The Muse's Name Is Liberty


In American literature in general, and in American poetry in particular, the best known and most admired figures have, on the whole, been collectivists and statists. For all their brilliance, writers such as Nock and Mencken get relatively little attention. Ayn Rand's novels are seldom mentioned in literature courses or in critical works. And the dominant poetic figures—Whitman in the 19th century, Eliot, Pound, and Auden in the 20th—fit the pattern well. Whitman was at least an ambiguous figure in his radical democracy; Eliot, a conservative Christian who went so far as to call for the exclusion of Jews and freethinkers from American society; Pound, a "money-crank" whose mature work was largely devoted to denunciations of the practice of charging interest; and Auden, a Marxist. Some American figures—Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost—at least have the merits of being either wholly apolitical or uninterested in ideological themes in poetry.

The person who is either libertarian in convictions or simply desirous of existing as a separate individual, resistant to social programming, could easily go through a whole literature curriculum never realizing that libertarian writers exist. Most such people discover Ayn Rand's works at some point; but Rand, despite her merits, is not satisfying to everybody, whether because of philosophical disagreements or because her private tastes and symbolisms repel some people. Even for those who like her novels, some other style and emotional quality might sometimes be desirable.

Though they are not generally considered "major poets" and their political views tend to be ignored, several writers have in fact provided this possibility. They have, that is, written poetry that expresses viewpoints either explicitly libertarian or congenial to libertarian sentiments in basic emotional themes. Their other attitudes vary widely—from cummings's joyous, sentimental, low-life hedonism to Jeffers's austere sense of tragic detachment—but this diversity is itself a source of emotional enrichment. Libertarianism need not imply cultural impoverishment. (An unavoidable consequence of a vision of literature defined by only one writer, even one of Ayn Rand's transcendent genius, is an overly narrow range of emotions.) There are gold mines scattered all through the wastes of academically defined culture.

Let us look, then, at some American poets. There are many other sources—Nietzsche, Shelley, Shakespeare (King Lear), ancient Taoist writings, are examples—but adequate depth in a short essay requires a limitation of comprehensiveness. Poetry is more emotionally intense than is prose, and although libertarians have begun to discover prose works few of them are aware of poetic ones.

The first examples of libertarian poetry can be found in occasional works of Emerson and Thoreau, 19th-century writers commonly called "transcendentalists." Thoreau is best known to libertarians as a radical abolitionist and antistatist, one of the precursors of individualist anarchism; Emerson is less known. Neither was consistently libertarian; they could best, perhaps, be called "Epicurean"—loving enjoyment and independence. Nietzsche's works, especially Twilight of the Idols and The Gay Science, display a deep love of Emerson's quiet individuality and cheerfulness, though Nietzsche's own individualism went vastly further than Emerson's.

Emerson and Thoreau's poetry is uneven, often overly prosy; but it attains, at its best, a wry, self-reliant irony and delight in life that make it always enjoyable. A good example is one of Thoreau's poems, "Conscience is instinct bred in the house," from which this passage is taken:

"…I love a soul not all of wood,
Predestinated to be good,
But true to the backbone
Unto itself alone,
And false to none;
Born to its own affairs,
Its own joys and own cares…
…If not good, why then evil,
If not good god, good devil.…"

Another example is Emerson's "Give all to love," on the relation between love and mutual independence.

Another writer with the same background in New England life, in a later generation, is e.e. cummings. His poetry is not ideologically libertarian nor ideologically anything. Much of it is marred by sentimentalism. But cummings had one great virtue: a highly developed sensitivity to social hypocrisy, especially that of politicians. During World War I he spent time in a French prison for political reasons; later he visited the U.S.S.R. and came back totally unfavorable toward all forms of communism. Poems such as "next to of course god america i," "my sweet old etcetera," and "a politician is an arse upon" express this attitude. An even more powerful hostility toward the State-and outrage at its viciousness that has seldom been equalled—shows through "i sing of olaf glad and big," a poem dealing with draft resistance.

