Source: The Changing Order: A Study of Democracy
Source type: book
Document type: essay
Document title: “‘Where Is the Poet?’”
Author(s): Triggs, Oscar Lovell
Publisher: Charles H. Kerr and Company
Place of publication: Chicago, Illinois
Year of publication: 1913
Pagination: 181-94 (excerpt below includes only pages 181-83)
|Triggs, Oscar Lovell. “‘Where Is the Poet?’” The Changing Order: A Study of Democracy. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1913: pp. 181-94.|
|excerpt of essay|
|McKinley assassination (poetry: criticism); McKinley assassination (impact on literature).|
|From title page: By Oscar Lovell Triggs, Ph. D.|
“Where Is the Poet?” [excerpt]
Soon after the assassination of President McKinley at Buffalo, a question was raised in a public journal with reference to the celebration of the event: “Where is the Poet?” As a preface to the question the factors tending to make the incident worthy of poetic treatment were enumerated:
“The tragedy at Buffalo sounded the whole gamut of human emotions. Love, hate, fear, anger; sympathy, compassion—all the primal passions were aroused. Nothing could have been more dramatic than the spectacle of a single, cowardly, skulking wretch throwing a nation into tears. Nothing could have been more pathetic than the deep, yet hopeful, silence in which the people waited for the news from Buffalo. Nothing could be more inspiring than the way in which they rallied from the shock and faced the future with the confidence that ‘God reigns and the government at Washington still lives.’ Nowhere was ever given a more beautiful example of devotion than that which bound together the President and his wife. Never was a deathbed illumined more brightly by the light of Christian hope and faith. There was everything to inspire the poet.”
That the theme was not lacking in elements of sublimity is proved by the witness of another journalist:
“Let us think, if we can, of the solitudes of mighty forests; imagine as we may the majestic sweep of storm-driven clouds lit with the forked flame of lightning; let us recall the mystic roar of the tireless Niagara; climb in imagination the solitary heights of mountain fields; let the mind follow the measureless ranges of earth’s great highlands, the Rockies, the Andes, the Himalayas,  and still the sublimity and the solemnity of all these fade into insignificance compared with this more sublime and mystic manifestation of the life in common that summons a tearful nation around an open grave.”
Though the pages of magazines teemed
at the time with verses of a certain order of merit, it must be acknowledged
that the first poem worthy the subject has yet to appear. Where, then, was the
poet? Was the theme too large, was the event too near for poetic treatment?
No—for its scope was immediately perceived, as is indicated by the quotations
given above. We must search elsewhere for an explanation of the poet’s silence.
May it not be that the time has passed when deeds require special poetical celebration?
Another question obtrudes itself: What is the need of the poet? If all the elements
that constitute an incident poetic are perceived by the whole people with as
much clearness as is exhibited by the passages quoted, may we not rest in the
greatness of the fact and take the poet’s rhetorical skill for granted? Could
any poet add anything to the effects conveyed by the headlines, the news items,
and the illustrations of the daily press—for it was by this avenue that all
the facts of the incident came to the consciousness of the people. Let it be
remembered that this is the twentieth century, and that we are trying in America
to realize democratic ideals in literature as well as in life. If democratic
politics means the dispersion of power among the people, may not democratic
æsthetics mean the dispersion of the poetic sense among the same people? And
if a people be æsthetically developed, is not the special poetic celebration
of deeds rendered unnecessary—to the degree, at least, of popular participation
in the deeds. In the case  referred to
the question is readily answered: the questioner is himself the answer.
But now this event in respect to its imaginative quality is but typical of the life of the entire American people. I venture to affirm that life in America transcends in significance any record that can be made of it. With us personality is so subtle, it is woven of so many racial strands, it is blended of so many associations; with us men move in such masses—like ocean tides; with us events rise with such swiftness, they are knit of so varied and complex relations; nature itself is so vast and expansive, furnishing an adequate background for dramatic incidents: in short history in modern America is so energized that persons and objects assume an importance in themselves never before discerned, an importance that is surely not enhanced by the straining words of the most stalwart poet. Once admit that persons and events may reach a state that they become themselves poetic, then the poetry which is dependent for its effects upon the skill of a writer in arranging rhymes and constructing phrases to satisfy an exquisite sense for form seems unreal and childish.