Why Liberal Poets Have (Or Should Have If They Don’t) More in Common
With Her Than They Think
(Originally published in Boulevard Magazine, Vol. 30, No. 1)
I recently recommended an ex-student to be a tutor for the Writing Center at the college where I teach. The Director of the Center and I consulted about the student’s credentials, went over his grades, and finally decided he’d be an excellent addition to the staff. “But,” the Director added in a lowered voice at the end of our consult, “he’s reading Ayn Rand.”
I knew what he meant.
Ayn Rand is the apocalyptic she-devil of the satanic Right, and as is the case on most college campuses, especially in the English Departments (some clichés are true), it was a given that I would know the subtext of the Director’s comment, would join him in his condemnation of Rand, and would thus delegate my student to the “other side,” as is befitting someone who reads Rand. The conspiratorial tone of the Director’s voice said that we were in this together, as if I, too, had joined The Cause, and by silent agreement we both knew which side we were on.
I’m always a little surprised (and annoyed) by the assumption of my inclusion in group-think just because of my proximity to the group. Surprised, because as professors we’re supposed to be instilling good critical thinking skills in our students—it’s a clearly-stated mandate of our college—and the blind, eager allegiance to one’s narrow objectives is something I don’t expect to see in adults who are charged with teaching the young not what to think but how to think. Annoyed, because my inclusion in this minor social conspiracy was a foregone conclusion, and I don’t like being stereotyped any more than I like stereotyping. I didn’t respond to the Director’s comment, nor did I let on that I already knew about my ex-student’s familiarity with Rand. I had recommended her to him.
(Note: I will not be revealing my own political affiliations in this essay. They’re irrelevant. I’m uncomfortable with labels in general, finding them restrictive and meaningless. However, labels seem to be the order of the day, so for the sake of convenience I’ll occasionally be using them…reluctantly.)
Most of us have been brought up on tribal-centric thinking, writ large in the political arena. Nobody alive in America today has known anything but the two party system, which gives way to, from the earliest of ages, an Us vs. Them ontology. This isn’t news to a Darwinian. Group-think and our fear of the Other has been with us from the beginning, is perhaps even hard-wired into us, as the latest research shows that even toddlers as young as six months prefer those of their own kind (not just relatives) to strangers. What is unsettling and sometimes distressing to see, however, is how easily so many of my liberal friends, especially poets who pride themselves on inclusiveness and empathy, quickly denigrate and so often loathe those they consider the Other. When, in fact, unbeknownst to them, they have much in common with the very people they despise.
Almost all of my liberal friends, many of whom are poets (it suddenly occurs to me that I’ve never met a Republican poet), hate Ayn Rand. They’re supposed to. She’s the economic Godmother and proto-architect of modern Republican laissez-faire capitalism, which the Liberal Poet views as harsh and indifferent to the economically disenfranchised. Beyond economics, however, Rand is hated by the Liberal Poet for her perceived pitiless social agenda, defined by selfishness, deprecation of minorities, and a hostile contempt for the less fortunate. The Republican personality is Rand’s, what Jeff Walker describes in his book The Ayn Rand Cult as “icily cold…objective, hyper-rational, and emotionless.”
Politically, The Liberal Poet sees government as a force for good, especially when it comes to protecting the economic and political liberties of the less fortunate, the Liberal Poet’s constituency. However, the modern Liberal who is proud of the Liberal label would cringe to know how that term was applied to the function of government by the Founding Fathers. Steeped in Enlightenment thinking, the Framers were “classic liberalists,” that is, people who thought the government’s role was, according to Fareed Zakaria, “to protect an individual’s autonomy and dignity against coercion, whatever the source—state, church, or society.” The State was not the explicit defender of anyone’s rights, it existed only to ensure that everyone could do pretty much what they pleased without harming anyone else, then get out of the way. To be a Liberal in the 18th century was to be a modern Republican, summed up philosophically by Lord Acton when he said, “Liberty is the prevention of control by others.”
