Modernism, as it passed out of the era of collaboration with political fact and into an allegedly postideological era, always retained an argument against the very idea that such collaboration had ever taken place. This of course was very much a political position, but expressions of anticommunist culture needed to concede its own qualities as political argument in order to debate the collaboration of the previous twenty years. And this concession most anticommunists were unwilling to make, preferring to hide behind the end of ideology (where, as I say, a reactive rhetoric, a counterargument, could pose as pure, essential, natural, an originary argument). But that many (if not most) poets, as well as other Americans, felt they were emerging from twenty years of treason, is a sentiment which can be read in the poetry itself, even in poems by poets who did not participate in the Republican revival that began with the 1946 congressional elections and peaked with the consolidation of November 1952. Conservatism in American poetry of this period entailed a debilitating internal ideological contradiction, never admitted as such. For example: to be conservative in the U.S. in this period meant, if nothing else, holding to the view that the risk of total annihilation was acceptable in return for security and containment. This logic quietly sanctioned a qualitative change in the idea of change. For conservative poets this was especially difficult since what one "happened" to see--let's say, as one turned to look out the window, in that classic lyric gesture--was to be described properly in the rhetoric of the natural, the seasonal, the perennial. If such a conservative was a modernist of some stripe, then for him or her "Make It New" had come to mean a new way of perceiving something old rather than (in Stein's and Williams' sense) a new view that would in itself transform our sense of what we'd thought was old. William Jay Smith's "The World below the Window" seems to be about poets' unchanging vision--sight of quotidian things, "there still" so long as the poet "think[s] they will" be there. So the poets throws open his window and expects the geraniums he put on the sill last night to be there for him to see, a thought that gives way, just as we expect it will, to a modest contemplation of the "Fulfillment" of poetic sight in, say, therendering in such a poet's poems of birds flying inevitably South, which in turn leads to the thought that in such a scene signifies both life and death. Not much of a poem. But what is remarkable about it is the insertion of what I discern as cold-war rhetoric -- what I would argue is a classic instance of New Critical ambiguity expressing cold war anxiety and anti-positionality. In the opening stanza of Smith's poem, the triple rhyme (and its attendant suggestion of formal stability and fully met expectation) is counterpoised by a most unlyric phrase "To the best of my knowledge":
The geraniums I left last night on the window sill,
To the best of my knowledge now, are out there still,
And will be there as long as I think they will.
Given the grandly somber parallelism ending the poem ("In life life- giving, and in death undying") it's hard to imagine reading "To the best of my knowledge" as an ironized hedging Americanism. The poem doesn't seem to convey the awareness that it can imagine a time when one could not throw open the casement, when the same geraniums one put out the night before would be gone the next morning--when birds would have migrated a last time--when, in short, the traditional poetic trope of perennialism as merely a metaphorical death would give way to death itself.
