Not Persuasion, But Transport: The Poetry of Witness
Award-winning poet, editor, translator, and human rights advocate Carolyn Forché presents the Blaney lecture "Not Persuasion, But Transport: The Poetry of Witness" on October 25, 2013, at Poets Forum in New York City. Forché's lecture, which appears below, also appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2014.
During the past two years, I have traveled farther and more often than ever before in a life of wandering. My recent journeys took me to a country that very deeply marked my own generation and then to a country digging through the rubble of an uprising. I traveled to read poetry in an island country celebrating 60 years of independence and then in a country on the verge of economic collapse, a country that broke the shackles of apartheid, and another where poets had to meet with me secretly out of fear of reprisals. Poetry took me to all of these places, and today I would like to share with you some of what happened and what I think I learned and why, despite everything, I deeply believe that poetry is a force in the world.
In April 2012, I traveled to Libya, a country emerging from an uprising that overthrew the brutal forty-two year dictatorship of Colonel Omar Qaddafi. The ruins left by NATO airstrikes on Tripoli had not yet been cleared. Vast swaths of the city lay in rubble. At that time, there was no police force, no garbage pickup, no postal service. There still isn’t. The government was provisional, put in place to prepare for elections, but the first public event planned in Tripoli in the war’s aftermath by the provisional Ministry of Culture was an international poetry reading, to be held in the open air under the stars near the ancient Roman ruin of the Marcus Aurelius arch. I was among twenty-two poets invited. Most were from Arabic-speaking countries. Most were in Libya for the first time, and among our Libyan hosts were poets and writers who at one time or another had been imprisoned by Qaddafi. The first thing I noticed was that posters for our reading had been slapped on the bullet-riddled walls all over town. The posters covered up the bullet holes. There were spent shell casings strewn all over the ground—in the streets, in the market, everywhere I looked, and in the days that followed, one of the poets even picked up from the troubled earth a box of live, unspent ammunition. The Libyans welcomed us warmly—in the hotel, in the streets, in cafés, and especially on the night of the reading, when hundreds came to the arch to sit on folding chairs, where booklets of the poems to be read that night had been placed, translated into Arabic. There weren’t enough chairs for the crowd that gathered. Children lined up along a wall overlooking the arch. Men and women, veiled and unveiled, young and old, crowded around the arch and into the adjacent streets. Large speakers had been mounted near the podium, the kind of speakers we see at rock concerts. Libyan television crews and Al Jazeera arrived and set up their cameras. A dozen of their microphones were placed on the podium. Armed militia were everywhere in their various uniforms, and we were assured that they were there to provide our security. They smiled at us and gave thumbs-up and peace signs. On the walls, there was graffiti having to do with the victory over the dictatorship. One read, in English, “Hold your heads up. You are free Libyans.” Several English-speaking Libyans approached and expressed their gratitude to the United States and to NATO for helping them to defeat Qaddafi.
I had given only a few open-air readings in my life and never under a lighted Roman arch to an audience who would not understand my language. You’ll be fine, the poet Zakaria Mohammed assured me. It will be good. I was asked to begin my reading with the poem “The Colonel,” written thirty-four years ago, a poem that arose out of an experience I had while working as a human rights activist in El Salvador. I protested that it was a very old poem, but they insisted and assured me that the poem translated into Arabic rather well. All right then, I thought, but the poem includes an obscenity, a four-letter word, and I didn’t know whether it was all right to use this word in public here. We have our own version of this word, they said. Don’t worry.
When I finished the poem, there was a murmur through the crowd, and I heard a little automatic weapons fire in the air. The crowd seemed to react to the poem in a way I had not expected, with enthusiasm and interest, and it was only later that I was told that they heard this poem about a Salvadoran colonel as a poem about their former dictator, Colonel Qaddafi. They translated the sense of the poem not only into Arabic from English but also into their time and place. I read several more poems and took my seat. During the rest of the readings, I heard more automatic gunfire, and I must have been looking around a bit anxiously because the Libyan man seated beside me finally leaned over and said, “They are firing into the air because they like the poem.” Another first for me. I had never heard AK rifle fire as a form of applause.