The Self was paramount to the “liberal” Framers, which is why they encoded “the pursuit of happiness” into the Declaration of Independence. They believed in what Jacques Barzen calls “the perfectibility of man.” Similarly, in Rand’s self-admitted “romantic” vision of “things as they might be,” she says that the motive of her writing is the “projection of an ideal man.” Howard Roark, Rand’s Objectivist hero of The Fountainhead, points out that the pursuit of happiness is a “private, personal, selfish motive” for every person, and could have been sitting at Jefferson’s side in Philadelphia instead of defending himself at his trial when he says in Fountainhead: “There is no standard of personal dignity except independence.” This idea of happiness, however, is a tricky one, where, probably to the chagrin of both, the Liberal Poet and the Randian Objectivist start to intersect.
Rand, through Roark, states that “Every form of happiness is private.” In essence, no matter what the cause of that happiness, it makes me happy. Furthermore, Aristotle-inspired, Objectivist philosophy states that “Rationality is man’s basic virtue, and his three fundamental values are: reason, purpose, self-esteem.” Reason comes first with Rand, is the link to happiness, and she uses the term “virtue” not in the modern, moral sense of goodness, but according to the Greek word areté, as in trait, a desirable quality, in the sense that agility is a virtue of a good football player. Rand borrows much of her ideas of happiness from the Greek notion of eudaimonia, translated as “happiness” or “welfare.” Aristotle states that happiness, the eudaimon life, is one of “virtuous activity in accordance with reason,” even as he admits to some outside sources of happiness. Compare that with the first tenet of Objectivist Ethics: “Reason is man’s only proper judge of values and his only proper guide to action.”
This was the Framers’ intent in codifying happiness, and no matter how the Liberal Poet parses the argument, this is precisely what she does also (if she’s a serious poet, not merely seeking adulation) when she sits down to write a poem. As much as she might disparage reason (considered by some extreme liberals to be a tool of totalitarian thought), the poet employs reason every time she engages with words; language, which arose in the neocortex, the seat of reason, was the key that unlocked intelligence, thus humanity, thus, eventually, poetry in our evolutionary dawn. Reason, the acquisition of knowledge through the simple act of reading—her own work and the received wisdom of others upon which it is based—is used in every individual’s effort to write, to pursue her happiness, and she’d be lost without it.
Selfishness is probably the most egregious trait the Liberal Poet sees in the Rand/Republican personality. This trait, which the Liberal Poet sees only in Republicans (justifiably, if one listens to their entertainment barkers) and never in herself, and does not have to go far to see in Rand, is considered the root psychological flaw of the conservative mind. But the word selfishness, like the word liberal, is often confused by lazy associations, its definition often blurring back and forth through a haze of popular psychology. There is a difference between being selfish and being a narcissist, something not even Rand would consider desirable (even as she was probably the latter under the guise of the former). Narcissism is a clearly defined mental disorder listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and the diagnosing of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is an intricate, clinical process based on 40 traits outlined in the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). Just a few of these traits include grandiosity, lack of empathy, and a need to be admired, traits applied by Rand only to her literary villains. And while I’ve certainly met some poets and writers (actually, more than a few) who have these traits, and have seen dark whispers of them in myself, few poets last very long into plausibility and fame, large or small, with these traits intact. There are only so many books or poems one can write about the self before one’s oeuvre crumbles under the weight of repetitive and ultimately boring self-absorption.
The Liberal Poet sees selfishness everywhere in the Right, and in its sponsors, and most certainly in the protagonists of Rand’s works. They are egotists, the stepchildren of narcissists. But here, again, the words entangle and the definitions blur, the Liberal often confusing the egotist with Rand’s tenet of egoism, which Rand herself often conflated, English not being her first language. According to Websters Encylopedic, an egotist is “a conceited, boastful person,” and goes on to define egoist as the same person, thus the confusion. However, the third definition of egoist depicts him as “an adherent of the metaphysical principle of the ego, or self,” a definition stripped of judgment and moral proscription. An egoist is someone who ascribes to egoism, “a doctrine that all the elements of knowledge are in the ego and its relations,” in the Freudian sense of ego, the self, or in the words of a Randian Objectivist: “To think, to feel, to judge, to act are functions of the ego.” In this sense, everyone is an egoist; we are all stuck in the self, in the subjective, which, despite the occasional excursions into the skins of others, must be limited by the first person while the world exists in the third. We are all born into and die out of the self. The artist, the poet, the writer can never render The Truth in the objective sense (if there is such a thing), even as she might seem to approach it in the exalted state of creation. She can offer only her subjective, ego-driven version of it.
