The Reactionary Utopian
                      May 16, 2006

by Joe Sobran

     Stanley Kunitz, one of the most respected American 
poets of our time, has died at the age of 100. Until I 
read his obituary I didn't know that his father had 
committed suicide six weeks before his birth. Touching 

     Poor man! Poor boy! What a thing to live with. And 
it surely had something to do with the boy's becoming a 
poet, though it might be hard to explain exactly why.

     I accept the consensus of poetry lovers that Kunitz 
was an excellent poet. But isn't that an odd thing to 
say? As if poetry lovers were a small class of 
specialists sharing an eccentric taste. Poetry today is 
notoriously the least popular, least remunerative form of 
writing. You can still eke out a living writing prose. 
But verse? Forget it.

     I've tried to read Kunitz and other recent poets of 
repute -- Seamus Heaney, Elizabeth Bishop, Louis 
Zukofsky, and many more -- but I have to confess I just 
can't get into them. I'm obviously not the only one. This 
is in no way a diatribe against them, but let me put it 
this way: Why doesn't their work stick to the ribs?

     Not since Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot, both of whom 
died about forty years ago, has there been an 
English-language poet of both high literary prestige and 
great popular appeal, whose verses and phrases could be 
recognized by ordinarily literate readers -- as, in 
earlier centuries, it seemed that Pope, Wordsworth, 
Byron, Longfellow, and Tennyson were common possessions. 
Everyone quoted them. But how many people today can name 
even one living poet?

     And yet we are all poetry lovers by nature, aren't 
we? The surest proof of this is that popular poetry 
survives in popular song; we can all quote Bob Dylan and 
Paul McCartney, and, if we are older than the rock era, 
Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart. This takes no effort of 
memorization; on the contrary, when poetry keeps its 
roots in music, such devices as rhyme, meter, and melody 
can make it nearly impossible to forget.

     I can still recite hours of Shakespeare, less 
because I am studious than because, in my youth, I 
listened to recordings of his plays until I knew them by 
heart. Others may have thought this was a great feat of 
memory on my part, but actually, of course, the great 
feat was the author's: writing words that, heard a few 
times, became a permanent part of the listener.

     It's as if several of the modern arts have 
repudiated, as "vulgar" or "bourgeois," the very 
conventions that once made those arts coherent and 
readily intelligible. So we have had novels without 
narrative, music without melody or harmony, and painting 
without representation, as well as verse that seems 

     In some cases these experiments were brilliantly 
successful on their own terms, like Joyce's ULYSSES; and 
we needn't disparage them. But when Joyce took his 
experimental fiction further in FINNEGANS WAKE, he set a 
precedent that was bound to find few imitators.

     In fact, progress of this kind in the arts entailed 
loss as well as gain, but the cult of modernism has 
sometimes refused to admit this obvious fact. When art 
fails to communicate, as C.S. Lewis observed, it is now 
widely assumed that the fault lies wholly on the side of 
the audience: "In this shop, the customer is always 

     The heyday of audience-defying modernism is over 
now; it survives wearisomely in attempted provocations -- 
such as obscene or blasphemous pictures and sculptures, 
mostly tax-funded, that cause banal disputes on editorial 
pages. These silly rows really have nothing to do with 
either artistic freedom or artistic merit. They signify 
the exhaustion, and greed, of what now passes for the 

     But some artists will always experiment, as they 
should. I merely say that excellent art may also be, and 
usually has been, conventional and popular. It should 
hardly be necessary to point this out. Tom Wolfe has 
argued that the novel has its roots in the lowly craft of 
journalism; and he has proved his thesis in a series of 
brilliant and essentially old-fashioned novels full of 
colorful characters, dramatic plots, and social 
observation -- nineteenth-century novels for the 
twenty-first century. And they sell like crazy.

     If the novel can still do this, why not the 
symphony? Or even the sonnet?


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