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May 16, 2010

Regard The Scuttlebutt As True

Paul Mariani has written an article for First Things on Michael Astrue and his poetic alter ego, A.M. Juster. Mariani is a poet and professor at Boston College. First Things describes itself as "...an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society." I think it would be fair to say that First Things expresses primarily a right-wing, Roman Catholic perspective on the world.

Here are a few excerpts from the article titled, "Regard the Scuttlebutt As True" (a phrase of Astrue's invention):
[Astrue] belongs to a type of quiet and careful civil servant that Caesar Augustus would have recognized. As would Phillip II and Napoleon and Gladstone, for that matter. Powerful governments have always needed this kind of man: the senior administrator, the superior public official who (to reverse the entropy the Irish senator W.B. Yeats feared) makes the center hold and keeps things from falling apart. ...

This formal and clever poet must find some such sense of the comic necessary, as he changes places each morning with that formal and intelligent commissioner of Social Security—since, as you’ve probably already guessed, they are one and the same person. Michael J. Astrue is the best poet ever to hold a truly major appointed position in the American government. And A.M. Juster is the best senior civil servant of whom American poetry can boast.

The question, of course, is why this double life of a public persona? Why has this former head of a major biotech firm, a lawyer, and a public servant chosen to share the same shadow as this very private poet with the sensitivity of a W.H. Auden mixed with the scathing wit of a Jonathan Swift? An even more fascinating question is why Astrue has for so long insisted on keeping these two identities separate. Years ago, when the poet X.J. Kennedy asked him why he insisted on using a pseudonym, Astrue told him that the main reason was that he didn’t want to be known as a novelty act—which, in truth, is more a dodge than an answer. ...

While interviewing and researching Michael J. Astrue, I have come to see him as an admirable and even kenotically selfless individual. But poring over his poems and translations, I find something even deeper. There is, undoubtedly, a fascinating and nuanced self that operates on the linguistic and sonic levels in the man’s best poems. Even within their formal edifices, Astrue reveals someone who—like Lord Byron or the late Bill Matthews, and (perhaps more to the point) Jonathan Swift—has learned to manifest his own too human vulnerability while at the same time protecting himself with his savage wit. Think of John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” in which the artist Parmigianino gestures with his hand in the painted convex surface, as if welcoming us, even as the figure in the mirror pulls away. ...

It’s worth mentioning that Astrue, like a surprisingly large number of the old New Formalist crowd, is a serious Catholic, a man who sees his work at the Social Security Administration as nothing short of a vocation to do “both the right and the compassionate thing.” ...

And make no mistake about it: Michael Astrue is a very private person. Even his poetry—clear as it is—offers as many unresolved questions as it provides us with answers. ...

There’s a moral precision about him as a man and as a public servant; without being prissy or showy in his moralism, he sets himself to the Stoic task of seeing that the jobs at hand are those that will be done. When the center holds in the midst of all the mess and madness of politics, it holds because quiet men do quiet work of public purpose.


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    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    "I think it would be fair to say that First Things expresses primarily a right-wing, Roman Catholic perspective on the world."

    I think it would be fair to say that this opinion comes from a left-wing liberal perspective on the world.

    7:32 AM, May 19, 2010  

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