In mid-February of this year, the Atlas Society will publish a book of my poetry with the title Touched By Its Rays.
The book’s title was inspired by a section of John Galt’s speech, in Atlas Shrugged:
...and should you die without reaching full sunlight, you will die on a level touched by its rays...
These are not poems about Objectivism (the very idea is alarming), although one poem is dedicated to Ayn Rand, on the centennial of her birth in 1905, and another celebrates the 50th anniversary of the publication of Atlas Shrugged.
They are poems about how one man views the world, including his own struggle to understand, promulgate, and, ultimately, remain faithful through half a century to a philosophy of reason, achievement, and joy, having read Atlas Shrugged at age 17.
Two of the poems — a long narrative about a great railroad entrepreneur like J. J. Hill, and the Ayn Rand centennial poem — have been published previously in The New Individualist.
None of this, though, had much to do with the decision of The Atlas Society to publish this book. The importance of the book — in principle, with no grandiose expectations for its actual impact — is that it presents poems in the enduring traditions of the poet’s craft and art.
Today, all major art forms are under attack, profound philosophical attack, by post-modernists and their intellectual predecessors before the term “post-modernism” existed.
If we begin with Ayn Rand’s definition of art as “the selective recreation of reality according to the artist’s metaphysical value judgments,” or sense of life, then today’s non-objective art — presenting nothing recognizable, no recreation of reality — strikes at the very heart of the visual arts.
By the same token, if a novel imaginatively recreates the choices men make that determine the course of their lives, and what kind of human beings they become, then the post-modernist movement to discard plot strikes at the very essence of the novel.
I have argued at some length in “Poetry: The Supreme Art,” a lecture at the 2007 Atlas Society Summer Seminar (and available through the Atlas Society), that the essence of poetry is meter.
Like prose, poetry conveys meaning by using words to recreate reality, but what distinguishes poetry is that it establishes a meter, a consistent underlying beat, and then creates feeling, and meaning, by varying that meter in specific ways that have specific emotional effects. The possibilities are endless.
To take an example from my own book, here is the opening of a poem “Red Rover”:
O where you have gone, Red Rover?
And do you recall how we bent
To charge the ranks of old idols?
As to a trumpet’s cry we went!
We thought to topple every foe:
The labyrinth of faith, the spell
Of antique sin — all the prisons
Of humility where men dwell.
I believe that, quite apart from the meaning of the words, the underlying meter, and the rhythm imposed on it, help to convey a sense of longing, and of appeal, in these lines.
Here is another example, an excerpt from my long poem “A Ghost at Yalta”:
Eight days they gave (starting late,
continuing at banquets)
To parcel out the fate
Of half-a-billion people
Who had endured by dreaming
That after war might be life.
Nations traded, or sundered;
Ancient cities awarded;
Millions pushed across the map
As though Versailles taught nothing;
Elections hung on the pledge
Of a power-mad tyrant;
Toasts upraised to genocide;
Prisoners shipped back to die;
Slave labor for millions sanctioned:
Neither right, nor realm, nor writ
Of law was beyond the favor
Of power and privilege
A crippled man lived to savor.
The meter is a bit looser here, as is the rhythm, but the very different effect — as contrasted with “Red Rover” — is of accusation, rising insistence, and relentless contempt.
There are far better examples of the charm and ingenuity of meter and rhythm in the work of the great poets. Look at Alfred Tennyson’s masterly variations in meter and rhythm from the “The Charge of the Light Brigade” with its relentless march toward doom — “Half a league, half a league, / Half a league onward” — to the quietly unshakeable determination in the final line of “Ulysses” — “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
What, then, is the post-modernist contribution to the art of poetry? Virtually all so-called serious poetry, today, is written in free verse. In other words, it dispenses with meter — dispenses with it as a matter of principle — and so attacks the very essence of what makes poetry poetry.
And the result? Well, I belong to a poet’s workshop in my region. We meet weekly to read our poems and react to them. The members are highly intelligent, literate, sensitive people, with a real talent for language and an intelligent, considerate way of responding to every poem.