After the readings, the audience members crowded around us, shaking our hands, hugging us, some of them with tears in their eyes. One woman, about my age, took both of my hands in hers and said, “This means we are a normal country! That we can have a poetry reading in our city. We are finally a normal country.” Another first. I had never heard it claimed that poetry readings conferred normalcy in human communities, that hosting a poetry reading contributed to the possibility of a future for the city of Tripoli. Months later, our the US ambassador to Libya was murdered in Benghazi, along with his bodyguards, an act that horrified the people of Libya as it horrified Americans, an act all too frequently committed in the ruins of war’s aftermath and in the political labors of a country giving birth to itself, for the first time, as a parliamentary democracy. In a strange way, I feel that at least in Tripoli, they will succeed, and I feel this because of that night, when the city gathered to hear poetry in the open air.
A month earlier, I had traveled to Hanoi and Hue, Vietnam, with a group of American veterans of that war, to be welcomed by a group of Vietnamese veterans who had fought on the other side. These soldiers, twenty years ago, together built the first bridge between their countries in the war’s aftermath, quietly making contact with each other through the poetry and stories they were writing about their war experience. The US government had imposed an embargo on trade with Vietnam, and all contact between our countries was cut off. At the same time, the new government of a united Vietnam was deeply suspicious of the United States. Kevin Bowen, a poet, and director of the Joiner Center for the Study of War and Its Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts in Boston led the effort, first to provide artificial arms and legs to those Vietnamese maimed during the war and then to translate the poetry and stories written by Vietnamese veterans. He then invited a few of his former combat enemies to come to the United States and give readings as the two governments quietly looked the other way. Kevin Bowen, Bruce Weigl, Yusef Komunyakaa, and others, combat veterans all, then made what they called a “full circle” journey back to Vietnam to walk the hills, fields, and rice paddies of their violent youth. It was then discovered that the United States possessed, in an archive in Washington, boxes of “captured documents”—papers and small notebooks confiscated from the corpses of dead Vietnamese soldiers during the war, now preserved on microfilm. It was thought that such papers might contain information of military importance—logistical information and battle plans. The documents, however, were in Vietnamese, so no one among the Americans in the field could ascertain what was important and what wasn’t. All were sent to Washington for analysis, assigned a code that corresponded to their “intelligence value,” and eventually warehoused. Kevin Bowen and the other veteran poets pressured to have these boxes opened, and when the “captured documents” were translated, it was discovered that much of it was poetry written by Vietnamese soldiers—love poems to their sweethearts, poems of longing and despair, poems about nature, life, and death. The American veteran poets persuaded the US government to send these microfilmed documents back to Vietnam as a gesture of goodwill. They were received with gratitude and conferred an unexpected benefit: the documents helped the Vietnamese to solve their own MIA problem, soldiers missing in action and never accounted for, soldiers who could not technically be confirmed dead on the field of battle. Where possible, the documents were returned to these soldiers’ families, who now knew the truth about their loved ones. They had something in their grasp that had once belonged to their sons, husbands, fathers and brothers. Many more exchanges were arranged between the writers and poets in the years that followed.
I had been working with veterans at the Joiner Center during the summers, and I remember one night especially, when the Vietnamese writers cooked their specialties in Kevin’s kitchen, while the American veterans grilled chickens and steaks. Then they all played basketball on Kevin’s half-court, later prompting the American poet to title his poetry collection Playing Basketball with the Viet Cong. The bridge between the two countries was sturdier now, and had been crossed many times. Later, official relations and trade began to be normalized, but it was the poets who went first, who crossed when the bridge was still invisible and made of words.
This year was the twentieth anniversary of those first tentative steps. The Vietnamese Writers Association invited us back because they wanted to honor Kevin and his fellow poets and writers formally, to reach across the horrors of that war, the years of that war, and celebrate the peace that has been achieved and the strength of the poets’ bridge. I had never been to Vietnam. It was, for me, a place where my first husband and my childhood friends fought, young men from Michigan who were wounded or died in a war I opposed as a young woman, marching in the streets of East Lansing and Ann Arbor with other university students, carrying our signs, intellectually uncertain of the war’s true dimensions but feeling in our hearts that it was wrong and realizing, to our horror, that our government wasn’t telling us the truth, as has now been substantively disclosed.
