The Magazine

An Academic Barred

A New Formalist manifesto—in verse.

Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By JAMES MATTHEW WILSON
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When Paul Lake published his controversial novel Cry Wolf: A Political Fable (2008), critics immediately recognized it as an adaptation of Animal Farm for the post-9/11 world. In Animal Farm (1945), George Orwell allegorically dissected the mendacity of Stalinism, which had hijacked a genuinely “humane” egalitarian movement to establish a hideous totalitarian order. Lake’s fable darkly satirized the abuse of human charity by the academic left, whose preening “multiculturalism” sought to dissolve Americans’ sense of patriotism, of cultural and territorial integrity, at the very moment Islamic terrorists were attacking the patria itself.

An Academic Barred

Lake’s latest book, and third collection of poems, might also be read as an adaptation of Orwell, but this time of his “Politics and the English Language” (1946). In that famous essay, Orwell established himself as a defender of humane thinking and honest speech against the abuse of language by the “smelly little orthodoxies” of postwar ideologues. So, in The Republic of Virtue, Lake’s poems skewer the academic and political consensuses of our moment.

His perception and wit are sharpened by a personal sense of affront. Since the 1980s, Lake, along with such writers as Dana Gioia, Rachel Hadas, and Timothy Steele, has been regarded as one of the chief advocates of the New Formalism—that is, of a renewal of rhyme and meter in poetry as a good and humanizing enterprise. Those who abuse language or drain it of meaning make any plea for the craft of poetry frustratingly difficult.

Lake’s “Epilogue to ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ ” establishes the abiding theme. He tells us of the later careers of the two men in the old fable who duped king and kingdom into believing that only a fool could not see their splendid woven cloth. Lake uses the first tailor as a stick to beat our politicians for having reduced language, which should be the medium of truth, to a means of manipulation:

Based on the way the first could trim

The facts to craft a fabrication,

The emperor appointed him

His Minister of Information.

Now on the nightly news he spins

Transparent fictions into line

And patterns to clothe royal sins

And cloak imperial designs.

The second, we learn, has joined the academy, and now threads the minds of undergraduates with the belief that words have neither definite meaning nor beauty:

The second weaver scissored air

And mimicked weaving on his frames

So well, he earned a tenured chair

And now employs his language games

To show what lies beneath all texts

Is nothingness, or an illusion.

Revolt’s the last thing one expects

Of children tutored in confusion.

Far from serving as a radical, “outsider’s” critique of political power, the modern academy’s obsession with diversity, cultural relativism, and theory has rendered two generations of students intellectually impotent and aesthetically numb. When the power of beauty is dismissed as ideology, truth comes into contempt as well.

Lake has other targets, some painfully familiar, such as the forces of political correctness, who demonstrate that “intolerance cannot be tolerated”; those infected with a reductive utilitarianism, who believe that “pensions are sin’s only wage”; and we hapless slaves of the Internet, who confess, “We long for e-mail like an answered prayer.” All are dispatched with villanelles and suave rhymed stanzas that testify to the transformative power of wit to render the ridiculous sometimes beautiful, sometimes just funny.

In “Revised Standard Version,” Lake reimagines Jesus greeting the Samaritan woman at the well. When the Lord offers her the water of life and prophesies for her, showing that he knows she has been married five times, the woman replies,

My sex life, sir, is none of your damn business.

I don’t know where you got your information,

But if you try this sort of thing again,

I’ll haul you into court, you stalker, you.

As he turns to go, she breaks into barbs scripted by Planned Parenthood: Yeah, keep your phony doctrines off my body!

Lake situates these satires on contemporary folly in a rich historical and thematic context. The title poem returns us to the years of the Terror, in the wake of the French Revolution, when time was “out of joint.” The days, months, and streets of the new Republic were secularized and made to conform with the crushing mathematical logic of Danton and Robespierre. The Marquis de Sade was set free to carry out his perverse “experiments in living,” and Paris stank with blood and raged with the mob’s noisome spirit of “liberation.” 

Cry Wolf revealed Lake as a Burkean storyteller who appreciates the fragility of civil society and the consequent necessity for a conservative approach to citizenship. Republic shows his equally Burkean evaluation of revolutionaries, past and present, as world-bending tyrants who do not hesitate to use terror to realize their vision of justice, prompt, severe, / And inflexible.

If Lake proves himself an adept satirist, he is not that only. The book opens with lyric reflections on fatherhood, marriage, old age, and death. These themes reach a climax in his adaptation of François Villon’s gallows humor and huitain stanza in “Testament,” which begins,

In this, my fortieth year of age,

I wake beneath a soggy sheet

Stone sober, my mind a crumpled page,

My life a sentence, half complete;

Still mired in the old conceit

And lust for literary fame,

I stare down darkness, death, defeat,

Burning my candle in the game.

In the remainder of the poem, we detect the origin of Lake’s satire in his career as a writer and teacher who has been foiled in his “lust for literary fame”—not by lack of talent, but by an academic climate that harnesses art as a draught horse to drag left-wing ideologies into the souls of students.

Republic is a fine book. But it does not match the achievement of Lake’s earlier Walking Backward (1999), whose narrative poems deliver all the action of a novel with the vivid personae of a Robert Browning monologue, and whose meditative poems (especially “Interrogations”) constitute some of the most exacting and vividly rendered explorations of good and evil, sin and redemption, in contemporary literature. Republic does demonstrate, however, that Lake’s fabulist imagination continues its brilliant work.

James Matthew Wilson, assistant professor of literature at Villanova, is the author of The Violent and the Fallen.