“Yael,” and the Politicizing of Art

By M.P. Wildermuth

Editor: This piece was prompted by a poem in Poetry‘s December 2018 issue, which may be read here. The published poem is an introduction to a full “epic” to be published by Sarabande Books in 2019.

We would seek out those wavering, meditative, organic rhythms, which are the embodiment of the imagination, that neither desires nor hates, because it has done with time, and only wishes to gaze upon some reality, some beauty . . .

William Butler Yeats

I. Didactic Art

I can yet recall my first glimpse of collegiate life. Walking, in my youth, the avenues of a rural college town—a town whose entire formation seems to have been dictated by the establishment of its university—I could only partially discern through a covert of summer-lush trees some few neo-Georgian halls of venerable red brick; chapels of learning in which my intellectual development was to blossom with a yet unprecedented concentration. As I walked dreamily through in the mysterious lanes, catching sight of a squat greenhouse, or the columned facade of a library of music, I allowed myself to envision the years to come—years suffused by the collected energies of the better minds of a generation, desperate to glean what visions they may from those great masters who’d built all that was beautiful, all that was true, and all that stood in opposition to the bland obscurations of modern life. What great minds I would meet, with whom I could unravel the intricacies of Shelley and his symbolization and elucidate the methodology of Shakespeare’s vigorous lines. I dreamed of the impassioned opening of a new school of thinkers and artists, working to revivify stale Western art. I was quickly disillusioned.

What instead I found may be gathered by the perusal of Poetry, a once-bold and innovative journal which sought out only the most studied and capable of verse, and which now stands a near-readerless bastion of Marxist didacticism, seeking solely to allow for the expression of those voices, we are told, which have been disenfranchised by broader society, but who yet have managed to obtain the operation of all galleries, journals, universities, and establishments of popular culture; and who, with their stewardship, have discarded artistic merit in favor of “progressive” social utility. Prior to the disappointment of my collegiate experience, it seemed to me a matter one takes for granted that, whatever one thinks of a particular religion or school of thought, the ends of art and criticism must not be didactic, rather they must be aesthetic. It is now clear the editors of Poetry and similar journals cannot agree with such old-fashioned wisdom on this matter.

Rarely do I now survey the meek offerings of Poetry‘s pages or website. On occasion I will peek in to remind myself of the state of things, and to see whether any emerging talent has managed to surpass the watchers at the gates of art. On one such recent probing of this publication I came upon the introductory chapter of a new epic poem, ‘Yael,’ composed by Paige Lewis, a lecturer at Purdue University. This poem, we are told by Sycamore Review, is an “important” and “brilliant” “non-binary” epic. In reading the latter descriptor, one wonders if Dostoevsky’s The Idiot would be heralded an “epileptic” novel if submitted for publication today, or if the editors at Sycamore Review were afforded an education which allowed for the study of aesthetics. Yet we must put our misgivings aside and evaluate the piece for its artistic merit—and it is in artistic merit this chapter of ‘Yael’ fails by even the most generous of standards.

Banal observations, meek style, and nearly complete absence of poetic images—such is “Yael.” There are perhaps one or two lines a poet of any worth would not have discarded before his pen had touched paper. Yet ‘Yael’ is striking—consciously striking—in one fact: the narrator considers the titular heroine of this epic a “they,” rather than a “she.” The piece begins,

“Yael picks at their cuticles. When they speak to themself, they speak out loud. They speak to themself this morning, I think, they say, that I am coming down with wisteria. Their nail beds a bit purplish.”

The so-called “importance” of Lewis’ work is immediately evident: it is written in the service of sociological ideas and strives to carve out a place in our literature for the “non-binary.” Surely the merit others claim to have seen is not in the hokey descriptions of a character with the unfortunate habit of picking at their cuticles. The mundanities of our daily lives have been elevated to great effect in literary history, but have not been striking for nearly a century, and would never have been if introduced in such a haphazard presentation. The image of a woman picking her nails itself offers no keen insight into human nature, of any ideas of truth or of beauty, nor even an appropriately acute insight into the character we are presented. These distracted, uninspired reflections are merely an easy dressing designed by the author to drape upon her use of unconventional pronouns, and to disguise them as art. Such didacticism is now the norm.

