Writers love to lampoon poets. They’re easy targets: the disheveled hair, heavy drinking, unconventional manners, and thrift-shop tweeds… Are the stereotypes true?
Horace thought so. He caricatured pretentious poets in Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry). (You can read my posts here and here.) And I was astonished this week to find similar observations about poets in Juvenal’s Satires and Dostoevsky’s Demons.
I’ll start with Juvenal, who wrote in the second century A.D.
He explains in his first poem why he writes satire. He begins by mocking poetry readings in Rome: he wants to get revenge after sitting through so many bad ones. He criticizes hackneyed poems about mythical heroes, Theseus, Telephus, and Orestes. He writes (this is my rough prose translation):
Will I always be in the audience? Will I never get revenge, after being tormented so many times by the Thesiad of hoarse Cordus? Will one poet have recited dull comedies, another elegies, and go unpunished? Will a poet have wasted my whole day by reciting his great Telephus or Orestes, which he scrawled in the margins and then continued unfinished on the back of the book?
I have been to a few readings like that. And Juvenal is so funny!
Dostoevsky also raves and rants in his novel Demons about bad poets, who he says flourish in times of social unrest. He wrote Demons partly to respond to what he regarded as romantic portrayals of the nihilists in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and the revolutionaries in Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?
Dostoevsky fulminates about the times and the mores.
Yet the most worthless fellows suddenly gained predominant influence, began loudly criticising everything sacred, though till then they had not dared to open their mouths, while the leading people, who had till then so satisfactorily kept the upper hand, began listening to them and holding their peace, some even simpered approval in a most shameless way.
He then lists many, many different kinds of people who offend him, the military, the lawyers, the divinity students, and the feminists, and here’s what he says about writers and poets.
People like… Gogol’s Tentyotnikov, drivelling home-bred editions of Radishtchev,….poets of advanced tendencies from the capital, poets who made up with peasant coats and tarred boots for the lack of tendencies or talents…—all these suddenly gained complete sway among us and over whom?
At a literary fete, the pompous Karmazinov, a caricature of Turgenev, gives a long, monotonous reading from his new bad book. This is followed by an incendiary speech by a liberal humanist of the older generation, and then a revolutionary poem by a drunken madman.
Watch out for those literary readings!