H.L. Mencken on Poetry

H.L. Mencken was America’s greatest critic — a fountain of eloquent, witty vitriol — who smoked cigars, played the piano, and drank in defiance of Prohibition.

He coined the term “Bible Belt,” covered the 1925 Scopes trial (dubbing it the “Monkey Trial”), and authored “The American Langauge,” an ongoing research project which established him as an authority and defender of American English. He co-founded The American Mercury magazine and shaped public opinion in the 1920s. Today, he’s virtually unknown, and any chance encounter is most likely to take place, as it did for me, within the pages of a quotation compliation, such as The Portable Curmudgeon: “A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.”

Quotable, flawed, and bursting with joyous cynicism — that’s Mencken.

Oddly enough, this hard-nosed realist also loved poetry. But with usual taste and discernment, he rejected much of it as verbal garbage:

“Once, after plowing through sixty or seventy volumes of bad verse, I described myself as a poetry-hater. The epithet was and is absurd. The truth is that I enjoy poetry as much as the next man — when the mood is on me. But what mood? The mood, in a few words, of intellectual and spiritual fatigue, the mood of revolt against the insoluble riddle of existence, the mood of disgust and despair. Poetry, then, is a capital medicine. First its sweet music lulls, and then its artful presentation of the beautifully improbable soothes and gives surcease. It is an escape from life, like religion, like enthusiasm, like glimpsing a pretty girl. And to the mere sensuous joy in it, to the mere low delight in getting away from the world for a bit, there is added, if the poetry be good, something vastly better, something reaching out into the realm of the intelligent, to wit, appreciation of good workmanship.” — from “The Poet and His Art,” Prejudices, Third Series.