During our stay in Vietnam, we gave poetry readings and visited Buddhist temples and the cemeteries of the war dead—the cemeteries of the ten thousand graves, of which there are many, a sea of gravestones all the same size, like our Arlington National Cemetery, but gray rather than white, with incense sticks burning beside pots of chrysanthemum. We walked in the now peaceful fields of the former American bases and battlefields: Khe San, Quang Tri, and the former demilitarized zone. We traveled all the way to the Laotian border. The American poets relived their war experience and were comforted by their Vietnamese counterparts, who gave them endless cups of tea; pots of rice, fish, and delicacies; and bowls of pho. Standing in one place or another, a seemingly innocuous place, near a tree or a stone, one or another of the poets would suddenly grow quiet or burst into tears. It isn’t over, and it will never be over. We don’t live after such experiences as war but rather in their aftermath, wherein the past is always present, is with us, but we go on toward our future, and it goes with us. That sense of past and present converging happens in a good many poems. In a sense, poems can be ghosted language, imprinted by extremity, carrying with it, in resonant images, a darker human suffering.
I am often asked about the role of the writer and the poet in the United States, his or her relation to the public world. This especially occurred when I returned from El Salvador in 1980 and published what was then viewed as a “controversial” book of poems. What is the role of the poet in society, I was asked, what is our responsibility? During the past few decades, I think that the perception of that role has changed somewhat.
This may have begun with the fatwa issued by the former Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie on February 14, 1989, for his book Satanic Verses. This fatwa called the literary world to attention over the plight of an author condemned to death for his writing and demanded a response from writers all over the world. In the early hours of that crisis in the United States, we were asked to sign letters and petitions, appear on national news broadcasts, and make public our support of Rushdie and our condemnation of the fatwa form of literary censorship, or what V. S. Naipul called “an extreme form of literary criticism.” The rallying cry then was “We are all Salman Rushdie.”
Later that same year, the pro-Democracy movement was crushed at Tiananmen Square, and the poet Bei Dao, in Berlin at the time, was accused of inciting events, as his poetry had appeared on banners held aloft by the demonstrators.
In former Czechoslovakia that December, the playwright Vaclav Havel, three times imprisoned critic of totalitarianism, became president of his country, and so the momentous year ended with sleigh bells and candlelight in Wenceslas Square. Poets and writers in the United States beheld the spectacle of a novelist forced into hiding, a poet exiled in absentia, and a playwright borne on the shoulders of his countrymen as they chanted “Havel na hrad!” “Havel to the castle!”
Bei Dao began teaching, first in Sweden, then in Denmark, Germany, and the United States. Salman Rushdie was offered the protection of Scotland Yard. Vaclav Havel was invited to address a joint session of the United States Congress on February 21, 1990.
Havel appeared officially as a foreign head of state but spoke in the authentic voice of the literary writer, a voice perhaps not heard before in those chambers, where speeches are the labor not of individual conscience but of speech-writing committees. What he had to say partly concerned the question of the role of the writer and intellectual: “We are still destroying the planet that was entrusted to us, and its environment. We still close our eyes to the growing social, ethnic and cultural conflicts in the world. From time to time, we say that the anonymous mega-machinery we have created for ourselves no longer serves us but rather has enslaved us, yet we still fail to do anything about it…we still don't know how to put morality ahead of politics, science and economics. We are still incapable of understanding that the only genuine backbone of all our actions—if they are to be moral—is responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my firm, my success. Responsibility to the order of Being, where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where, and only where, they will be properly judged…this is why I ultimately decided after resisting for a long time, to accept the burden of political responsibility. I'm not the first nor will I be the last intellectual to do this. On the contrary, my feeling is that there will be more and more of them all the time. If the hope of the world lies in human consciousness, then it is obvious that intellectuals cannot go on forever avoiding their share of responsibility for the world, and hiding their distaste for politics under an alleged need to be independent.”