But all of them grew up, of course, in the period when the poetic traditions were being cast aside for experimental verse by such pioneers as William Carlos Williams. And the essence of this experimentation was to discard meter and write only in free verse.
I sometimes describe the workshop as “twelve free verse writers and me.” That is not quite accurate; there are occasional exceptions. But, for the most part, week after week, virtually all the offerings are in free verse: intelligent, sensitive to language, but systematically discarding meter (and also rhyme, a less essential but still enduring poetic tradition).
What could be asked, of every one of these poems, is: If you did not have line breaks, how would we know that this was verse, not prose? In most cases, the answer is that we would not know.
Having abandoned meter, the contemporary writer of free verse takes several common steps to signal that he is writing poetry. One is to use line breaks, as I mentioned; another is to use no punctuation; another is to drop many connecting words; another is to pile image on image, idea on idea, without an intelligible thread.
Not every free verse writer uses all of these “techniques,” but most use some of them. Increasingly, though, free verse writers are discarding even the appearance of poetry, producing so-called “paragraph poetry.”
Through all of its long history, poetry has been a major, if not dominant, art form. The great Greek epics, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, are in verse, as are the Greek tragic plays such as Oedipus or Antigone. Roman epics, plays, and satires all were in verse, as were some Roman works of philosophy.
The greatest narrative of the Middle Ages, Dante’s Divine Comedy, is in verse. The history of English literature is a chronicle of, more than anything else, great poets: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Pope — literary giant after literary giant, until, in the Nineteenth Century, Rudyard Kipling, Matthew Arnold, and Thomas Hardy were virtual popular celebrities, read and enjoyed by people of every class and level of education.
No so the poetry of today. Most of us read, if we read poetry at all, the great classics of the Romantic period (Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Byron), or the American traditionalists such as Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and, yes, e e Cummings, who experimented in many ultimately minor ways but was one of the great lyricists of our time.
I don’t think many people outside of specifically “intellectual” and “artistic” circles dote on contemporary poetry. After the great generation of Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Frost, and perhaps Dylan Thomas, no great poet seems to have appeared — and no poet of any wide popularity.
True, Allen Ginsberg attracted a huge audience with “Howl,” but that had the shock value of a “first.” Why would people read today’s poetry for inspiration, insight, and the enchantment of the music of words? For the most part, those values have been discarded.
So-called serious poetry, today, is notably “difficult.” The reader who finishes a poem is apt to ask, first, “What is it about?” The poet’s workshop I attend spends a great deal of time just trying to figure out what, merely on the surface level, a poem says.
The tragedy of the long decline of popular values in serious art has two aspects, related but quite different.
First, as Ayn Rand said, art expresses the sense of life of a people, giving them something of a shared feeling about the world in which they live, expressing their deepest values, and providing a barometer of the status of philosophy in a culture.
We have lost that: The great teller of stories that define us as a people, a generation, and a culture; the great satires that puncture pretension, political dishonesty, and intellectual folly; the great plays that dramatize the fate that we choose when we make the decisions that shape our character.
Second, and what is far more personal, we are deprived of an art form that gives us an experience of our sense of life with the power of music, the clarity of a conceptual art, an imagery as vivid and perhaps more varied than the visual arts, and the heroic scope of great epic narrative.
How many people realize exactly what we have lost? Ayn Rand once commented that for those who did not experience the optimism, the confidence, and sense of man’s grandeur that characterized the Nineteenth Century, nothing can quite capture and convey the sense of a fundamentally benevolent culture and society.
Another great figure that spanned the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (perhaps my favorite), wrote at the close of World War I:
Many ingenious lovely things are gone
That were sheer miracle to the multitude...
One such ingenious, lovely thing — almost lost, today — is the ancient and timeless craft of poetry: a voice from the homeland of the soul.
Walter Donway is a founding trustee of The Atlas Society and author of the book Touched By Its Rays. Until its publication in mid-February, the book may be purchased in advance at a substantial discount at ObjectivismStore.com.