Rand’s ego is informed first and foremost by reason, not narcissism or self-absorption, which Rand herself rejected as “vulgar selfishness,” that is, “living through others through ruling them.” Having a passion for something, pursuing a vision that is often perceived to be selfish (those hours spent writing instead of with spouse or children), is different from childish self-indulgence. Doing what one loves often leads to the loss of ego, sometimes even the loss of self when caught up in the moment, erasing boundaries, being part of a larger whole. This is often called “flow,” and many people in many professions experience it, not just artists. I’ve experienced it as a carpenter—the waffle-headed, 28 oz. Estwing framing hammer swinging at the end of my arm as if my tendons had grown right into the steel, my whole body a perfect synthesis of motion and thought rising to the fluid state of no-thought and no-body; and I’ve experienced it as a writer—engulfed in what John Gardner calls the “trancelike” state of creation, “entering as fully as possible into the imaginary experience of the character, getting ‘outside’ oneself.” Gardner considers this paradoxical, and indeed it is. In the process of creation one goes deeply, sometimes painfully inside, looking for “the madness at the core of the fictional idea” in order to understand what is outside, what joins us to the largest of contexts—the human condition.
Recognizing the latter part of this equation—the outside, the other—the Liberal Poet seems embarrassed by, perhaps would even deny, the former. The act of writing is selfish in the extreme, no matter what altruistic motives might be ascribed to the endeavor. As Mark Halliday points out in his essay, “The Arrogance of Poetry,” any poem “is essentially a portrait of the speaker,” that is, “a presentation of the speaker living through a complex of memories and emotions.” And the speaker is always, obliquely or baldly, a portrait of at least some part of the poet. Any poem or piece of fiction basically says: Look at me looking at the world. Even if the speaker is a persona the poet has conjured, as far from her true self as she can imagine, that imagining always leads back to the writer, making every poem, no matter the layers between product and maker, self-reflective.
The Liberal Poet, however, couches her task in the greater good. I once had a student come up to me after class and ask me to read a poem she’d written. It was in the style of Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which she openly acknowledged, and she wanted to know what I thought. I told her I thought she captured Ginsberg well, but that she should probably revise the poem a little further. “I’m not a poet,” she said, obviously hurt by my less than enthusiastic response, wanting, as so many of my students do, praise instead of reproach, “but if I can help just one person with this poem, then I will have done my job.” She was, of course, doomed to failure. Such motives always lead to poetic bankruptcy. My student was not trying to craft a work of art, she was trying to mold virtue (in the modern sense), that is, her own, in the service of others. “The saddest are those not right in their lives / who are acting to make things right for others,” William Stafford writes in his beautiful small poem, “The Little Ways That Encourage Good Fortune.”
This is the over-looked and often misinterpreted point of Rand, a psychological truth most people sense (whether they want to or not), and if they do, would prefer to deny. There can be no giving to others unless there is a self first. Every pop psychologist knows this, and it has seeped into the culture of marriage counseling and mothering, even though it’s expounded under the banner of altruism and never the stigma of selfishness. If the plane is going down, put the oxygen mask over your own face first. One must be able to love oneself before she can love others. “Before you can do things for people, you must be the kind of man who can get things done. But to get things done, you must love the doing, not the secondary consequences,” Roark says in Fountainhead. My student did not love the doing, only the reward, and the poet who attempts to mold virtue by keeping one eye on the response to that virtue is the true narcissist.
