NAPOLEON believed that any Augustus can create a Vergil; any man with sufficient money, he thought, can underwrite a poet to sing his praises. Napoleon also proved that his own thesis is wrong, for what poet created an epic about the Corsican dictator? What Bonaparte did not realize is that an emperor who would create a Vergil must have not only the wealth, but also the stature, of an Augustus. Great poetry can only be written about great topics, topics which are common and central to the experience of all mankind. Any lesser theme is doomed by its nature to failure.
Napoleon was not the only one who failed to grasp this essential rule. Eve Merriam, a poet who should know better, has broken it in her latest book, The Nixon Poems. Eve Merriam is no mean poet, and some of her work has been quite first-rate. She is one of the few winners of the Yale Younger Poets Prize who have ever been heard from again. This latest collection fails miserably, however, because of its subject, not its author. No great poetry can be written about Richard Nixon, for he is not important to men or to mankind in general. The attempt to enlarge him into a universal figure either for poetic glorification or vilification is doomed by his essential lack of distinction.
THERE are two ways of looking at The Nixon Poems, either as poetry or as political criticism. As poetry it fails, but as a political statement it sometimes succeeds. It fails as poetry for its lack of a subject, and also for its lack of form. Great poetry is often written in totally unstructured form, and much trivial verse, especially classical verse, has survived because of the beauty of its structure. A poem without structure, on a trivial theme, has no hope from the beginning. Thus, the first half of a poem from this volume: "dicketydicketydick / dicketydicketydick / click / priorities goals directions / smile solemnly see direction A / click / great country endeavor great leadership / inspirational fist follow fig. 2 / click / . . . " Such a poem, lacking content and a cohesive style, is hardly a poem at all. It depends for its survival, not on intrinsic merit of interest, but on currency. It makes no generic statement, just a personal snipe, and does this in a thoroughly forgettable form.
VIEWED as political commentary, The Nixon Poems have many strong moments. It is significant that the publishers have turned for advertising blurbs not to literary critics, but to John Lindsay, Marya Mannes, and the versatile Norman Mailer. All of them point out that the author is, indeed, a very witty political critic. All of American society comes under attack in this volume, from the President to plastics, from television to crime in the streets. The portraits of a mindless suburbia, of seething, terror-ridden cities, are fiendishly accurate, easily recognizable, when the author departs from her subject long enough to make them. All of these catalogues of horrors, written in the kind of verse Time magazine would use if it used verse, are curiously striking. Even their unconnected, staccato prosiness and pseudo-cummings style ("if we can send a man to the moon we ought to / clean up the what do they black want / power student should be fire with fight now you / take of they just would law and listen/ . . .") are not always offensive.
America needs to be written about, especially by poets, especially now. Societies in turmoil often yield the best poets-reactionaries like Pound or Yeats, radicals and reformers like the Neoterics, or the War Poets. All of these have expressed rage at the conditions of society and politics in their poetry, but they have not allowed individual hatreds to blur their poetic craft. Who would remember Brooke and Sassoon, for instance, if they had written not about the monstrosity called war, but about whoever happened to be Prime Minister at the time? Since Miss Merriam has decided to center her work around Nixon, to use him as the paradigm for all the ills of society, she treats few universally recognizable themes, and her poetry will die with its subject.
Miss Merriam's book has proved several things. She has shown that you can't write much of interest about Richard Nixon, and she has also shown that it's true what they say about the Yale Younger Poets Award; its holders, like the owners of the Hope Diamond, had better be prepared to accept the curse which goes with it.