"but—though all kinds of officers
(a yearning nation's blueeyed pride)
their passive prey did kick and curse
until for wear their clarion
voices and boots were much the worse,
and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skillfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat—
Olaf (upon what once were knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
'there is some s. I will not eat'"

His personal attitudes scarcely make cummings an ideal; he was, instead, something more interesting—a person who valued his own individuality, expressed it as fully as possible, and knew under what conditions it could flourish, under what conditions it would be destroyed. His prejudices—a degree of anti-Semitism, as the most notable example—appear relatively minor compared to his instinctive revulsion against oppression, pomposity, lies, and political rationalizations.

"…to vote for me (all decent men
and womens will allows
which if they don't to hell with them)
is hows to hump a cows
"…Huge this collective pseudobeast
sans either pain or joy)
does nothing except preexist
its hoi in its polloi"

A further important quality expressed in cummings's poems is his awareness of the degree to which individuality is stifled by social conformity, collective standards of decency and propriety, and a variety of other informal straitjackets. Other writers, such as Mill, sought to deal with them by criticism; cummings made fun of those elements and celebrated the things they rejected—sex among them. Some of cummings's erotic poetry is uncommonly good, particularly "i like my body when it is with yours."

The other poet of the first half of this century whose libertarian tendencies were most pronounced is Robinson Jeffers. He and cummings are intensely diverse. Rothbard has contrasted Mencken's joyful hedonism with Nock's austere secretiveness; this characterizes the differences between cummings and Jeffers fairly well. Where cummings is sentimental, comical, and vulgar, Jeffers is classic—in the tragic, passionate sense—and intellectual. As a byproduct of this, he was fairly consciously libertarian—and strongly isolationist. Perhaps his most famous political poem, "Shine, Perishing Republic," reflects this concern.

"But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center; corruption

Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster's feet there are left the mountains."

A less well known poem, "Shine, Empire," expresses the same feelings in relation to World War II.

"It is war, and no man can see an end of it. We must put freedom away and stiffen into bitter empire.

All Europe was hardly worth the precarious freedom of one of our states: what will her ashes fetch?"

And one of his most famous lines, from "The Stars Go over the Lonely Ocean," has been quoted by Poul Anderson: "Long live freedom and damn the ideologies."

Another strand of Jeffers's poetry is a passionate honesty. In a comment on his own works he quotes Nietzsche's line, "The poets lie too much," and says that he had resolved never to write an untruth in his verse. And he shares the tragic vision of life that Nietzsche and the ancient Greeks adhered to: he is passionately aware of human cruelty and superstitiousness, human love of pleasing lies, and the precariousness of freedom and decency.

One of his poems, "Hellenistics," envisions the fall of civilization and contends that savagery wouldn't be so bad—it would avoid the evils of civilization—but who would teach savages to hate filth and cruelty and superstition? Jeffers calls his philosophy "inhumanism"—the belief that God is the same as Nature (as in Spinoza) and is infinitely cruel, that the only cure for human viciousness is sufficient immersion in the impersonal beauty of the universe and sufficient detachment from human success and politics. One poem, "Theory of Truth," suggests that human beings can glimpse the truth—but only those who have been hurt and can't function in normal political struggles. Or, in "Cassandra":

"…Truly men hate the truth, they'd liefer
Meet a tiger on the road.
Therefore the poets honey their
truth with lying; but religious
Vendors and political men
Pour from the barrel, new lies on
the old, and are praised
for kindly
Wisdom. Poor bitch be wise.…"

Jeffers's overall vision is of a universe governed by necessity, which serves no aim but exists only for its own sake, in which human beings are a peculiarly vicious accident.

Perhaps the most intense expression of his view of life is in "The Purse-Seine." This poem describes seeing the fishing fleets spreading out their nets, then drawing them closed—the fish feeling nothing at first, then feeling themselves trapped when escape is no longer possible, thrashing the water into phosphorescence. "I cannot tell you How beautiful the sight was, and a little terrible." Then he turns to the cities and says the same—the net is being drawn closed, the State has grown to maturity, and freedom is at an end. He holds out no hope of an end to tyranny or a permanently free society, any more than for eternal life or youth or happiness. As he says in "Shine, Perishing Republic," "Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother." He offers only resistance—and stoicism, self-discipline in the face of horror.

A contemporary poet, Gary Snyder, holds a somewhat similar vision. Snyder is unusual in having written a prose statement of his philosophy: Earth House Hold. Further, Earth House Hold is specifically libertarian—communist anarchist—and is informed by ecological and ethological knowledge, anthropological studies of hunting and gathering peoples, and the mystical traditions of many cultures.

