Saturday, December 13, 2008

On a Flimmering Floom You Shall Ride

There are those who will say that the liberation of humanity, the freedom of man and mind is nothing but a dream. They are right. It is the American Dream.

Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, there is no reason either in football or in poetry why the two should not meet in a man's life if he has the weight and cares about the words.

The American mood, perhaps even the American character, has changed. There are few manifestations any longer of the old American self-assurance which so irritated Dickens. Instead, there is a sense of frustration so perceptible that even our politicians have attempted to exploit it.

-Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982)

People like to argue about whether or not politics and poetry mix. The world has seen some powerful work where the two intersect. But with a relatively few exceptions, that’s just not the American story.

The other day I heard Carl Sandburg read "On a Flimmering Floom." It is one of my favorite types of poetry, a playful romp of words. As sheer nonsense, it reads well. But a prefatory note to the poem suggests there’s more here:

Summary and footnote of and on the testimony of the poet MacLeish under appointment as Assistant Secretary of State, under oath before a Congressional examining committee pressing him to divulge the portents and meanings of his poems.

Digging into this, I discovered one of the stranger intersections of politics and poetry.

Archibald MacLeish had established himself as a writer, winning the Pulitzer prize for poetry in 1933. Six years later, MacLeish was nominated to be Librarian of Congress and the American Library Association objected. Strongly. The ALA argued, unsuccessfully, that:

…the Congress and the American people should have as a Librarian. . . one who is not only a gentleman and a scholar but who is also the ablest Library administrator available.

In 1944, weary of serving as Librarian of Congress, he was up for a new job, Assistant Secretary of State for cultural affairs. The Senate Foreign Relations committee had to consider FDR’s nomination of MacLeish, and once again the gentleman and scholar faced opposition, this time from some of the Senators on the committee. Time magazine described it like this:

Anti-New Dealers saw a free chance to twang Poet MacLeish over the head with his own lyre.

During the hearings, Missouri Senator Bennett Champ waved a small volume of MacLeish’s poetry in the air and proclaimed:

I would be interested to know whether this committee feels that a man who wrote a poem, which I am about to read to you, is qualified to be the assistant secretary of state of the United States of America.

With much flourish, Senator Champ read the love poem MacLeish wrote for his future wife Ada and, when he was finished, the hearing room was awkwardly silent.

Senator "Happy" Chandler of Kentucky saved the day for MacLeish by jumping to his feet and inquiring:

Mr. MacLeish, was it left halfback or end you played on the famous Yale football team?

Years later, MacLeish recalled that moment with a touch of sardonic wit:

I do not suggest that football was regarded by the [Committee] as an antidote for poetry. The Committee understood that poetry has no need of antidotes being itself the most powerful of all antidotes for the most grievous of all human ills---human mortality. But poetry is one thing and men who write poems are another and no Senate Committee with a proper respect for the political future of its members would willingly confirm for public office a man who was known to perpetrate poems unless there were ameliorating circumstances. Football was the ameliorating circumstance in my case.

A curious footnote appears in the Time magazine story written immediately after MacLeish’s Senate confirmation:

The League for Sanity in Poetry (headquarters: Corpus Christi, Tex.) has no objection to MacLeish as librarian or diplomat, but scorns him as a poet. Last week the League's Manhattan representative, Albert Ralph Korn, 66, stated the League's position: Pulitzer Prize Poet MacLeish's work is "freakish or eccentric at best."

Yet another rabbit trail!

During the 1940s and 1950s, the League for Sanity in Poetry was staunchly defending traditional verse. Its adherents sent letters of protest to editorial offices demanding they stop printing "insane poetry." Stanton Coblentz of the League declared:

[E. E.] Cummings as a writer is socially as vicious as he is poetically base.

But that was comparatively mild criticism. One League publication described modernism as a form of genocide, resulting in the extermination of poets:

The actual mandate, to be precise, prescribes not that all poets be exterminated, but only those who respect the literary traditions of three thousand years.

Oh, is that all?

I don’t know what the League for Sanity in Poetry, or what Senator Bennett Champ, might have thought of Sandburg’s poem. But I'll bet they didn't enjoy it half as much as I did:

Nobody noogers the shaff of a sloo.
Nobody slimbers a wench with a winch
Nor higgles armed each with a niggle
And each the flimdrat of a smee,
Each the inbiddy hum of a smoo.

Then slong me dorst with flagdarsh.
Then creep me deep with the crawbright.
Let idle winds ploodaddle the dorshes.
And you in the gold of the gloaming
You shall be sloam with the hoolriffs.

On a flimmering floom you shall ride.
They shall tell you bedish and desist.
On a flimmering floom you shall ride.

Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)


kanugalihi said...

it might be that outlawing nonsense would be an improvement in the general affairs of men. indeed, many lives lost in the process of defining "nonsense". but everyone knows if they were the judge there'd be a lot less hullabaloo and nonesuch. i don't want to be the judge, let congressional committees tackle these affairs, I am going fishing.

Anonymous said...

Sandburg's status is justly secure, but he was as adept at showmanship as poesie.

A story I like takes place at a public appearance by Sandburg. An awed admirer, sent to alert the great man that his introduction was underway, crept into the room only to catch Sandburg unawares- peering into a mirror while carefully disarranging his hair.

Class of '74

GULAHIYI said...

That's a great story. Showmanship and self-promotion seem to be inseparable from artistic ambition and more than compensate for limited ability. I think we miss out on much of the best music, painting and writing because the creators lack the salesmanship to equal their talent, and their work remains obscure. The creative community seems about as dog-eat-dog as any other segment of society.