The Poet as Journalist

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Whittemore’s title betrays a certain mauvaise honte. That he is a poet of notable achievement—the author of six volumes of poetry and another two volumes comprising poems, stories, and essays—is a matter of record. Less widely understood for the record is the circumstance that, for four “interesting” years from 1969 to 1973, he also put his foot into journalism (as he describes the venture) to work as literary editor of The New Republic. Now, it is not unusual for poets to be journalists. Some of the supreme masters of the English tongue, among them Coleridge and Walt Whitman, not only dabbled in journalism during dreary stages of their writing careers; they were journalistic hacks. Other poets not entirely dependent upon piecework hacking to earn their major livelihood, nevertheless served for a while as part-time journalists, contributing essays, articles, or reviews to their publications. These more fortunate poets, from Dryden to T. S. Eliot, are usually described by the more polite term essayists. Yet in the popular imagination they too are tainted, as the dyer’s hand marks his craft, by the ink of journalism.

Whittemore is particularly embarrassed by his brief business ties with The New Republic because Ezra Pound, one of his favorite pundits on matters poetical, once declared that journalists “had absolutely no minds of their own but functioned only to tell the public what the public wanted to hear.” Poets, on the other hand, according to Pound, had the obligation “to tell the bloody public what it did not want to hear.” In the main, Whittemore agrees with Pound. A self-designated “effete snob,” Whittemore would like the poet to breathe the pure sublime of an atmosphere uncontaminated by commercial odors. But the world will not let poets remain pure. (Robert Penn Warren once made the same remark.) So this poet, an English professor for nearly thirty years, carries his hired message to the impure world, as journalist to mass reader, without ever forgetting in his secret heart that he is a poet also, with a higher duty to the business of fine discriminations.

Thus Whittemore is a kind of spy in the camp of the editorial office of The New Republic. Although fairly comfortable with the liberal—in recent years moderate-liberal—political policy of the magazine, he is actually a poetical anarchist, an Outsider in Colin Wilson’s sense of the word, who cannot conform with perfect complacency to any social or political establishment, even a liberal one. Whittemore sees his job as that of unsettling opinions; whereas journalists are supposed to approach their public, supremely self-confident, to settle their opinions. Commissioned to write television commentaries under the pseudonym “Sedulus,” the poet-spy uses his column to confound rather than comfort the masses. Of course, masses do not read The New Republic; educated, intelligent, mostly liberal subscribers do. Yet these sophisticated readers may at times think en masse. Whittemore, for his part, thinks as one—as a poet, in fact.

This collection of essays, critical pieces on TV and other topical subjects, and book reviews is distinguished, then, from the usual volume of its kind because of the poet’s bias. At fifty-seven, Whittemore is still an anarchist of sensibility; opinionated, sharp of tongue, always a “solipsistic loner.” Long acclaimed as an established poet—even as an Establishment poet, inasmuch as he was official poet for the Library of Congress in 1964—he belongs properly to the generation influenced by Pound and Eliot. Like his masters, he admires sound craftsmanship, intelligence, seriousness. And he hates work that is shabby, merely clever, or merely entertaining. His opinions are decidedly old-fashioned. An unreconstructed humanist, he approves of Erasmus but not Ho Chi Minh. An anarchist of sensibility, he praises hard, careful thinking; precision rather than effusion. To him most...

(The entire section is 1630 words.)

The Poet as Journalist Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Book World. November 7, 1976, p. G4.

Booklist. LXXIII, September 1, 1976, p. 7.

Library Journal. CI, July, 1976, p. 1533.

New York Times Book Review. July 25, 1976, p. 6.

Village Voice. XXI, March 29, 1976, p. 45.