Praises & Dispraises: Poetry and Politics, the 20th Century by Terrence Des Pres (Viking: $18.95; 288 pages)
When the kings of ancient Ireland went into battle, they were accompanied by bards whose task was "to make poems against the enemy that might 'rot the flesh from their bones,' or, in lighter moments, destroy rats." Terrence Des Pres explores the 20th-Century incarnations of the poet as a kind of warrior and prophet in "Praises and Dispraises," a work completed shortly before in his death in 1987. "I am after rites of poetic address," Des Pres declares, "that emerge when poets and their tribes become embattled."
Des Pres contemplates the work of five poets of the 20th Century: William Butler Yeats ("An inheritor of powers very old and very Irish"), Bertolt Brecht ("Like Yeats, he was chiefly a hater, a poet whose foremost gift was for cursing"), the South African poet Breyten Breytenbach ("His art has thrived and now falters in the nightsoil of politics"), and two contemporary American poets, Thomas McGrath and Adrienne Rich.
Each poet is characterized as a bard, which Des Pres defines as "the kind of poet whose professional calling was to praise, curse, bless and cast blame," or--in the words of Edmund Spenser, "to sett four the praises and dispraises of menne in their Poems and Rhymes."
Yeats is the principal subject of the book, and the model of what Des Pres calls the "bardic tradition." According to Des Pres, the terrors of the 20th Century were so overwhelming that the poet's only response was "the bardic capacity for naming." What Yeats beheld in the world around him was "the kind of evil that befouls life's sweetness and mocks faith in politics as an art of the possible, an evil so blindly terrible that finally just to stand and face it, to pace the battlements and see the undelivered world destroying itself, compels a furious, wildly creative distress."
"Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare / Rides upon sleep," wrote Yeats in "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen." "The night can sweat with terror as before / We pieced out our thoughts into philosophy."
Brecht, too, is depicted as a bard of our benighted century: "Truly, I live in dark times! / . . . The man who laughs / Has simply not yet had / The terrible news." As Des Pres explains, Brecht's poetry "does not charm, invite or tease out thought. . . . Poets, Brecht believed, ought to say something; and what they say ought to be worth hearing even in a world where frightful forces attack and erode our self-possession." Des Pres shows us that Brecht was an unrelenting and unforgiving poet--even when he gives us a lyrical, little verse, the poem turns out to be booby-trapped: "Fog envelopes / The road / The poplars / The farms and / The artillery."
The poetic concerns of Breytenbach, Thomas McGrath and Adrienne Rich are somewhat narrower than Yeats and Brecht, who confronted nothing less than the collapse of Western civilization. Breytenbach's target is apartheid in South Africa. McGrath is a Whitmanesque poet who "rails in earnest against the time's worst abuses" and yet "wants to see poetry change the world by calling us to recovery of our finest dreams."
Rich, of course, is the poet laureate of American feminism: "Rich's poetry is political from the moment she confronts her own condition as a woman," Des Pres writes. "There is no moment of day or night, in Rich's view, when women are fully at liberty to define and live their own destiny."
Des Pres treats each poet and his or her work with impressive scholarship and a fine critical sense, but also with an abiding reverence for poetry itself. Indeed, the author's prose is often so lyrical that it reads like poetry itself, as when Des Pres explains the imagery in a poem by Breytenbach:
"The little creator becomes a people-maker, the starry fields turn to fire. The moon . . . loses its consoling splendor. Life rising, sighing, falling, becomes a particular people being worked, as we might say, to death, ground down like the blade of a knife. Humankind's muddy genesis thus ends up concretely with blacks enslaved."
Much of the work of these five poets is harsh and despairing, but Des Pres insists on finding the flame of redemption in even the gloomiest of their poetry. Indeed, "Praises and Dispraises" is Des Pres's celebration of poetry as prophecy, blessing and prayer:
"The press of the real, as I would call it, is problematic for all of us but especially for poets because their art requires attention to humanity's sad still music that now, amid the awful nonstop roar of things, is hard to make out," Des Pres explains. "Poetry can help people live their lives, not by instruction but by creating potent figures that anyone's imagination might kindle to and take hold of--language that takes a place in the mind, allowing us to anchor ourselves and reclaim our self-possession--even amid the grim confusions of politics in dark time."