Joyce, in his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, offered a stable, if youthful, study of the aesthetic value of such attempts. Proper art, his hero Stephen tells us, produces an aesthetic arrest in which one is stilled by an encounter with the beautiful or with the sublime, and can have no other aim. Improper art, according to Stephen, is designed to excite either desire or loathing—desire for the possession or profusion of some experience or ideal; loathing for a society which has not met our idealistic standards. One cannot read ‘Yael’ without abruptly realizing that this is art created for a didactic purpose; that this is improper art.

II. Free Verse

A question lingers of the station of Lewis’ work as poetry, rather than prose. There is evidently no consideration for meter, or any poetic devices whatsoever; nor are there line breaks. Lewis presents her epic in paragraphs, yet these paragraphs are so brief, and so bereft of detail, that their apparent standing as prose is called to question. There are also such sentences, as in the previously quoted excerpt, “Their nail beds a bit purplish.” which are incapable of surviving the scrutiny of one inclined to sense, suggesting, at least, an attempt at poetry. This hesitant conjecture is sustained by the following results of my research into the matter: the author, from my understanding, considers herself a “poet”; the piece is included in and supported by poetry journals; and finally, is named “poetry” by Sycamore Review. If ‘Yael’ is ultimately to be considered poetry, it must then be “free verse.”

Free verse, in its initial conception, was designed a more liberal usage of iambic versification. Elision, while included, is not made evident to the reader; true anapestic feet are allowed at the opening and the  conclusion of lines; also granted a place at a line’s outset are feet lacking their initial, unstressed syllable; lines no longer must reliably contain a given number of feet; epic caesuras are considered viable; and, generally, the freer usages of Shakespeare’s more metrically expressive lines were deemed acceptable in common handling. This experimentation, in the hands of gifted poets, produced powerful work—early in Whitman, and later in Hart Crane and, briefly, Wallace Stevens. Since the middle of the twentieth century however, free verse has collapsed into a free-for-all. Lewis’ apparent usage is typical of this anything-goes variant of the once-monumental expansion of English prosody. She nearly manages—by accident, I must assume—a blank free verse of pentameter in her opening stanza, though readers are not gifted the kindness of line breaks. This collapses in what would potentially be her fourth line, and continually thereafter. Considering the common presence of unintended blank verse in most novels, and considering her failure to maintain the meter, I must assume it was not intended. One wonders what, to Lewis, may be considered the separation in definition between poetry and prose.

III. The Loss of Symbolization and Characterization

A terrible misdeed is perpetrated against our impressionable youths upon their entrance into study for a liberal arts degree in the field of English Literature. Rather than receiving an education of the inner workings of our great achievements in the novel and in poetry, students are indoctrinated at every turn into a Marxist ideology. For evidence of this and its effects, look no further than the works of art the recent generations have attempted to produce. The slip-shod, uneducated ramblings in the opening lines of ‘Yael’ serve as an unfortunate example. What themes, what symbolizations are established in this most-critical starting point? Yael, it seems, picks her finger nails; she prefers not to drink the milk which remains after consuming her cereal; she, for undisclosed reasons, vaguely resents her husband, who is away at war; and the narrator refuses to use a conventional pronoun when describing the character. Nothing of note occurs in the introduction of the epic’s titular character, nor is any such thing even hinted at. Compare the introduction to another resentful wife, D.H. Lawrence’s Mrs. Morel, of his novel, Sons and Lovers:

“Mrs. Morel was not anxious to move into the Bottoms, which was already twelve years old and on the downward path, when she descended to it from Bestwood. But it was the best she could do. Moreover, she had an end house in one of the top blocks, and thus had only one neighbour; on the other side an extra strip of garden. And, having an end house, she enjoyed a kind of aristocracy among the other women of the “between” houses, because her rent was five shillings and sixpence instead of five shillings a week. But this superiority in station was not much consolation to Mrs. Morel.”

