The Charlotte News

SUNDAY, JULY 18, 1937


Few Are Marxian:

Contemporary Poets

--A Review, By W. J. Cash

Site ed. note: For seven early poems by Cash written while a Wake Forest student, see Poetry and Fiction, accessible from the homepage.

That art does not exist in a vacuum, is the thesis around which Thomas Del Vecchio has built his admirable anthology, "Contemporary American Men Poets," published by Henry E. Harrison of New York at $3.00. And the theme is such a favorite of my own that I am tempted to use Mr. Del Vecchio as a mere springboard and hold forth for the length of this column, as I have already more than once held forth before. At least, I might be so tempted if it weren't so blazing hot. But as it is, I shall merely quote a little from his introduction:

"The artistic function is no isolated phenomenon, but part and parcel of the history, equipment and destiny of man. Social and economic factors shape and influence it, but can never completely dominate or subvert it. From the past art draws upon a rich heritage of experience and technique, but it must ever keep pace with the vital compulsions of the present if it is to achieve its purpose. Thus, 'a masterpiece is no isolated miracle, but a conspiracy between a man of genius and his epoch.'


"Confusion among artists in an upended world is understandable but cannot be too long condemned. Along with his fellow man, the artist suffers the ills of an anachronistic system which provides endless luxury for the few and poverty and virtual servitude for the mass. The poet of today, far removed from the 'romantic' periods of literature, struggling for economic and artistic survival, must inevitably realize that a thorough understanding of political economy is an essential requirement of his art. If he does not construe his age and the economic problems of those around him, he can never hope to write about them with the authority and experience great art demands.

"All artists are propagandists per se. The poet in a less turbulent day extolling the virtues of his love; the novelist realistically portraying and condemning a social wrong. Milton writing his "On the Late Massacre in Piedmont," have all been propagandists, but artists nonetheless..."


But having quoted Mr. Del Vechio approvingly, I must record also that he seems to be obsessed with the notion, currently so fashionable among "intellectuals," that Marxism is the true shape and sum of reality. I have sometime been more or less under the influence of that view myself, but it seems to me now to be more than a little dubious. I yield to nobody in my awareness of the plight of the underdog, and I am completely on his side. More than that, I do not hesitate still to believe that "Das Kapital" is, descriptively speaking, charged with a great deal of truth. Just the same, Marxism is a far too narrow picture, not only of humanity at large but of humanity under the conditions of modern industrialism. It is too hard and sharp, and dogmatic, and misses a great deal more than it sees. So far from being an instrument for the perfect understanding of the life of man in our times, it is a sort of distorting mirror which completely blocks all chance for straightseeing on the part of the man who believes in it too literally.

Thus, Mr. Del Vechio speaks somewhere of "the industrial shackles locked by monstrous unconscionable men who made of democracy a mockery and of life a nightmare." I don't like the Girdlers, either. But that they are "monstrous, unconscionable men"--cold, ruthless villains without compunction and conscience--is nonsense. Actually, they are simply human beings as selfish and stupid as most, battling desperately for what they genuinely believed to be right--that notion of right being one inherited from the frontier and kept alive among us by the fact that essential frontier conditions long outlasted the passing of the actual physical frontier.


Nor will Mr. Del Vechio's notion stand up under the test of the poets he himself sets down. Some of them, indeed, are under the same spell with himself, as Harry A. Finney in his "To the Individualists," which runs:

Since you have all the jobs locked up,
And all the money stuffed in bags,
I call attention... you who sup
And miss the substance of your cup...
Humanity's in rags.
And starving herdsmen lift their cries
Above the bleeting of their flocks,
Till he discredits his own eyes,
Who tarries long to scrutinize
Your crazy paradox


Or as Robert Gessner in his "American Upsurge", which reads after this fashion:

Look! We are the depression bastards!
You of America, our fathers, look at us!
We're grammar school kids with smudgy knees
High school boys in long pants,
And college graduates with whole alphabets of sweaters
We're in our twenties, we're under twenty--
We're any age, year, month, week you can think of!
See our faces and our bodies--we're older, you say?
Well, Sirs, (and Ladies), if you're so damned nosey!
We are the youngest old men in the world.

But wherever any of this actually becomes poetry, it does not by means of voicing the iron doctrine of Marxism, but by speaking all over again in the accents of Piers Plowman, by turning again upon the contemplation of the story of man's inhumanity to man, already ancient with the aeons when the Prophet Amos came out of the wilderness to chant in the streets of Jerusalem and when John Ball lifted the standard of rebellion.


One may say flatly that there is no good point here which is actually a mouthpiece of Marxism, whatever the author himself may think. And many of them, the overwhelming body of them, are aware of and greatly aware of other aspects of life than those which are concerned with the economic struggle. Thus on page 58 of the anthology, Richard Bache Irwin's "Hungry Hawks" is set down:

Though modern man is brooding on the chalk
Of shallow clay to which his bones will crumble
And somber tuned they downward slowly stalk
Whose mouldering souls now soar with lyric mumble
Yet where the winds like hungry hawks are swooping
And knifing their wings across wild air.
And through the skies and rocking trees go trooping
There is no thought of dying or despair
But while, like restless sails, the flapping leaves
Are turning and tilting on the branching spires
The surging forest frolics and it heaves
And shakes and with melodic gladness choirs
And then with life mature, the leaves will die
And streak with song and color down the sky

The book contains verse by nearly all the more distinguished male poets of the land including, amusingly enough, in view of Mr. Del Vechio's prejudices, Archibald Rutledge! And there are many new voices which have the authentic gift. It is handsomely bound and printed and contains many full-page illustrations by Charles Cullen. I recommended it to everybody who likes good verse and to everybody interested in the current American scene.

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