Donald Trump doesn’t exactly leap to mind when one thinks of great cultural benefactors. The U.S. president’s proposed budgets have twice aimed at eliminating funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, and in early 2017, Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior policy advisor, aired the idea that the poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, “The New Colossus” by Jewish American Emma Lazarus welcoming “your poor, your huddled masses,” shouldn’t be there. For their part, poets have been protesting the president, often through found text and erasure poetry that pilfers, repurposes, and mocks his language, like this couplet from the ironically titled The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump, compiled by Robert Sears: “I built buildings that are 94 storeys tall/ My hands aren’t—are they small?”
But as the example of the famously conservative T.S. Eliot should remind us, poetry is not the exclusive preserve of liberal English professors and spoken-word social-justice warriors. These days, a cohort of angry alt-righters is finding in poetry a medium to ennoble their feelings of victimization by modernity, by women, and by liberal democracy.
One such lover of verse authored what could have been the most widely discussed, if largely reviled, poem of last year. While no poet read at the president’s inauguration—a common enough fact at the swearing-in of a Republican—a poem called “The Pibroch of the Domhnall” that many believed was intended for the official event went viral online. This work by Joseph Charles MacKenzie fetishizes Trump’s Scottish background while celebrating his election victory. (A “pibroch” is a type of bagpipe music, and “Domhnall” is Gaelic for Donald.) Consisting of ten six-line stanzas, it repeats many of the talking points of the 2016 campaign, but in rhythmic and rhyming couplets. One stanza invokes immigration policy: “Lest a murderous horde, for whom hell is the norm,/ Should threaten our lives and our nation deform”; another attacks women and Hillary Clinton, if not by name: “Whilst hapless old harridans flapping their traps/ Teach women to look and behave like us chaps.” Bereft of image, lacking metaphor, strained for diction, and funny without wanting to be, the poem is a fitting tribute to a terrible president.
The poem comes across almost as parody, but that reading is challenged by MacKenzie’s grandiose and rather perplexing biography on his website: he claims Google News among his publishing credits and says that Maya Angelou once called him on the phone; he condemns literary institutions, which he believes have no place for his traditionalist oeuvre; and he derides “modernist so-called poetry” and lashes out at “arrogant publishers [who] continue to lose money on the usual race-gender-identity hustlers they put forward as mystical idols to be adored.” MacKenzie conflates modernism with the relatively recent institutional drive to increase diversity in the arts—but both are bad, to his mind, because they are untraditional. A further exploration of Mackenzie’s website reveals such work as “Sonnets for Christ the King,” a sombre sequence of Catholic devotional verse. Chock full of “thees” and “thous,” it’s the literary equivalent of a Renaissance fair, and it seems all too sincere.
Viral lists abound with the work of anonymous amateurs, but the sentiments MacKenzie expresses would find common cause with writers who work within the institutions he despises, such as Mark Bauerlein, a long-time English professor at Emory University who has made a name for himself as a public supporter of Donald Trump, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Steve Bannon.
A Walt Whitman scholar, Bauerlein has expressed existential angst over contemporary scholarship that critiques the traditional canon. In a 2017 Politico piece about being the only Trump supporter at Thanksgiving dinner, he complained, “I spent my 20s in a grimy room reading Dante, Wordsworth, and Nietzsche—only to find when I went to campus that my intellectual giants had become objects of suspicion and derision.”
And while it’s safe to say Bauerlein prefers dead poets, one of his favourite living poets is Dana Gioia, an American writer who champions formalism in poetry, and whose work—some of it published in the conservative religious magazine, First Things, where Bauerlein is a senior editor—has a traditional streak exploring themes of family and faith. When Bauerlein was asked on a podcast whom he would have chosen as Trump’s inaugural poet, he named Gioia—although one wonders what Gioia, who is California’s poet laureate and a former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, would have to say about that.
