It is time—past time, really—to put aside differences and preferences and ideology, and acknowledge one of the great minimalist masters of poetry in the 20th century.
I refer, of course, to the fabulous unknown poet, Richard Milhous Nixon.
He is known for other things, with many ascribing to him a mastery of the arts of politics and policy and govenment, and he has been—there is no getting around it, I suppose—controversial in many respects, and often reviled.
He is in some ways the most confusing of our presidents, a large-visioned chicken thief, a paranoid whose internationalist activities and policies broke down barriers between American and the world, a big-government conservative who enshrined many policies that were anathema to and then forgiven by the right (arts, environment, almost a reverse income tax), a brilliant self-pitying paranoid realist and political tactician, and I expect others will cite many other things and other more fulsome descriptions.
The very smart Gary Wills, for example, once wrote a book about him (Nixon Agonistes) in which he described him as capable of being almost everything at once, and Rick Perlstein one (Nixonland) in which he all but accused Nixon of being Satan, and never having a good or virtuous thought, so that even his best actions were motivated by a sociopathic venality.
What is astounding to this reader is how well Nixon has ploughed those controversial and extreme political fields with honesty and transparency, often at moments of extreme pressure and under sway of total paranoia, in the service of his poetry. It is all collected in The Poetry of Richard Milhous Nixon (compiled by Jack Margolis, Cliff House Books, 1974, unpaginated). The book is long out of print, but should not be. Consider the mastery shown here—who has handled the variable foot so well? Or the intrusion of a line of sprung rhythm (“In it”) with such careless aplomb?
We are all
A few shots
It will be over.
Want to be
On the other side
This is the first poem in the book, and it captures the American idiom as well or better than anything in Williams, Lowell, Berryman, or in Roberty Bly for that matter. All these writers are great, all are modern masters; but it must be admitted that all pale in certain respects compared to poet Nixon. In part, perhaps, because they lack the experience that he brings to each line, that sense of real but corrupted power, the slight whiff of brimstone and mendaciousness.
Where, for example, among any of them, other than perhaps Williams at his most technically and psychologically acute, could you find an acknowledgement of reality so complete, so desperate, so intentionally and transparently calculating and even self-damning, as to match these lines? Let us agree that there is simply nothing like this in modern poetry. Nixon is at all points the poet of ultimate reality, ultimate realism. The poet in him never turns aside. He tackles subjects that other poets would never touch, and if they did, could not bring his level of understanding to bear. Again from the book:
A MILLION DOLLARS
We could get that.
On the money,
If you need the money,
You could get that.
You could get a million dollars.
You could get it in cash.
I know where it could be gotten
It is not easy,
But it could
So many themes conflate here—self-reliance, pure old American cocksuredress of the kind that got Tom Sawyer’s fence painted, and an understanding (rare as radium among poets) of money as the commodity that it really is. (Old joke: How do you insure that a poet will have $1 million? Give him $2 million to start.) I also see in this something intentionally teleological here: a satire of commodification seeking an object. Very subtle, but there.
Or consider as another strength the pure lyricism and enforced self-discipline of a poem like this:
I CAN’T RECALL
You can say I don’t remember
You can say I can’t recall.
I can’t give any answer
That I can recall.
It would be so easy to have an answer, to provide a grounds for transformation and then to do it, even to claim a virtuous reason for the memory lapse: but no! That easy way out is for others—let them claim their discount redemption! Master poet Nixon will not sucuumb to the easy task, to the ending-route of the lazy poet. He has said he can’t recall so lyrically in those first two lines that he then in an act of extraordinary self-discipline applies that same logic of dismissal to the closure of the poem. This is no James Wright claiming epiphanic redemption on viewing nature from a hammock on some farm. No, there is no transcendence for this man. He stays, honest, here, earth-bound. Lovely (not really), and courageous!
Some of us of an age can remember the old Pogo comic strip, which provided the line, much-used at the time, We have met the enemy and he is us. Well, master-poet Nixon goes Pogo and all of us one better by giving the detail, by showing the accurate turnings and churnings of a mind trying to get it straight in the high-pressure paranoid morass of reality:
THEM AND US
Shouldn’t we be trying to get intelligence
Weren’t they trying to get
intelligence from us?
Don’t you try to disrupt their meetings?
Didn’t they try to disrupt ours?
They threw rocks,
Cut the sound system,
And let the tear gas
in at night.
What the hell is that all about?
Did we do
Here at last is a vision of life at the top of the American pinnacle of power that no one else has ever put into a poem and that it is likely no one else ever could. Or, again, in the same vein:
LET’S FACE IT
This is the Coriolanus of the American mind speaking out and exposing himself at leader-levels. One can imagine the visible world swirling around this speaker, with voters driven mad by the excesses of their candidates, of citizens put up against the mental wall as they try to figure out if and how to fight back against these very real excesses of their leaders, and he with this statement of belief as reassurance in the midst of it.
The fear, the shrugs, the paranoia, the almost casual certainty of what Fate will bring, that it’s not worth worrying about because it can’t be avoided—it’s all here. How do I know from the few words here about this poet’s view of Fate? Well, what’s implicit here is made explicitly clear in another poem:
IN THE END
In the end
We are going
To be bled
And in the end,
It is all going
To come out anyway.
Then you get the worst
Of both worlds.
I am frankly blown away by this collection, by the unflinching honesty with which Nixon confronts and presents his seen and experienced reality and his mental processes and reaction to that world. I also praise his deft handling of the American idiom, his eschewing the preciousness of pentameter—”to break the pentameter, that was the first heave,” Pound says in the Cantos, and here is master-poet Nixon showing he has learned, and how it can be done well.
These poems were written amid real shock, under continuous intense pressure, with, we are told in the book cover, not one word, not one syllable of the actual utterances changed. I say written, but of course, they were dictated. This poetry was oral before it was compiled by Mr. Margolis, in effect the Greek writing committee to Mr. Nixon’s Homer.
It is an amazing performance in any case. Nixon is known for many things, as acknowledged at the start of this blog post, and has been praised and reviled and endlessly psychoanalyzed for his mastery of many of them; who knew that to his long resume of contradiction we could also add master-poet?
How much of a master, you ask: The first review of this book was done tongue-in-cheek by the great Hugh Kenner, in National Review, back in the mid-70’s. Not a bad critical pedigree!
This may be the right time to pause to reflect on some of the hidden mysteries of the American psyche: poetry among the powerful should draw out some such meditation. And perhaps it should also make us question ourselves, for is not one of the challenges of a book like this to wonder whether its application is singular or general? If Nixon, then also all of us as well? I say no, but others may have different answers. There is room for all.