In its ugliest incarnation, this type of illusive altruism is sometimes irreverently referred to as the Mother Theresa Syndrome. The person who lives by a code of doing good for others, who cannot exist without giving, whose raison d’être is to help others, must, by necessity, have others who suffer in order to help them. In its pathological incarnation it is called Munchausen by proxy syndrome; the obsessive Do-gooder will actually go out of her way to make others suffer—gets a thrill from disasters big or small—so that she can be called to action and save the afflicted. These people are death lovers disguised as compassionate people, and can live the well-lived life only through the diminished other.
Go to a poetry reading, particularly the so-called democratic venue of a Poetry Slam, and this is what one sees on stage. The poets offer a sense of community and good feeling amidst the expressed outrage at the world’s debasements, but little else. Without the afflicted, they would be mute. Their poems are propaganda, not poetry, filled with indignation but little insight. And as Stephen Dunn has observed, “Righteousness is certainly not very good for language.” They undoubtedly believe what they’re saying, to an almost anguished degree. But such woe enumeration, pique by proxy, and sleeve empathy is only callow poetry designed more for the poet’s cause célèbre personality than for the listener’s edification. It is not “an escape from personality,” which is what Eliot said good poetry is, but a wallowing in it. Real life, the supposed stuff of the artist—the human condition—exists amidst too much paradox, the heart amidst too much contradiction, to render it through the narrow virtue of the tender poet. Such efforts are doomed to what Dunn calls “unadulterated sincerity,” which can only lead to “dullness, a crime that deserves maximum punishment.”
Many years ago I started the first Slam in Providence, RI, at an artists’ space called AS220. I imported the Slam via Boston, which had imported it from the birthplace of the Slam, The Green Mill bar in Chicago. Those were heady days, a wild west of poetry. Poets and non-poets of all stripes would say the most outrageous things on stage—everything was fair game. It was a tough world, kind of like the real one, and I left Providence shortly after the Slam’s inception believing it to be in a good, chaotic, messy, Sturm and Drang, catholic with a small ‘c’ state.
Several years later, I returned to Providence and sat anonymously in the audience listening to a new generation of Slam poets. There was the usual dross and the occasional glitter, but the tone was different. It’s hard to describe the tenor of the event except as a quiet, respectable, after-school club, as if all the hard edges in the room had been sanded down. There was no echo, no anger, no tension awaiting the inevitable fuck-up or flash of image that could widen the eye. Toward the end of the first round, a small, frizzy-haired girl got up on stage, obviously a college student. After reading a long poem about housing discrimination (there must have been something in the papers), the young poet ended her poem by saying, I—pausing to emphasize her extravagant virtue—would never rent to a bigot! The crowd erupted. Thunderous applause. A perfect score from the judges. I lowered my head and slinked away, embarrassed by what I had wrought.
It took me a decade before I could return to the Slam, this time to one held on a local University campus, and saw in microcosm the end result of a nation’s failed educational experiment. In New Slam World every poet who gets up on stage is, according to the hostess that night, “fantastic,” “ridiculously talented,” or “the best poet you’ll ever hear.” The judges, chosen from the audience, never give a score (based on the Olympic system) lower than a seven or eight, and those get booed by the audience as “unsupportive.” (In Old Slam World I once saw a judge hold up a card on which he had written “Negative Infinity” for a colossally bad poem.) And I actually heard the New Slam hostess tell the audience to “boo anyone who leaves” the Slam while it’s in progress, a chilling reminder of Orwell’s Two Minutes of Hate, which I’m sure was lost on a generation who is blissfully, almost arrogantly ignorant of anything—book, history, or idea—that existed before they were born.
