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After Collins, I turned to the work of Richard Tillinghast, another American poet whom I respected and who had also written a 9/11 anniversary poem, titled “Ars Poetica.” I was in for a rude and unexpected shock for Tillinghast had plainly joined the tribe of darkened souls, the coterie of the historically uninformed, the deeply ignorant and the self-indulgent politically correct. “Brush from my heart,” he begins, “the fine particulate matter of the World/Trade Center”—note the freshman-style enjambment straining for significance. For some inscrutable reason, he then proceeds to denounce the Israelis riding in “a tank that grinds down on Bethlehem,” a gratingly obvious allusion to William Butler Yeats’ “rough beast” that “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born” in “The Second Coming.” Next, he goes on to deplore “democracy bombs” falling on those who “shelter in tarpaper/shacks,” confesses that he’s “had it with ‘God Bless America’ ” and petitions some invisible interlocutor to “Speak to me/in the wavery melismas of the call to prayer/that a billion people hear/this morning from a minaret before dawn.” He then concludes his peroration with the solemn “reverberations/of a bell that memorializes all we have lost.” The poem might have been better titled “Farce Poetica.”
For Tillinghast, as for his innumerable Islamophiliac congeners, what is lost is not three thousand lives. What is lost is not the man and child whose dismembered relics were found in the rubble, a fist clenching a small hand. What is lost, apparently, is America’s sympathy for the Third World, its adherence to the Declaration of Independence and its creed of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, its compassionate and civilizing impulse. But what is really lost, in Tillinghast’s case at any rate—and it truly pains me to say this of a poet whom I once read with profit and delight—is honor, integrity, and ordinary perceptiveness.
One does not expect much in the way of political sentience from poets. T.S. Eliot was an unabashed Royalist and an antisemite. Gottfried Benn was originally an admirer of the Nazis. William Butler Yeats sided with the landed aristocracy and, for a time, with the Irish Blue Shirts. Ezra Pound was a raging fascist who broadcast propaganda for Mussolini. Stephen Spender was a Bolshevik sympathizer before he experienced a belated awakening. Amiri Baraka, former poet laureate of the state of New Jersey, despises the United States, “the biggest terrorist,” and exonerates the 9/11 murderers. And so on, ad nauseam. There are exceptions, as I’ve pointed out—W.H Auden, perhaps, Philip Larkin, Billy Collins and a few others—but they are rare enough. No matter how talented they may be, poets are generally benighted and narcissistic beings, unwise in the ways of the world and sophomoric in their political thinking. But one would have thought better of intellectuals who cut their teeth on political ideas, social issues and historical developments.
The generic left/liberal/intellectual reaction to the tragedy of 9/11 demonstrates that there is really no excuse for the monumental shallowness of the highly educated. They may write impeccable prose, compose excellent poetry, paint striking works of art, elaborate involuted theories—but as thinking human beings honestly struggling to come to terms with a cruel and maddening world, they often fail to transcend the level of mediocrity and dubious partisanship. Thomas Sowell goes even further in his litigation against those who are presumed to know. In his recent Intellectuals and Society, he lays it down that the intellectual’s “unaccountability to the external world is not simply a happenstance but a principle.”
Specific talents, curricular knowledge and academic laurels are no guarantee of genuine intelligence, of the ability, in Matthew Arnold’s famous phrase, “to see life steadily and see it whole.” The only lesson to be gleaned from the folly and exaggerated self-regard of these appeasers and quislings is that there is no substitute for common sense, character and clarity of feeling, which, unfortunately, cannot be taught.
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