Apparently appreciating diversity in poetic styles more than in people, the alt-right, not sticking to sonnets and quatrains, has embraced Charles Bukowski, the pessimistic, libidinous, hard-drinking Los Angeles writer who rebutted both middle-class conformity and the hippie counterculture. Bukowski is one of the favourite authors on the Red Pill subreddit, a popular community on Reddit populated by men with alt-right views. Bukowski explains his generally contrarian philosophy in the 1985 documentary series The Bukowski Tapes: “Wisdom is doing everything the crowd does not do. All you do is reverse the totality of their learning, and you have the heaven they’re looking for.”
Although he was perhaps at the peak of his popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, Bukowski still attracts a cult following. At your local bookstore, his titles likely take up more space on the shelf than most other poets—that is if the staff can keep his frequently stolen books on the shelf.
Bukowski writes poetry in direct, simple language, and his short lines go down about as satisfyingly as Bud Light. In “Nirvana,” one of Bukowski’s most popular poems judging by the plethora of YouTube homages to it, the poet narrates the story of “a young man/ riding a bus/ through North Carolina.” When the bus stops at a diner, the man is enchanted by the waitress serving him, who is:
unlike the women
she was unaffected,
there was a natural
humor which came
Despite his infatuation, the man boards the bus again and rides off. The poem suggests that he has just experienced “Nirvana,” but has regretfully abandoned it to ride with the Greyhound plebeians.
Both the man and the poem seem oblivious to the fact that the waitress’s job requires her to be nice to him. Bukowski’s heaven is the male gaze safely and unwittingly ensconced in consumerist sovereignty. What’s more, this poem, while idealizing the waitress, throws shade at all the other “women/ he had/ known.” The undertones hint at why Bukowski appeals to some young men with negative views of women. The Red Pill subreddit features numerous threads quoting Bukowski’s most misogynistic comments, such as this one from Notes of a Dirty Old Man, a 1969 collection of the author’s newspaper columns: “a woman with a sexy body immediately turns it into a weapon for MATERIAL advancement, and I am not speaking of the whorehouse whore.”
One noteworthy fan of Bukowski’s is Jordan Peterson, the alt-right’s favourite professor, who has tweeted a link to a YouTube reading of Bukowski’s “Nirvana”: “This poem tells you everything you need to know about life,” Peterson says. His affinity for Bukowski makes sense. Bukowski’s misogyny, mild at times, obvious at others, jives with the revanchist masculinity lurking just below the surface of Peterson’s lectures and writings. In an oft-cited talk with Camille Paglia, Peterson laments the fact that it is socially unacceptable for men to physically fight women with whom they disagree, using as an example a Toronto woman who had organized protests against him.
Bukowski, for his part, didn’t have a problem with violence against women. In The Bukowski Tapes, the poet is shown kicking and hitting his wife when they have a disagreement about, among other things, women’s roles.
No discussion of far-right politics and poetry would be complete without Ezra Pound, perhaps the most canonical American modernist and a hard-core Fascist. Pound lived in Italy much of his adult life, including during the Second World War, when he wrote poems lamenting the deaths of Fascist heroes and celebrating the killing of Allied soldiers. He also broadcast on the radio racist propaganda in support of Mussolini.
Before this, however, as a poet, critic, editor, mentor—or “village explainer” as Gertrude Stein put it—Pound influenced a cohort of famous writers. Due partly to the intervention of his powerful friends, Pound was found not mentally fit to stand trial for treason after the war and spent twelve years in a Washington, D.C., asylum instead. In 1958, when he returned to Italy to live the rest of his life, Pound gave the Fascist salute.