"The World below the Window," first published in 1949, was placed first in Smith's Poems, 1947-1957, published by Little, Brown after its purge of anti-anticommunist editor Angus Cameron. In the same collection we find "Three-Syllable Sonnet":
and those Gug-
lows one meets
left and right,
all of them
here on some-
thing good -- well,
to be on's
a poor show
all I know --
with them on,
And it was a "poor show"--all these Americans overseas in the immediate postwar years. Somewhere in the Western Europe of Marshall Plan days, when American intellectuals seemed indeed to have the run of things, Smith had overheard a question posted by one touring grantee to another, which Smith deemed to be the very question "asked of any semi-literate American by any other American almost anywhere in Europe" during the cold war, namely: "What are you over here on?" In other words, On what grant? The dangling "on," which Smith deems an ugly Marshallism, is the basis of the satire, refuting in itself any claim these state-supported representatives of American intellectual culture could make on behalf of their own credentials. What better a way for a poet with pretensions to standing in the great tradition-- not a cold warrior, but a poet--to discredit ubiquitous-seeming Fulbrights and Guggenheims, than to note that the establishment was wasting its money on writers that can't write or speak. Or, in other words, by not arguing against such grant-making in the way conservative doubters of cultural internationalism did throughout this period--on specific political grounds (this man is given a State Department grant in 1948 and yet he voted for Norman Thomas in 1936?). So however much Smith's position here seems indeed conservative, it is a conservatism at odds with itself: as Serge Guilbaut and others have demonstrated recently, and as organizations such as the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (ACCF) explicitly announced at the time, the purpose of sending so many American intellectuals to France, Italy, Austria, the Allied-controlled sectors of Germany, India, Ceylon, Japan, Turkey, Pakistan, Formosa, Iran (after 1952), South Korea, Kenya, etc., was to fight communism by the very demonstration of the diversity of American art and artists. This is why the Central Intelligence Agency found itself in cahoots with the Museum of Modern Art and, in turn, with abstract expressionists, despite Jackson Pollack's and others' radical pasts: what better a way to convince the Italians and French in particular that the U.S. is a better partner than the Soviet Union than to present an aesthetic avant-garde mistrusted, even despised, by the American anticommunist establishment on aesthetic but not political grounds. "We hate this man's art but we think he's representative of the great variety of what's possible in America." This arguably effective (and, incidentally, quite conscious) strategy was not universally admired among conservatives; state-supported modernism was not exactly the art Leo McCarey and other anticommunists had in mind when they advocated new art forms that avoided "the ugliness of the world" and would "get a point across with givng offense." The double irony was that anticommunist art, as such, was founded on the idea that an spreading international cultural "ugliness" very urgently had to be described. So powerful was the notion that ideology was at an end that conversatives could both hate aesthetic forms traditionally associated with the Soviet Union and the left and advocate their own forms as purposefully avoiding what McCarey called "the ugliness of the world," as McCarey felt his films did. By presenting goodness and beauty with humor and wit and decency--just "entertainment," another of McCarey's terms--one was not endorsing an ideology and still, one could claim, one was effectively refuting another.
The difference between McCarey's popular form of cultural anticommunism (hidden in It's Just Entertainment arguments designed to move Hollywood away from social-problem narratives and forms) and William Jay Smith's high-cultural or "intellectual" anticommunism is the difference between a work like My Son John and a work like "Three- Syllable Sonnet." For what is really the butt of Smith's satire is modernism--to be specific, the associated political and moral failures of modernism, liberalism, and cultural (including intercultural and multicultural) relativism, and the erosion of distinctions between high- and popular culture. What's wrong is not so much
themselves--their presence in Europe as Americans--as the open, "free" form by which Smith's satires conveys them: an anything-goes modernism, declined from the already declined "lines" of, say, e.e. cummings. The kind of poetry that empowers lines like "genheim Fel-" and "to be on's" and "lows one meets" is not the kind of poetry one wants representing the United States abroad. The satire, in short, is in the way these know-nothing fellow travelers of U.S. cultural power lineate "Gug- / enheim," not so much the Guggenheim they travel on. It's not so much that "one meets" these state- and public foundation- sponsored poets "left and right" when in Europe--not that they are ideologically unspecific and multivalent--so much as that such indiscriminateness produces poetically "a poor show." To make this special form of conservative antimodernism clear, Smith constructs a sonnet (though not a traditionally rhymed one) of this declined midcentury vers libre.
Smith's is a cold-war formalism at its keenest, taken an instance at a time. But put cultural-political satires with poems of more characteristic of those Smith published during the late forties and fifties, the majority of those collected in Poems 1947-1957, the result is, I think, a basic confusion about the apt politics of modern form. It is modernism's political legacy that is confused. The geranium on the sill in "The World below the Window" should be "still there" next morning, just as the rule that good poets don't end lines with prepositions. It seems that Smith knows that the rules are changing even as he calls for cultural endurance.