Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On poetic justice

It's a trope now and forever to call William McGonagall a bad poet, and to goof on his Poetic Gems - but he was courageous, if nothing else. This little gem is from James Campbell's review in the TLS of Norman Watson's recent biography, Poet McGonagall:

... in court to defend his son John against a charge of assaulting John's father-in-law, he told the judge that the victim had been "haunting me like an evil shadow, calling out to me, "Poet, Poet, Silvery Tay, bring out your sword an' I'll fight you." The judge was sufficiently impressed with McGonagall's response - "With one stroke of my sword I declare I could sweep fifty of King Edward's army into the Tay" - to throw out the charges against young John.

How's that for a bit of poetic justice?

Take that, Poets, Poets!


To turn serious now, let me add that poetic justice is not related to anything about how institutions-are-bad, filters-are-bad, MFAs-are-bad (though these all may or may not be); what a narrow sense of rectitude one gets from the squabble in our AmPo blogosphere.

There's a famous exchange between Joseph Brodsky and a Soviet trial judge to remind us that poets really do come up against unjust institutions; as Wikipedia explains the context, Brodsky's poetry was denounced, after which

... his papers were confiscated, he was interrogated, twice put in a mental institution and then arrested. After a secret trial in 1964, he was charged with social parasitism by the Soviet authorities, finding that his series of odd jobs and role as a poet were not a sufficient contribution. They called him "a pseudo-poet in velveteen trousers" who failed to fulfill his "constitutional duty to work honestly for the good of the motherland." [...] For his "parasitism" Brodsky was sentenced to five years hard labor and served 18 months on a farm in the arctic Archangelsk region where he chopped wood, hauled manure and crushed rocks, and at night read his anthology of English and American poetry.

JUDGE: And what is your profession in general?

BRODSKY: Poet translator.

JUDGE: Who recognized you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?

BRODSKY: No one. And who enrolled me in the ranks of humanity?

JUDGE: Did you study this?


JUDGE: To become a poet. You did not try to finish high school where they prepare, where they teach?

BRODSKY: I didn’t think you could get this from school.

JUDGE: How then?

BRODSKY: I think that it . . . comes from God.

(I've previously blogged about George Hitchcock, who was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1957. Citing the First Amendment, he declined to answer questions about his politics, though he did say that he was from Hood River, Oregon - "where the delicious apples come from" - and when asked what his profession was, replied: "My profession is a gardener. I do underground work on plants.")

Then, too, this being his centennial year I think of Miguel Hernández, whom I have translated. One of Spain's greatest poets, he was imprisoned by Franco and perished miserably at a young age.

This is from a recent article in The Independent:

Miguel Hernández died at 32 in prison in 1942, after a death sentence for his left-wing sympathies was commuted to 30 years. Now the poet's family want his supposed crime wiped from the records. In a law suit filed this week in the Spanish Supreme Court they ask for his guilty verdict to be annulled. In March, the family had a posthumous "declaration of reparation" from the Spanish government. But they are not satisfied. "We want something more, that they void the death sentence, so we can take away that burden," his daughter-in-law, Lucía Izquierdo, said. "That's why we are asking that justice be served, that they hand down a ruling of innocent."

The court has rejected dozens of petitions to void summary judgments by Franco-era military courts on the grounds that they followed the law of the times. But lawyers for the poet's family are optimistic. They are presenting new evidence, a 1939 letter from a fascist military official, Juan Bellod, testifying to his innocence. The letter was part of an unresolved case against the poet that was recently discovered when historic archives were digitized.

Here actual poetic justice remains to be done.

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