Apparently, no one fails in New Slam World (as in the schools), and any low-scoring judge is so excoriated by the collective din of disapproval—the faceless Fascism of conformity camouflaged as moral indignation—that he/she will never return to a Slam. And that’s the point—to disappear anyone who doesn’t toe the party line. The function of New Slam World, poetically and personally, is to “present a conglomerate of diversity behind which there is absolute uniformity,” Joseph Goebbels’ definition of propaganda. In New Slam World everyone participates in a cultural event, not a poetry event. Like god at church and food at a restaurant, poetry is the least important part of New Slam World. And like local writers’ groups where the forlorn go to be with their own kind, whose agenda is one-tenth truth and nine-tenths commiseration, everyone at the New Slam is obliged to console, like mothers who have to love you no matter what. But such groups—or friends or relatives from whom one seeks solace—are palliatives at best, echo chambers at worst. That’s the point. To feel good. The allegiance is first and foremost to the group, to Group Think and Group Therapy, the resultant experience feeling like an old time Call & Response revival meeting, as fundamentalist and conservative in an adherence to the dictatorship of culture as a Klan rally. The group is good. Groups provide definition without introspection. Groups absolve the individual of responsibility.
Products of the Self Esteem movement (I feel, therefore I am) and moral relativism (I think I’m right, therefore I am), Slam sentiments exhibited in the guise of poetry might make the poet feel secure, even exultant in her liberal generosity, but make for lousy poetry. For the sensitive poet, all experience is elevated and at the same time reduced to the “feeling,” which is paramount, unassailable, and all that is needed to make one’s fribbled expression and semi-conscious introspection valuable to others. She believes, like Cicero, that emotion is the greatest persuader, but fails to understand that appeals to sentiment work only in commercials—for self, soap, or sop—which most bad poems are.
Gender politics, ethnic grievance, the endless stream of narcissistic memoir are touted as edgy and cool, evoking sympathy but no percipience, and are, in reality, as conservative in their adherence to the party platform as a Paul Ryan staffer being forced to read Ayn Rand by his boss. Their poets are conservative in their allegiance to not offending anyone. They are conservative in their buttoned-down fear of stepping outside the agreed-upon ethos that dictates which group of outcasts has been wounded that week, thus eligible for defense. And they are conservative in their language, which is lean and sparse as a Puritan’s, as strict as a Constitutional literalist. The Liberal Poet stands in front of a crowd like a benign clown, “polite, sociable, inoffensive, wanting to spark no controversy, staying clear of any dangerous, big, meaningful ideas,” the cranky but keen-eyed Anis Shivani writes in Against the Workshop; they mime “routines with which they’ve had great success since grade school.” This is what they’ve been taught—how to get along. As Roark contemptuously says of such inculcation, “Men have been taught that it is a virtue to agree with others. But the creator is the man who disagrees.” And that’s the poet’s job, has always been her job—to disagree.
Which brings up an interesting paradox. There seems to be an inherent contradiction between the poet who believes that anything she feels or thinks is worthy of expression—the über-Me brought up in the pedagogy of self-esteem—and the anti-narcissist who desires to get along at all costs. This paradox, which on the surface might seem to be psychologically divergent but is joined together by the glue of selfishness, rests on two, relatively new cultural phenomena. First, multiculturalism, which makes an appearance very early in the school curriculum. Second, the trend originating in the ‘90s to require the Orwellian “involuntary volunteering” in high schools in order to graduate. Undoubtedly, the teaching of inclusiveness makes the student aware of the Other, and as far as it goes, it’s good to get beyond one’s xenophobic tendencies, which, the research also tells us, are probably hard-wired in us. And helping others is not such a bad idea, either, if the people needing help actually get help, which they often do. But in both cases it’s indoctrination, not education. Watching a video of a Bantu initiation dance in Zambia cannot induce the empathy necessary to understand what it’s like to walk four miles every day to get clean water. And forced volunteerism is not an organic byproduct of young people actually wanting to help others. As many of them freely admit, and their counselors and even monster.com tells them, it looks good on the résumé. Recent studies, as reported by Twenge and Campbell in their book The Narcissism Epidemic, bear this out. High school senior volunteerism has risen from 64% in 1990 to 76% in 2006, but charitable donations by seniors have fallen from 46% to 33% between the late ‘70s and 2006. Visible charity is more valuable than anonymous charity.
