Free Speech and the Principles of Poetry

Dimitri, our friend from the Balkans, has sent us an ode that is elegant and effective but which Patrice feels may be tinged with chauvinism, possibly toxically so. The poem is a series of deft vignettes about Balkan characters. The sixteen six-line stanzas are lively and well-observed.

But then there’s the chauvinism.

It sits like an unscanned line in a new translation of the Odyssey (and who among us hasn’t been jolted out of the ancient Aegean by just such an unexpected lapse?)

There is, of course, the standard defence that art is, or at least ought to be, above politics – Wagner: horrible ideas, sumptuous music etc., etc.

Except that it’s not above politics. We can’t claim on the one hand that poetry is relevant and then pretend we are too precious to be held to account for the opinions expressed (or hinted at) in a bundle of rhyming couplets.

So, Patrice has a point.

And yet . . .

We could be blundering into a new kind of puritanism. If we ban this portrait of Balkan life on the grounds that the characterizations in one or two cases tend towards stereotypes (objectionable not because they are negative but because they are stereotypes) then what else will we ban? Anything that Patrice and I don’t like? Anything that doesn’t correspond to our inclusive view of the world? To do that would be to make our own morality the standard for everyone else.

There is the free-speech view (to which I instinctively gravitate). We may not agree with what this fellow says, but we’ll defend to the death his right to say it, etc., etc.

Or the rather more ethereal defence – that the quality of the art redeems the views expressed therein. But I can’t buy this at all. The dalliance with various types of chauvinism that were casually advanced by celebrated literary lions of the 1920s and 30s can’t be wished away on the grounds that they had a wonderful turn of phrase. If it is true that after the Holocaust there can be no art, then it’s equally true that before the Holocaust, artists should have shown a bit more moral fibre.

And in many cases, one could argue, the seeds of later folly grew naturally out of earlier achievement. Yeats found terrible beauty in the sacrifice of soldiers and civilians at Easter 1916 and moved less than two decades later rather easily into mild sympathy for a very Irish sort of fascism. Perhaps the corruption was already evident in the transcendent and widely acclaimed poetry of the 1920s eulogising violence.

Art undoubtedly imitates life. And life undoubtedly is messy.

But none of this lets Dimitri off the hook. There’s tolerance and empathy and plenty of artists have championed these sturdy pillars of civic decency even in the most torrid of times.

Dimitri is an asset to our magazine – he is clever and energetic and original – but I’m inclined to exercise an editorial veto here. He can send us another poem, one that doesn’t deal with people as though they’re all the same because they come from the same community. Chauvinism is chauvinism, even when it’s wrapped up in fine lines and caesuras.

If he takes umbrage, we’ll know that the problem in this piece is more than a lapse. And if he doesn’t, we’ll know that we travel on the same broad road.

Patrice will be pleased, I think. He’s been preoccupied of late with the need to take a stand for fundamental human values. Living in Hongkong, he is inclined to view principle as the last bastion of the righteous. The bastion in this case being there to protect freedom of speech and other freedoms from the overbearing reach of the mainland authorities. The mandarins in Beijing are philosophically indisposed, of course, to tolerating independent thought.

Yet, when I think about that, I come back to the question of Dimitri.

And I am in a quandary again.