Was Robert Conquest’s poetry linked with his politics?

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Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

A trio of essays about historian and poet Robert Conquest is now online at the Hopkins Review. Humble Moi is among them. But so is Richard Davis, a British poet (now transplanted to Ohio State University), who is perhaps the best translator from the Persian ever. (We’ve written about Dick here and here). Both of us were intrigued by the link between Bob’s poetry and his historical work. As Dick points out, “a kind of bedrock common sense” runs through both. British poet John Whitworth rounds out the triad.

Let me first quote a bit from the inestimable Dick Davis’s “The Minds of Poets”:

When it comes to his career as a historian I think there is a sense in which Robert Conquest’s opinions, tastes, and predilections were also to some extent an infuriated reaction to what he saw around him in the 1950s and 1960s. Not that this was where his historical insights and clarity came from of course, but that the writing down of what he had found to be true was partly motivated by an intense desire to show the foolishness of much of the self-deceiving political cant that was current at the time. His book on Stalin’s purges, The Great Terror, was the first to set out in such horrific detail the brutal nature of Stalin’s Russia, and it was written against a great deal of bien-pensant vague pro-Soviet and less vague anti-American sentiment that was current in (especially) British intellectual life in the 1950s and ’60s, a kind of knee-jerk groupthink leftism that meant giving the Soviet Union pretty much a free pass when it came to human rights issues. When a later, revised edition of the book was to be issued, by which time Conquest’s anatomization of the disasters of Soviet rule was coming to be widely accepted as accurate, Conquest jokingly suggested to Kingsley Amis that he title the book I Told You So, You Fucking Fools. And it was true, he had told us so, when far too many of us didn’t want to believe it.

Dick Davis visiting Stanford. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

A confidence in a kind of bedrock common sense runs through Conquest’s poetry, his writings on poetry, and his historical writings, and this confidence goes with what can seem at times a magisterial impatience with those who would obfuscate such common sense by disdainful appeals to ideology, political posturing and blather, or vatic rhetoric that covers and tries to compensate for a simple lack of artistic or political integrity. But what sounds like magisterial confidence comes from a wholly admirable humility before the nature of quotidian reality, before what is demonstrably there in the world, and a preference for recognizing this reality over the comforts of bombast and self-deception. Much of Conquest’s best-known poetry is funny, even absurdly hilarious, but when it is serious it is continuous with the voice that wrote on history and politics. It can remind us of the title of one of Isaiah Berlin’s books of essays, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, and its epigraph from Immanuel Kant, “Out of timber so crooked from that which man is made nothing entirely straight can be built.” Utopian and inevitably murderous visions that try to make something “straight” out of humanity’s crooked timber earned his contempt; what his political voice advocates in his poetry is a pragmatic humanist compromise between absolutes. The absolutes are kept in view because they are what make man’s social life possible, but they can never be realized because they contradict one another (absolute freedom is anarchy with the strong preying on the weak; absolute order is the ultimate prison with no possibility of freedom). The meditative, moving seriousness of this vision is present in the closing section of one of his last and I think most beautiful poems, “The Idea of Virginia”:

The dogwood blooms, the cardinals perch, the lean hounds hunt
Where Pocahontas danced, where John Smith scouted, where Spotswood rode,
Where Washington marched to victory, Jackson to death,
By the slow rivers, the cool woods, the mountains, the marshes.

The Idea, never fulfilled, was never abandoned;
The free order only approaches its goal.
The land lived on imperfect in city and forest,
Its Form half-remembered; as it lay in the minds of poets.

And from my own, “Poetry and Politics”:

Receiving the Medal of Freedom in 2005.

Aristotle sharply distinguished the domains of Clio and Euterpe. So did a Russian poet some centuries later. Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky once remarked that the only thing poetry and politics have in common are the letters “p” and “o.” There are powerful exceptions, however—think of Dante. Surely Brodsky’s attitude had been shaped by his refusal to define himself in terms of the Soviet system both he and Conquest deplored, the system that would eventually exile him. However, at some point, politics intersect with reality, with what happens to real people when governments and policies go wrong. And history, on the large scale of people and events, is inevitably bound up with politics. It is said that Conquest’s revelations of the millions killed in Stalin’s regime did not influence his poetry at all—except for a few poems with overt political references, such as “Get Lost, Gulag Archipelago” and “Garland for a Propagandist.” However, both his muses were intertwined and informed each other, which would quickly move him miles away from the surrealist poems of his youth in the 1930s. World events would also move him far from the fashionable Communist Party of Oxford, where he had briefly been a member before deciding that it was not a place for grown-ups. By enlisting in 1939, he implicitly rejected the party’s line that the war was a capitalist and imperialist venture. His wartime experiences would bring their own understandings and leave their own scars.

In a long poem commemorating his friend, the poet Drummond Allison, who was killed in the fighting in Italy, he tells of his shattering disillusionment about just causes, after a death, as he wrote, “which no future can ever repay.” He listed the clichés—“He died in a good cause,” “We sacrifice our best,” “He lives in our memory”—which caused him to write, “All this is not untrue / But its irrelevance shakes me like a fever . . .” He could not reconcile the public need against the private loss, “the just war and the individual’s unjust / Death. . . .”

He was not going to write the great war poem; he knew that. While describing the war in verse was possible, it was not possible for him. In “Poem in 1944,” he wrote:

. . . I must believe
That somewhere the poet is working who can handle
The flung world and his own heart. To him I say
The little I can. I offer him the debris
Of five years’ undirected storm in self and Europe,
And my love. Let him take it for what it’s worth
In this poem scarcely made and already forgotten.

Read all three articles here.


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