Institutionalized empathy is only functional as long as it reflects well on the self, unlike Howard Roark, who is, as Rand describes him, and as was often said of Rand, “born without the ability to consider others.” This is the cold, uncaring, self-centered view the Liberal Poet takes away from Rand, and on one level it cannot be exonerated. It is, indeed, extreme, especially in a social context. But Rand’s inconsideration of others applies only to a person’s work. It is the difference between wanting to be thought great and being great. In the pursuit of one’s work, one’s passion, one cannot worry about “fame, admiration, envy—all that which comes from others,” Roark says at his fictional trial. The poet who assumes to create for others, who is primarily concerned with inclusion rather than vision, who seeks to provoke (a usually positive) response from her audience by invoking dire circumstance, perceived slights, and victimization (for which the poet is often the cure), will fall flat on her face in the snow, as Neruda said. “[T]he poem of outspoken complaint or rage,” Dunn says, is “too much like the voices we regularly hear on the news.” And that’s what the Liberal Poet becomes, a newscaster writing in her diary.
In her book Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway makes the observation that the world—that place we must daily navigate according to the mundane rules of economic and social commerce, “its brute physical presence”—is such a hindrance to the writer that he must extricate himself from it. The real world, the one that so many too easily gravitate to for comfort and definition, is a bane to writers, to Dunn’s “makers,” and he advises that “At all costs [makers] must try not to be literalists of the literal.” Because, despite the cacophony of voices, the world has an agreed-upon version of the truth: homogenized, palatable, packaged like so much cheery cereal and cheesy sitcoms. As I tell my creative writing students, much to their initial dismay, it’s not your job to tell the truth. It’s your job to make up the truth. It is your job to peel apart Auden’s “folded lie.” And in order to do this, in order to be faithful to one’s version of the truth and not a slave to the world’s lies, in order to be the Grand Dissenter, to “maintain an antagonistic posture to society,” as Edward Albee advises the artist to be, the writer must remove himself from the profane world and liberate the mental world where imagination, not propaganda, reigns supreme. And this, Burroway counsels, “requires a disciplined effort of displacement.”
It also requires selfishness. Robert Graves said that poetry is “a private and, indeed, antisocial obsession.” All of Rand’s heroes are antisocial, at least when it comes to their work. A true artist doesn’t give a wit for the opinions of others, and no poet should. This is not to say that one should deny the greatness of others, or refuse to study those who have preceded us. But the artist must eventually abandon them and pursue her own vision, even if it leads to obscurity. Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. It is the mark of an impoverished soul, a Randian “second-hander” who acquires “erudition without study, authority without cost, judgment without effort.” William Carlos Williams thought this of Eliot, despite his erudition, calling him “a subtle conformist” for his deference to the European mind, which Eliot claimed was “much more important than his [the poet’s] own private mind.” Rand would bristle at this, as did Williams, and forms the basis for her defense of Roark’s architectural insistence on following his own (a.k.a. Frank Lloyd Wright’s) vision instead of slapping Doric guttas or Corinthian modillions on the front of a building just to please a client.
Most poets, even liberal poets, would not only scoff at but think absurd in the extreme the notion that a poem should be constructed according to focus groups and polls. There is an inherent, instinctual, Randian rejection of the crowd when writing a poem, and that instinct is toward the self, the individual, the unique necessity of a voice trying to break free. Deep down, any poet of whatever political stripe knows that the crowd must stay at the door when she goes into her sanctuary to scrape together an honest depiction of the world through the woefully inadequate medium of language. Even if her temperament in the brutal world draws her to soup kitchens, candy striping, and the Slam, her temperament at her desk should be that of the seeker who embarks alone on a dangerous journey. She is aligned with Eudora Welty when she says, “My temperament and my instinct had told me alike that the author, who writes at his own emergency [my emphasis], remains and needs to remain at his private remove.” The selfish remove. Which is the only way to write—not in response to Carruth’s existential “emergency of life,” but to the necessity of a desire that stirs deep within then rises up in the imperative of expression, the emergent necessity that claims: I have something to say.
