Conversing With the World: The Poet in Society

Year

2005
The politician wants men to know how to die courageously;
the poet wants men to live courageously.
—Italian poet Salvatore Quasimodo, Nobel lecture, 1959

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the relationship between politics and poetic protest has taken on fresh urgency for American readers and writers. "I suspect the writers know in their hearts how ineffectual poetry is in greater American society," W. S. Di Piero wrote in Poetry magazine in October 2003. He was commenting on the Poets Against the War movement and updating Dana Gioia’s plaint made in the controversial 1991 essay, "Can Poetry Matter?" In it, Gioia asserts that it is a "difficult task to marry the Muse happily to politics," given that poets lack a role in the broader culture and therefore do not have the confidence to create public speech.

Why is it that in this country poetry is viewed as separate from the business of the nation? Certainly this is an Anglophone peculiarity. In Latin America, José Martí, one of the region’s most beloved poets, led the movement to liberate Cuba from colonial domination. The Nicaraguan poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal was engaged in the Sandinista revolution and later served as his country’s Minister of Culture. The Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was a diplomat, and a senator, and joined the ranks of Spanish poets such as Federico García Lorca and Miguel de Unamuno, who spoke out against General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Both Lorca and Unamuno lost their lives as a consequence of their Republican sympathies.

In France, Paul Éluard, René Char, and Robert Desnos wrote dissenting poetry while fighting for the Résistance. In Italy, Quasimodo and Cesare Pavese were repressed for denouncing the regime under which they lived, as were Russian and Polish poets such as Ossip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Wislawa Szymborska, and Czeslaw Milosz.

Contemporary Middle Eastern poets such as Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Nizar al-Qabbani, Adonis, Ghazi al-Gosaibi, and Mahmoud Darwish have embraced the idea of committed literature, or a literature engagée, as Sartre termed it.

And yet, in the Anglophone West, poets ranging from W. H. Auden to W. B. Yeats are invoked for their epithets that warn against involving politics in poetry. Both poets were cited repeatedly in the wake of the White House poetry debacle of February 2003, when Laura Bush canceled her symposium on "Poetry and the American Voice" after she learned that some of the poets on her guest list refused to attend in protest against the impending war. Sam Hamill, poet and founding editor of Copper Canyon Press, intended to present her with a petition and a compilation of protest poetry. Laura Bush’s spokeswoman said that it would be "inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum." The conflict helped spark Hamill’s creation of the Poets Against the War movement.

Media accounts of the movement often quote Auden’s line "Poetry makes nothing happen," or three lines from Yeats: "I think it better that in times like these / A poet keep his mouth shut, for in truth / We have no gift to set a statesman right." It is not accurate to invoke these poets or their words as emblems of the apolitical poetry camp without recognizing that each in his own way led a profoundly political existence. Yeats aided the national cause in the uprising against British colonial power and later served as Senator for the newly freed Republic of Ireland. He rejected the aestheticism of "art for art’s sake," declaring, "Literature must be the expression of conviction, and be the garment of noble emotion, and not an end in itself."

And in fact, Auden’s poem—an elegy for Yeats—concludes by exhorting the poet to "follow right":

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

Auden, who traveled to Spain to support the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War, argued in 1939 that "In so far as poetry, or any other of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate."

Acting on their beliefs often led Auden and Yeats to the dynamic center of public life. Each remained wary of the traps of dogma and expressed that caution in his work, particularly later in life. But a political belief mixed with ambivalence and pessimism is nonetheless a political belief. The fact that it is tempered with an awareness of human failings, foibles, and hypocrisies is the mark of a responsible conscience—and when they appear in poetry, such complexities are the signature of great art.

Why is it that poets today are not considered by the nation as legitimate actors in the public sphere? What transpired in the Anglophone literary imagination since Percy Bysshe Shelley claimed nearly two hundred years ago that poets were the "unacknowledged legislators of the world"? The separation created between the world of political contingency and the world of poetry has its roots in the early nineteenth century, when poetry began moving toward Romanticism and the individualized, subjective lyric. Literary thinkers of the 1830s and 1840s placed the poet above and not among the people—on a far shore well away from the public sphere. Rather than the chronicler of public memory or the raiser of alarms, the poet was depoliticized and cast as a "keeper of public morals," as Betsy Erkkila writes in Whitman the Political Poet.

Romanticism may have bequeathed an inheritance of inward-focused lyrics and an emphasis on personal experience, but as Richard Jones points out in Poetry and Politics, the Romantic poets had a strong social consciousness and were concerned with "the abuses of industrialization, the squalor and alienation of urban life, the excitement of the French Revolution and the disillusionment that followed." This set of concerns was precisely what the next generation held against them; and ultimately, the Romantic legacy would be divorced from its political activity, and instead, the Modernists would retain the notion of poetry as sanctified by its otherworldly nature.

