Thursday, November 20, 2014

Social Criticism Masquerades as Poetic License, or Vice Versa

Poetic license is defined as any departure from convention or from factual accuracy taken by a writer to achieve a desired effect. It's a colloquial term, used to denote a distortion or alteration of the conventions of grammar or language.

In the sense I'm using it here, it's also the freedom to--deliberately, and perhaps obviously--say things which may be harsh, critical, or exaggerated about a subject--things which we might ordinarily refrain from saying out of courtesy, or things which are simply (though perhaps, again, obviously or expediently) untrue.

Social criticism in literature refers to an appraisal of society, for any perceived flaw or condition which results in hardship, implying an alternative mode of social construction.

Putting these two principles together makes social satire in literature. Satire may take many forms: In drama, the representation of objects or subjects of ridicule;  in poetry, a rhetoric of mockery or disdain or burlesque.  

The early Modernist poets were adept at impersonating the mannerisms and conceits of the classes they despised or were amused by. As the 20th Century looked disdainfully back at the Victorian Age, it aped the platitudes of, and aimed literary arrows at, the decaying archetypes of presumption or mediocrity.

Young Edward Estlin Cummings took aim at the world of his parents' Harvard society, skewering their pretensions and meddlesome gossip in this deliberately eccentric sonnet.

the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls     A
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds             B
(also, with the church's protestant blessings              C 
daughters,unscented shapeless spirited)                     D
they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead,     D 
are invariably interested in so many things—             C
at the present writing one still finds                               B
delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?               A
perhaps. While permanent faces coyly bandy              E
scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D                                  F
.... the Cambridge ladies do not care, above                 G 
Cambridge if sometimes in its box of                              G
sky lavender and cornerless, the                                       F
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy                E

The degree of sarcasm displayed here--as with so many of Cummings's poems--far exceeds the putative limits of sophisticated lampoonery, sounding clearly adolescent in spirit and intent. It's the kind of mockery that teen-agers delight in, but which a more mature mind sees as hyperbole; which explains why Cummings has always been, and will always be, popular with young readers, especially those with a rebellious streak. 

At about the same time, Thomas Stearns Eliot was composing archly poisonous darts of the same variety, albeit with more subtlety and style. An Englishman by adoption and manner, Eliot could look with chilling irony on the hypocrisies of respectability and social decay which characterized the devastation of Europe following the First World War. In this sense, his view of American prosperity, and its attendant nouveau sanctity, was filtered through his personal alienation, symbolized by his abandonment of his native homeland.  

Miss Helen Slingsby was my maiden aunt,                                     A
And lived in a small house near a fashionable square                  B
Cared for by servants to the number of four.                                  B
Now when she died there was silence in heaven                            C 
And silence at her end of the street.                                                    D
The shutters were drawn and the undertaker wiped his feet--   D
He was aware that this sort of thing had occurred before.           B
The dogs were handsomely provided for,                                          B
But shortly afterwards the parrot died too.                                       E
The Dresden clock continued ticking on the mantelpiece,           F
And the footman sat upon the dining-table                                      G
Holding the second housemaid on his knees--                               H
Who had always been so careful while her mistress lived.           I

The diction underscores the condescension I'm calling here poetic license: "servants to the number of four" and "aware that this sort of thing had occurred before" etc. The delightful turn from "his knees--Who had always been so careful while her mistress lived" in which the subject switches, underscoring the impropriety with a nice sarcastic twist.

Miss Nancy Ellicott Strode across the hills and broke them,
Rode across the hills and broke them--
The barren New England hills--
Riding to hounds
Over the cow-pasture.

Miss Nancy Ellicott smoked
And danced all the modern dances;
And her aunts were not quite sure how they felt about it,
But they knew that it was modern.

Upon the glazen shelves kept watch
Matthew and Waldo, guardians of the faith,
The army of unalterable law. 

Matthew and Waldo, of course, are Matthew Arnold and Ralph Waldo Emerson, standard-bearers in the "army of unalterable law." Here we stand apart from the social phenomena of the younger generation as it blunders and flaunts its way towards a familiar disgrace, pleased (along with Eliot) to imagine ourselves immune from (or cheered by) the diversions of youth. Eliot characteristically can celebrate this mischief while taking a not very convincing moral tone. We're never altogether sure whether Eliot actually invests emotionally in these personified ironies, or whether he just enjoys the unbalanced pretense. I suppose that, as an artist, he could have it both ways. 

The readers of the Boston Evening Transcript
Sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn.
When evening quickens faintly in the street,
Wakening the appetites of life in some
And to others bringing the Boston Evening Transcript,
I mount the steps and ring the bell, turning
Wearily, as one would turn to nod good-bye to Rochefoucauld,
If the street were time and he at the end of the street,
And I say, "Cousin Harriet, here is the Boston Evening Transcript."

Francois de La Rochefoucault [1613-1680], it will be recalled, was the great French author of Maxims, witty one-liners which deconstruct human frailty and cupidity with panache. The fantasy image of seeing the French nobleman of three centuries earlier appearing as a figure in the little episode of Eliot's visit to his Cousin Harriet, sets up a tension between the sheepish complacency of the readers of the Boston Evening Transcript (a newspaper that went defunct in 1941), and the impish speaker of the poem. The whole tone of the lines is a kind of knowing weariness, supercilious, condescending, and sad.    

We might say that when poets wish to criticize society, they may do so with a permission that derives from the license granted any artist, but which carries certain risks. Art is not science; the social sciences are a relatively new invention, which have grown up out of the study of behavior, in the mass, as well as in the individual. 

Art (poetry) is first and foremost entertainment; any artistic criticism of society must be inspiring, or pleasing, or amusing, or it's nothing but hot air. Any writer who pretends not to be implicated in the problems he criticizes, risks being thought vain, or heartless, or both. As readers, we may join in on the fun, or feel offended by its daring ruthlessness. Art is a mirror we hold up to ourselves; or it is a window through which we view the world; or it is a wall on which are represented images of whatever design. Reflective, translucent, or illusionary--we inspect and judge each other according to our lights. Everyone does this, whether they admit it or not.  

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