Snyder's symbolism is different from Jeffers's in one central way: where Jeffers conceives the universe as impersonal (and is one of the few poets who has truly emotionally grasped the knowledge of scientists), Snyder envisions his fundamental relation to it as erotic and describes poetry in terms of "relations to the Goddess"—the White or Triple Goddess of Graves's poetry, nature or life envisioned as a woman (the same symbolism occurs in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: Life and Wisdom as Women). This is incorporated in one of his book titles, Regarding Wave—"wave" is the physical basis of reality in field equations, it is the concrete wave on the ocean, it is also wave-voice-vibration-Muse.

Snyder's tradition is not the usual one for individualist libertarians—his original interest was in Marxism, but he became aware of the viciousness of Marxist governments and turned to anarchism and communism and to mistrust of civilization as such. But his poetry is profoundly antistatist. One of his poems, "Revolution in the Revolution in the Revolution," expresses—the nonhuman life of the planet, the back country, the hunting peoples, the arational levels of unconscious thought are the most profoundly oppressed parts of the world. The point of his work is specifically to be aware of the emotional, mystical, ecological, cultural, familial, erotic, and related levels of "freedom." His "Smokey the Bear Sutra" expresses this in a somewhat comical way: Buddha incarnating himself as Smokey the Bear.

Strictly speaking, song lyrics in today's culture fall outside the limits of "poetry." But one particular songwriter, in addition to being part of the same general cultural development as Snyder—the psychedelic, back-to-the-country movement that is the latest outcropping of Snyder's Great Subculture among the young—is both of such high quality and so profoundly individualistic in emotional tone that she has to be included: Joni Mitchell.

Few of her songs reflect any explicit political thought, but the central conflict is profoundly sympathetic to a libertarian view: the struggle against "social control." From "Trouble Child" (the image comes from Thus Spoke Zarathustra):

"…Dragon shining with all values known
Dazzling you, keeping you from your own—
Where is the lion in you to defy him
When you're this weak and this spacey?"

And from "The Same Situation":

"…Now you turn your gaze on me…
…to see if I'm worthy
Like the church
Like a cop
Like a mother…"

In Without Guilt and Justice, Kaufmann discusses the importance of alienation in a person's discovery of his own separateness and individuality, as emotional fuel for creativity; needing to distinguish oneself from others is the source of new discoveries. Joni Mitchell's songs deal largely with alienation: living in the midst of people without being at one with them mentally or emotionally, being too unique to conform successfully and not quite strong enough to break completely free. But some of her most intense songs envision just this kind of freedom. From "Judgement of the Moon and Stars":

"You've got to shake your fists at lightning now
You've got to roar like forest fire
You've got to spread your light like blazes
All across the sky
They're going to aim the hoses on you
Show them you won't expire"

From "Court and Spark":

"He was playing on the sidewalk
For passing change
When something strange happened
Glory train passed through him
So he buried the coins he made
In People's Park
And went looking for a woman
To court and spark.…"

And from "All I Want":

"I want to talk to you, I want to shampoo you,
I want to renew you again and again
Applause, applause—life is our cause
When I think of your kisses my mind seesaws.…"

The specific value of all this poetry is that it presents the feeling of individual existence in its most intensely expressed form. Libertarians can often argue abstractly about the value of life with great fluency; but all too often their personal lives are concretely impoverished. Too many go about role-playing John Galt interpreted as The Great Stone Face or perhaps as Mr. Spock, which could be considered as substituting an effect—the verbal expressions of belief in one's own value—for the cause—the feeling of one's own value.

In these poets and others, one can find intensely emotional expressions of how it feels to be an individual. Moreover, these poets are precisely the ones who are most aware of the specific problems of individuality. But, above all, they invite joy in the immense range of human emotional individuality and diversity; and they suggest the possibility of a similarly intense expression of one's own life and passions. Whether the mood is tragedy, ribaldry, or loneliness, these poets present the concrete image of what it is to be an individual human being. Without the nourishment of this vision, all the abstract theories of freedom and value on earth are nothing but sterile intellectualizing in a void.

William Stoddard received his B.A. in mathematics from the University of California at San Diego. He is a free-lance writer and poet.