Pound was obsessed with his own idiosyncratic economic theories, detailed in books such as Jefferson and/or Mussolini, ABC of Economics, and in his long poem, The Cantos. Pound saw usury—the practice of charging unfair interest on loans—as the wellspring of the world’s economic and political problems. Pound illustrates some of these problems in Canto XLV, “With Usura”:
With usura hath no man a house of good stone
each block cut smooth and well fitting
that design might cover their face,
hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall
While usury undermines good and beautiful homes, Pound’s economic thinking becomes a racialized accounting of who gets to live in those homes. In his radio addresses, Pound ranted that “the Jews” were waging war on Europe, and he advocated for small-scale “pogroms”: “The sixty Kikes who started this war might be sent to St. Helena as a measure of world prophylaxis.” Pound read and apparently believed the anti-Semitic hoax document Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and he continued to promulgate racist conspiracy theories well after the war. Writing pseudonymously in 1956, Pound claimed that “It is perfectly well known that the fuss about ‘de-segregation’ in the United States has been started by Jews.”
Despite his political troubles, Pound’s reputation survived, and even thrived, after the war. His Pisan Cantos, published in 1948, were controversially awarded the Bollingen Prize. To the sympathetic reader, the book’s melancholic tone might seem a mea culpa; to others, the author just seems sad that fascism is over.
For decades, discussing Pound’s fascism was discouraged in literary studies, especially by the dominant school of New Criticism, which saw art as self-contained and transcendent of its sociopolitical contexts. New Criticism itself was heavily influenced by, and invested in, literary modernism, allowing the New Critics to exalt the formal innovations of Pound and other modernists while downplaying their sometimes questionable politics.
Inspired by Pound, an Italian neo-Fascist political party has taken up the poet’s name and cause. CasaPound (Pound’s House) was founded by members of Rome’s white power music scene in 2003. Through their active cultural programs and student associations, CasaPound courts disaffected Italian youth, a demographic with 30-plus percent unemployment. In 2017, CasaPound had its first success in electoral politics, winning a seat in a municipal election in the Roman suburb of Ostia. Formerly limited to the central regions of Italy, in the latest national elections CasaPound ran candidates in districts across the country.
While advocating for interest-free housing loans—its website quotes Pound’s poem “With Usura”—CasaPound is on the far right on a litany of issues, especially immigration and refugees. Sociologists have linked CasaPound to historical fascism’s “cult of violence,” and indeed the group’s members have committed numerous violent attacks on migrants and protesters. In a famous incident caught on video, a supporter of CasaPound viciously head-butted a journalist who was interviewing him about his affiliations with the party.
And CasaPound has been producing its own literature. Its cultural liaison, Adriano Scianca, who has written a book about Pound called Ezra fa surf (Ezra Surfs), extolls the poet as a self-help guru for chaotic times: “Pound provides the recipe for restoring order…a spiritual order, and an economic-political order.” The book’s foreword, by Pietrangelo Buttafuoco, misrepresents the critical consensus on Pound, downplaying the poet’s canonicity to fashion him a target of unfair criticism instead: “Everyone judged this Homer of the twentieth century…They wanted to transform him into a second-rate talent.” CasaPound sees the poet as unjustly marginalized, a metonym for their own felt marginalization in a liberal democratic Italy.
The poetry beloved by the alt-right speaks to the feelings informing its politics. From MacKenzie’s under-appreciated traditionalism, to Bukowski’s misogynist rebelliousness, to Pound’s maligned fascism, grievances overwhelm the emotional world of this poetry and its fans.
The case of alt-right poetry highlights what we should already know from history: that poetry can support reactionary politics as easily as it can serve progressive ends. W.B. Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, Gabriele D’Annunzio, F.T. Marinetti—the list of influential far-right writers of verse goes on. Even the war criminal and ethno-nationalist politician Radovan Karadzic is an award-winning poet.
The artist as rule-breaking free spirit—an idea inherited from romanticism and reinforced by modernism—is itself a concept subverted in our historical moment, in which transgressiveness has been used to reassert reactionary hierarchies and retrench against recent social gains made by women and minorities. The alt-right, unfortunately, has a place in poetry, and poetry has its place in the alt-right.