His audience was our legislature but also the citizens of this republic and the world at a special moment, when the burden of totalitarian oppression had been lifted not only from the former Czech lands, but also throughout the former Soviet Empire. At that time, I was attempting to bring a work to fruition: Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, an anthology of poets from all over the world who had endured extremity during the past century—war, imprisonment, torture, exile, house arrest, banning orders, and extreme forms of censorship—experiences of suffering collectively inflicted due to the vicissitudes of history and the depredations of the state. It was comprised of the work of 145 poets, writing in 30 languages, and it was the culmination of efforts to introduce my students to world poetry, works in translation, and the practice of reading for the mark or trace of witness. As the Soviet Union was breaking apart, I found myself hastily calling newly installed consulates of recently independent republics so as to revise the sections having to do with the poets of the former Warsaw Pact. That volume is twenty years old this year and will be joined, in January, by a companion, edited together with my friend and colleague Romanticist scholar Duncan Wu of Georgetown University. When we first began teaching together in 2008, he proposed that I consider reading back through English language poetry to gather works of witness from our own tradition. I hesitated, as the first effort had absorbed me for thirteen years, but that volume, Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500–2001, will be published by W. W. Norton this coming January. Included are 111 poets, and among those who experienced war, imprisonment, torture, exile, religious and political persecution, censorship, and execution and whose works do, at least in part, constitute evidence of such experience include St. Thomas More, Sir Walter Raleigh, William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, John Milton, Andrew Marvell, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Percy Shelley, John Keats, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, W. B. Yeats, and a good number of others you would recognize. They were variously surveilled, accused of treason, and sentenced to death by decapitation and slower, more gruesome deaths; they were kept in solitary confinement, forced to labor on slave ships, traded and owned as slaves, and accused of supporting abolition. They were Catholic when the religion was outlawed, Irish under English rule, Americans nursing Civil War soldiers on the battlefield, and they were soldiers in the trenches of the Great War and those that followed. They were English language poets all, from England and her former colonies. Scarcely a poet until the year 1900 escapes inclusion even under the strictest of criteria, the strictest being, for the past century, that they now be dead. That there would be so many poets of witness in our tradition, so as to constitute a plurality of voices, came as not much of a surprise, but taken together, what we held in our hands was a tome of such weight and such magnitude that it became impossible any longer to read English language poetry other than as inextricably bound to an art marked by the world, by struggle and violence, by opposition to injustice and a willingness to sacrifice personal freedom, well-being, and life itself in the interests of humankind. Citing but a few examples, we begin with St. Thomas More in 1535, who wrote poetry with pieces of coal while confined in the Tower of London, awaiting death by being hung, drawn, and quartered. The poem “Davy the Dicer” was written following a visit by Thomas Cromwell, sent by Henry VIII to soften the saint’s feelings toward the king. Despite his imminent death and the ordeal of prison, he expresses gratitude for the hours in which he was free to write poems: “in faith, I bless you again a thousand times / For lending me now some leisure to make rhymes.” These lines were among his last.
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, whom we have to thank for the felicitous invention of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), attempted to escape the Tower of London by crawling down a toilet leading into the Thames but was caught and later beheaded. Sir Walter Raleigh, of myth and legend, spent the eve of his beheading writing his final poems. I share with you his last.
Even such is time, which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways
Shuts up the story of our days;
And from which earth and grave and dust
The Lord shall raise me up I trust.
Among the Catholic priests who were poets at the time Elizabeth I made it treasonous to practice anything but the state religion was St. Robert Southwell, S.J., who was arrested while attempting to say Mass at a private residence. He was manacled at the wrists with “his feet standing upon the ground and his hands but as high as he can reach against the wall” and subjected to a form of torture by which internal injury was inflicted without causing outward marks on the body. Southwell was almost dead when they cut him down. He spent the next two and a half years in solitary confinement in the Tower of London and then at Newgate. Found guilty of being a priest, he was punished by being “drawn to Tyburn upon a hurdle, there to be hanged and cut down alive; his bowels to be burned before his face; his head to be stricken off; his body to be quartered and disposed at her majesty’s pleasure.” He was canonized one of the English martyrs in 1970. Among his canonical poems is “The Burning Babe.” Here are lines from “I Die Alive.”
I live but such a life as ever dies,
My death to end my dying life denies,
Thus still I die yet still I do revive,
My living death by dying life is fed;
Grace more than nature keeps my heart alive
During the Civil War, there were conflicts in England, Scotland, and Ireland. From war-related disease alone, England would lose almost 4 percent of its population, Scotland 6 percent, and Ireland 41 percent. Many poets of the period served on one side or the other—Vaughan, Bunyan, Wither, Herrick, L’Estrange, Graham, Fairfax—and their writings testify to what they witnessed. To be wounded by musket shot, even superficially, was a serious matter in an age when medical treatment consisted chiefly of amputation. Poets who risked their lives, or saw their friends do so, speak of the human cost in ways that foreshadow the poets of the Great War.