This is getting increasingly difficult. The trend—through globalization, mass media, the Internet—is toward the collective. The subsumable fragments of individual efforts on the Internet, known as the noosphere, is supposed to lead us to a new super-intelligence. This is touted as a good thing, a golden city upon the hill appearing in our virtual future. Lately, there’s been much, almost universally positive reaction to the idea that we will all be saved by “the wisdom of crowds.” In a blurb responding to James Suroweicki’s book of that title, BusinessWeek says that Suroweicki’s argument “…Musters ample proof that the payoff from heeding collective intelligence is greater than many of us imagine.” “Crowd-sourcing” is the latest business tactic to solve problems. Focus groups, polls, market-testing, reputation silos, niche novels, University Codes of Conduct—these keep us penned within the herd. Meanwhile, attribution, the idea of giving credit to individual authors for their words, is dead, writes David Shields in his book Reality Hunger. And good riddance, he says. The individual is dead, the writer is dead, the poet is dead. The post-modernist “I,” especially in poetry, is a fascist construct. The collective reigns supreme.
But the wisdom of crowds is specious. What the idolaters of such wisdom fail to understand, and which poets in particular should heed, is that the wisdom-decisions of crowds are helpful only when applied to certain types of knowledge. As a jumping off point for his book, Suroweicki uses the famous example of the British scientist Francis Galton’s 1906 trip to a country fair to witness a weight-judging competition. Galton’s original position was in favor of the intelligent few, “the stupidity and wrong-headedness of many men and women being so great as to be scarcely credible.” But when he saw 787 people average their guesses of an ox’s weight to within one pound of the ox’s actual weight, he changed his mind. This, he declared, was the new “democratic judgment.” But what were they guessing? Crowds can only be “wise” about quantitative subjects, like the weights of things or actuarial problems, not moral subjects. Consider what has happened in every state, up until the last election, when gay marriage was put up for public referenda. Consider the “wisdom” of a collective ethos that kept millions of human beings in chains for hundreds of years. What would have been the result if school segregation had been put on a state ballot in Arkansas in 1954? How many people would have condoned inter-racial marriage? The rights of women or African-Americans to vote? The majority view, the crowd, rarely gets it right when it comes to moral or civil rights issues.
Despite the above arguments, the Liberal Poet is still wary. Perhaps she wants to disappear into the crowd. The bosom of the multitude is still warm, inviting, nurturing, preferred. She doesn’t want to be considered selfish by others, even if she is. It’s unseemly. There’s too much proscription attached to the word. The opinions of others still matter to her. She cannot bring herself to say, despite the harsh truth of the statement and the evidence that supports it, I am selfish.
So here’s an out for the Liberal Poet. Even if she’s never felt the loss of self in Gardner’s ”trancelike” state, the ego-dissolving “emergency” of Welty, or the quasi-mystical, cosmos-jarring rapture of Blake, maybe she can find a plank to walk across the divide between selfishness and altruism in Stephen Dunn’s analysis of what poetry can do. Poetry best exhibits its “most exquisite manners,” he says, when the poem goes beyond the narrow thoughts and feelings of the poet, when “in the course of being true to itself it makes a gesture to others.” The serious poet, by her self-indulgent fidelity to the “elite” poem, that is, one that doesn’t pander to the demotic denominator of sentimentality, what Robert Pirsig defines as “the narrowing of experience to the emotionally familiar,” is actually giving something to her audience. It is an act of graciousness. It is the same type of grace she might take away from Gardner’s claim that a “writer is generous” when “he introduces only those techniques useful to the story [or poem]: he is the story’s servant, not a donzel for whom the story serves as an excuse to show off pyrotechnics,” either technical (diction tricks) or emotional (one’s woes and sorrows). Finally, maybe the Liberal Poet can find humility in Flannery O’Connor’s contention that “No art is sunk in the self, but rather, in art the self becomes self-forgetful in order to meet the demands of the thing seen and the thing being made.”
Ultimately, the poet, by necessity, is irrevocably allied with, perhaps even addicted to, the self, while at the same time given over to the larger cause of charity to one’s craft, characters, and the Crowd she wishes to please and who demands her best, singular effort. She is free in her imagination, and at the same time “A poet is always limited by the fact that he has to write for other human beings,” the poet B. H. Fairchild has said. But that limitation is usually based on language, not ideology or psychology. It’s a delicate balance, teetering between involvement and removal, to find a state of mind which Charles Baxter describes as “not so far inside the culture that it replicates its falseness and lies, and not so far outside that it becomes cold, snobby, or self-righteous.”
