ignore him for his syntax, who are offended at his spoken sexuality.
Housman asks the question, and Omar Khayyam responds, in translation,
Ah, Love! could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits–and then
Remold it nearer to the Heart’s Desire?