There is a notable exception mid century: While Emerson was envisioning a poetry of transcendental truths and Poe was championing "pure poetry," Walt Whitman advocated a democratic poetics of open, all-embracing forms and a politics of inclusion. "All others have adhered to the principle that the poet and savan form classes by themselves, above the people, and more refined than the people; I show that they are just as great when of the people, partaking of the common idioms, manners, the earth, the rude visage of animals and trees, and what is vulgar," he wrote. "Imagination and actuality must be united."

Whitman notwithstanding, the idea that poetry exists apart from mundane concerns and the affairs of the nation continued to be strengthened with the emergence of the art for art’s sake movement. Victorian critic Matthew Arnold wrote essays calling for morally concerned poetry that would "animate and ennoble." In a reaction against the political agitation of Romantic poets, he extolled classical balance, sanity, reason, proportion, and order, and the poem that remained independent from the realm of historical contingency. For Arnold’s heirs, the Modernists in the wake of the Great War, literature became a refuge, and literary criticism, a science.

The New Critical movement, which arose during the first decades of the twentieth century, placed emphasis on the text excised from its historical, social, and biographical context, reinforcing the division between poetry and politics. Poets and critics such as Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and Allen Tate promulgated a view of poetry as irrevocably isolated from the grime and disarray of everyday life. Robert Scholes calls this positioning an "elite cultural ghetto."

"My case against the New Criticism is that it opened up too great a space between words and deeds, and between the rhetorical and the poetic," Scholes writes in The Crafty Reader. "It took a certain patrician attitude of cool detachment and made it the measure of all good writing." Brooks and Warren’s tome, Understanding Poetry, codified these views and became the American poetry textbook of choice.

This account of the segregation of literature from politics does not tell the whole story, however. The history of American poetry is a history of battling narratives and counter-narratives about poetic activity itself. The twenties were marked by the High Modernist dictates of Eliot and Pound, but Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Sterling Brown were also at work. The thirties saw the appearance of Understanding Poetry, but it was also a decade that yielded a burgeoning of political poetry and a poetry of conscience, including that of Carl Sandburg, Muriel Rukeyser, Auden and his generation, and the Objectivists George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, and Carl Rakosi.

The second half of the century was heralded in by the Library of Congress’s award of the first Bollingen prize to Ezra Pound in 1948 for an expurgated version of his Pisan Cantos—that is, with some of the virulently anti-Semitic passages excised by his publisher. The prize was announced along with the statement that "To permit other considerations than that of poetic achievement to sway the decision would destroy the significance of the award and would in principle deny the validity of that objective perception of value on which civilized society must rest."

An "objective perception of value" might have been the word of the day, but other poetic currents were running at variance. The fifties were also the decade of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, the Beats, and Black Mountain Poets such as Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. And all of this occurred before the explosion of political poetry in the sixties and the seventies, when Robert Bly, Denise Levertov, and Robert Lowell wrote in protest against the Vietnam War, Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde worked to re-inscribe the life of women into poetry, and poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, and Nikki Giovanni were active in the Black Arts Movement and the struggle for civil rights.

In the last quarter of the century, others such as Carolyn Forché championed the ethical responsibility of poetry to bear witness, claiming that all language is political. Forché said, "Vision is always ideologically charged; perceptions are shaped a priori by our assumptions and sensibility formed by consciousness at once social, historical, and aesthetic." In her anthology of twentieth century poetry of witness, Against Forgetting, Forché calls for a poetry of the social space, which resides between the state and the "safe havens of the personal."

All of the writers mentioned in this cursory enumeration have been assailed at one time or another for voicing their political convictions in their poetry. Granted, there is a grave difference between dissent that is voiced within a democracy and dissent that speaks against a totalitarian regime; repression within a democracy does not approach the level of brutality perpetrated in a variety of political circumstances around the globe. Nonetheless, these American writers are laudable for striving to step out of what Edward Said terms the nation’s "depoliticized or aestheticized submission." This submission, along with the fostering of xenophobia and apathy, represents a contemporary mode of repressing the desire for democratic participation. In his last book, Humanism and Democratic Criticism, Said writes, "One of the hallmarks of modernity is now at a very deep level, the aesthetic and the social need to be kept, and are often consciously kept, in a state of irreconcilable tension."

Since the invasion of Iraq, a symphony of voices has reasserted the American poet’s role in the public sphere. "It’s impossible for poetry not to be political," Li-Young Lee said to a St. Petersburg Times reporter. Galway Kinnell told the New York Times, "It’s poetry’s duty and part of its role to speak out." And Sam Hamill says in an open letter dated June 29, 2004, "Being a citizen of the world is political."