Here’s the point, which can take a great deal of honesty to acknowledge let alone accept, no matter through what narrow prism of personal, political, or social ideology one sees the world: If you want to write, you are selfish. However, there is no shame in the self or in being selfish, no matter how much the culture disavows any merit associated with that word. It is not only desirable but necessary.
There’s much that I can’t defend in Rand, nor would I want to. I’m not interested in her economics, her secret cabals in Colorado valleys, or her personal life, which was a paradigm of hypocrisy. She execrated collectivism in every form even as she presided over a collective of Objectivists which she ruled like a Politburo chief, holding “trials” in her apartment for dissident voices, purging some members and demanding unquestioned fealty from the rest. She was a self-avowed male chauvinist and saw homosexuality as “immoral” and “disgusting.” However, as with so many others whom the sanctimonious cult of moral superiority has revised out of favor, there’s no reason to throw out the baby of Rand’s nonconformist message with the fetid bathwater of her personal life. The examination of the personal, if that is the criteria, rarely warrants a kind view of any artist’s work. If we were to judge artists’ contributions based solely on their personal lives, our museums would be filled with nothing but children’s drawings and our bookstores with nothing but the memoirs of saints, and even those, if we dug deep enough, we might find suspect.
D. H. Lawrence famously said, “Trust the writing, not the writer.” To the writer I’d say, as Rand would, trust yourself. Your existence is your own. Trust the wonder of the individual instead of the false wisdom and slushy solace of crowds, and stand resolute at the center of human creation.
Barzun, Jacques. “Beliefs for Sale: 1900-1950” (Essay. Copyright 1952 by Jacques Barzun) In
The Georgia Review: Selected Essays, 1947-1996. Volume LV, Number 4 / Volume
LVI, Number 1, Winter 2001 / Spring 2002.
Baxter, Charles. Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. Saint Paul, MN, Graywolf Press,
Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Boston, Little, Brown and
Dunn, Stephen. Walking Light: Memoirs and Essays on Poetry. Rochester, New York, BOA
Editions, Ltd. 2001.
Fairchild, B. H. “A Midwestern Poetics: Selections From a Journal.” Essay. In New
Letters, Vol.78, No. 1. University of Missouri, 2011.
Gardner, John. On Becoming a Novelist. New York, Harper & Row, 1983
Graves, Robert. “Poetic Gold” (Essay. Copyright 1962 by Robert Graves) In The Georgia
Review: Selected Essays, 1947-1996. Volume LV, Number 4 / Volume LVI, Number 1,
Winter 2001 / Spring 2002.
Greek Philosophy: Thales to Aristotle, Second Edition. Reginald E. Allen, ed. New York, The
Free Press, 1985
Halliday, Mark. “The Arrogance of Poetry” (Essay) In The Georgia Review. Volume LVII,
Number 2, Summer 2003.
Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not a Gadget. New York, Alfred A Knopf. 2010.
McGarry, Jean and Black, William. “What’s the Story Behind the Story” (Essay) In Boulevard,
Volume 28, Numbers 1 & 2, Fall 2012.
O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, eds.
New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969
Rand, Ayn. The Fountainhead. New York, Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1952
. Atlas Shrugged. New York, Random House, 1957
Shields, David. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. New York, Vintage Books, 2011.
Shivani, Anis. Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies. Hunstville,
Texas, Texas Review Press, 2011
Surowiecki, James. The Wisdom of Crowds. New York, Anchor Books, 2005.
Twenge, Jean M. and Campbell, W. Keith. The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of
Entitlement. New York, Free Press, 2009.
Walker, Jeff. The Ayn Rand Cult. Chicago, Illinois, Open Court Books, 1999.
Welty, Eudora. One Writer’s Beginnings. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1983,
Zakaria, Fareed. The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. New York,
- W. Norton, 2007.