From the first, Lawrence establishes Mrs. Morel as unsatisfied with her current station—which, having “descended to it from ‘Bestwood’s” to the “Bottoms,” was evidently a downward turn in her life; Mrs. Morel is an outsider in her community; she considers herself superior to her neighbors, and takes some small comfort in this judgement; and she remains unhappy. The reader immediately thereafter learns of Mrs. Morel’s unfortunate marriage, her status as an unappreciated housewife, and so on. Conflicts and characters are concisely and artfully established; from this passage the reader is given the tone and thematic keys which set the story in motion. Mrs. Morel, the reader learns, wishes to love her husband and enjoy her life, yet is incapable due to her husband’s inattention and her own arrogance. Yael, meanwhile, picks at her fingernails and can’t recall a movie she enjoys.

Though the opening chapter fails to establish even the most basic of characterization and poetic symbolization, Lewis does offer one interesting creation, Sun, whose entrance into the narrative is handled, at least initially, with surprising capability. Yael kneels before a river, collecting water into bottles, when Sun appears:

“The hair on their arms turns golden. Then the water. The pigs flee. Yael looks down as Sun approaches. They were already kneeling.”

Yet even this slightly clever introduction falters in the next sentence, which informs the reader there are ants upon the ground. Lewis fortunately reveals the ants “like being alive.” The potential for an effective poetic image exists: Sun’s presence seems to illuminate an acceptance and enjoyment of life, otherwise lacking in Yael. Lewis, however, lacks the skill and education to properly bring the image to effect, and rushes ahead with bland descriptions and commonplace observations. Though the experienced reader will find this image tawdry and ill-handled, it is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise lifeless piece.

Sun’s identity seems to be transitory, as he is presented with contradictory attributes. He is the sun, yet he “whines” by blowing wind, and he apparently wears a shirt, out of the bottom of which peeks his stomach, which seems a thinly veiled attack on males in rendering them grotesque. Inevitably, his presence too is mishandled by the unstudied hand of his author, as the chapter concludes with the first revelation of a potential story in Sun’s brief speech, quoted here in full:

I have a very important job for you, Yael, descendant of—He’d left His notes at home—Yael. Enlist in my war against the wicked and blessed shall you be above all people in the tent.

Sun doesn’t mention that Yael isn’t His first, or even His second, choice.”

IV. The Vacant Chapel of Art

The great canon of Western literature, we are told, is stale. The themes which have inspired and guided the great minds of centuries are no longer applicable to us, having ascended, apparently, to greater heights than imagined by Shakespeare, Moliere, and Goethe. Dramas of the human spirit in its search for meaning and purpose in the chaos of life are, evidently, beneath we moderns. So too has the Romantic return to nature been surpassed by our newly developed acumen; thus, we may no longer “write of trees.” The world is explored, and there exist no unsullied continents to traverse. What then is left for writers to write? Moreover, what methods may be put to use by our artists? Such supposedly dated concepts as meter, the impassioned reflection upon a poetic symbol, studied word-play, and nearly every other device used prior to the latter part of the twentieth century are certainly not to be considered. The entire holy retinue of idols so carefully placed for our study and invigoration in the chapel of art have been discarded in mere decades. What then remains? Yael’s cuticles.

If poetry is to ever regain its place of power and renown, it will not be achieved by these deficient writers of whimsical nothings, studied in so little beyond the rote of ressentiment. We must then will ourselves to dream of a day when some daring and purposeful hands, literate by their own resolve and ingenuity in the great masters of our past, will overcome the watchers at the gates of art to offer us the yield of their hero-work—a day when nations may fall.