Conversation elevates society and creates conditions conducive for democracy. Poetry can fuel this democratic deliberation by transforming the individual and the community. The poet is an intellectual in Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci’s sense: "Non-intellectuals do not exist," he writes, because "there is no human activity from which every form of intellectual participation can be excluded: homo faber cannot be separated from homo sapiens." Gramsci suggests that activism, not only eloquence, is a determining principle of the intellectual’s function "as constructor, organizer, ‘permanent persuader,’ and not just a simple orator."

There is no escaping the forces that press against the poem, incise themselves into it, just as there is no escaping the urgency of the questions that rain into our homes, leaking through the roofs and sliding under dormers. However heat-proofed the dwelling, the questions slip into view: What does it mean that we are alive? For what purpose do we suffer? What does it mean to be a thinking, feeling, merely human being, as E. E. Cummings says?

"A poem floats adjacent to, parallel to, the historical moment. What happens to us as readers when we board the poem depends upon the kind of relation it displays towards our historical life," Seamus Heaney writes in The Government of the Tongue. Poetry, like all art, is a public form, and poetry in particular is a form of public speech. It is not separate from the world; it is made of the world, just as our vision of the world is constituted through language. Not only explicitly political or satiric verse, but also the lyric and the meditative poem are modes of conversing with society.

This conversation is what humanizes the world, according to Hannah Arendt. "However much we are affected by the things of the world, however deeply they may stir and stimulate us, they become human for us only when we can discuss them with our fellows," she writes in Men in Dark Times. "We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human."

Every word that is recorded necessarily exists in the public sphere. Writing and speaking are revolutionary acts because they differentiate the speaker from those who remain in the private sphere. It is here that the public obligations of the poetic voice come to bear. Our dialogue—or as Yeats would say, our quarrel with ourselves—is what maintains our humanity.

Perhaps the best way for poets to regain a place in the public sphere today is to extract poetry from the sanctified realm that has been designated for it by thinkers dating back to Romanticism—and to bring the poetic utterance into the public sphere in the form of ideas, criticism, analysis, and new poems. The responsibility of the writer and reader in a self-aware culture is to engender engaged participation, as Said says. Allow poetry into unexpected places. Advocate the widening of its purveyance in the media and in the spheres of daily travel. This is not an effort to create univocality; on the contrary, it will increase the visibility and audibility of all manner of dissenting ideas about poetry as well as about politics. "Every age must strive anew to wrest tradition away from the conformism that is working to overpower it," Walter Benjamin writes.

One way for Americans to accomplish this is to make the effort to gain access to other ideas, perspectives, and cultures. Reading poetry from other national traditions can clarify our vision, provide a different perspective on our own tradition, modes of thinking, and strategies, and most importantly, offer another version of the human circumstance. This is the most patriotic act of all—in the sense that our patria is the state of being human. The reader who encounters the poem openly and freely becomes a receptive beholder, as Martin Buber would say; the poem is no longer viewed at arm’s length, and the reader enters into dialogue with it.

When shades of political opinion and the complexities of human activity and feeling are represented, solo voices turn symphonic, and poets and other writers lay claim to their role in society. "All I have is a voice / to undo the folded lie," Auden writes. It is vital to protect the right to speak freely. "This is not always a matter of being a critic of government policy," Said writes, "but rather of thinking of the intellectual vocation as maintaining a state of constant alertness, of a perpetual willingness not to let half-truths or received ideas steer one along."

What kind of American poetry might speak of life as it is now being lived? A poetry that is elastic enough to contain the modern experience of speed and stillness, as well as a sense of wonder. One that smells of rubber, plastic, and tar, and can contain the constellations of nanotechnology; a poetry that bears witness to the exigencies and horrors of the political moment in which the poem, and the poet, exists. This kind of poetry carries on speaking to the unimagined future. It sings of a spiritualized and a politicized vision, and it leaps into infinity. "A poet is a poet when he does not renounce his existence in a given country, at a particular time, defined politically," Quasimodo writes in his "Discourse on Poetry." "And poetry is the liberty and truth of that time, and not abstract modulations of sentiment."

It is also crucial to remind the nation that the American artist has an urgent word, is prepared to step out of the atelier and into the street, and that as much as a pop song or a feature film, a poem can provide a new and vital way of looking at the world—and one that is less saturated with corporate interests. In our present age of multimedia entertainment, poetry is an art form nearly free of materials. It is the most portable mode of art other than singing, and it is similar to singing: when a group of people gathers and recites poems together, the poems are re-inspired, breathed alive, and reinterpreted, transforming and transformed by the reciter and the listeners.

Artists are more capable than theorists or pundits in representing the consciousness of the people, because the language of art is a language of immediacy, of spirit, and of the transporting analogy. In his essay "Democratic Vistas," Whitman writes, "It is acknowledged that we of the States are the most materialistic and money-making people ever known. My own theory, while fully accepting this, is that we are the most emotional, spiritualistic, and poetry-loving people also."