Milton went into hiding just days before his arrest for his anti-Royalist sentiments. On January 27, 1660, all known copies of Milton’s books were incinerated. He spent his fifty-seventh birthday in the Tower of London, where, were it not for the intervention of friends, including Andrew Marvell, he might have been executed. But he was released and went on to complete Paradise Lost. The years following his imprisonment and release were anxious ones. He lived in political ignominy, fearful of arrest, and in the invocation of Paradise Lost, Book 7, described himself as
fallen on evil days,
On evil days though fallen, and evil tongues;
In darkness, and with dangers compassed round
At the age of twenty-three, John Newton was conscripted on board the HMS Harwich to serve in the Royal Navy during the War of the Austrian Succession; having attempted to escape, he was caught, put in irons, and flogged in front of other sailors with a cat-o’-nine-tails. He was then transferred to a slave-trading vessel, transporting its cargo for years. He became responsible, among other things, for putting sailors in irons, raping female slaves, flogging rebellious slaves, and torturing small children, including on one occasion applying thumbscrews to four boys who were afterward imprisoned in neck yokes. On March 10, 1748, he awakened in the middle of the night to find his ship breaking apart in a storm. Newton prayed for deliverance. By the following morning, the ship was heavily damaged, but most of the crew had survived. Though he continued as a slave trader until 1755, Newton began to read the Bible, committed himself to a form of evangelical Calvinism, and repented of his past, turning eventually to the abolitionist cause. In later years, he wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
The cover of our anthology features a painting by William Blake, an image illustrative of the line “Around Saint James’s glow the fires, ever to the city gate,” an image not from Blake’s imagination but from eyewitness experience. He may have needed little encouragement to join the Gordon rioters when they swept toward him on the evening of June 6, 1780, for at twenty-two years old, he was of their generation and shared their disdain for the social and economic inequalities of Georgian London. He followed them to Newgate Prison, where some had been detained, and watched as they demolished it, liberating some three hundred prisoners, including five under sentence of death. Then they torched it, many clambering onto precarious parts of the building, urinating into the flames and screaming obscenities across the rooftops. Blake was a peaceable man who, unlike Wordsworth, would not defend revolutionary violence, but he cannot have been immune to what he saw and most certainly witnessed events the following night, when the district round Holborn was “like a volcano”: the King’s Bench and Fleet prisons burned down, tollhouses on Blackfriars Bridge set on fire, full-scale battle waged on the steps of the Bank of England, and scores of other fires were ignited across London. Small wonder that, when Blake composed “A Song of Liberty” for The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he conceived of revolution in apocalyptic terms—as “the new-born fire” with “fiery limbs” bringing an end to the financial system, the British Empire, and organized religion (which Blake regarded as corrupt). A few months later, Blake was one of several artists touring Medway taken prisoner by a group of soldiers who believed them to be French spies. They were released when their membership in the Royal Academy was confirmed, but it was an indication to Blake of how easily power might be abused. Here is his poem “London.”
I wander through each chartered street
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear.
How the chimney sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning church appals,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls.
But most through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the newborn infant’s tear
And blights with plague the marriage hearse.
William Wordsworth, most often read as a harmless nature poet, was for a time considered a serious security threat by the government. The Home Office was sufficiently concerned to send an agent to spy on him and his sister, Dorothy, in 1797, when they were resident in Somersetshire, where it was believed the French would begin their invasion of Britain. At first, James Walsh, the agent, believed them to be French emigrés. His revised opinion was that they and Coleridge comprised a “nest” of “disaffected Englishmen,” and he finally concluded that the “rascals from Alfoxden,” where Wordsworth lived, were a “set of violent Democrats,” potential leaders of a rebellion. This was less absurd than it sounds. Five years before, by his own admission, Wordsworth was “pretty hot in it” (it being the French Revolution). He was twenty when he crossed the Channel, possibly as the guest of Jacques Pierre Brissot, leader of the Girondist faction (guillotined October 1793). Here is an excerpt from The Prelude, Book 10.
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!—oh, times
In which the meager, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law and statute took at once
The attraction of a country in romance;
When reason seemed the most to assert her rights
When most intent on making of herself
A prime enchanter to assist the work
Which then was going forward in her name.
Not favored spots alone, but the whole earth.
When Francis Scott Key was detained by his hosts on a truce ship, Key was compelled to watch the British rocket attack on the star-shaped Fort McHenry during the battle of Baltimore; it lasted twenty-four hours, in the course of which twenty British ships were sunk by American cannons. At the end of the bombardment, the American flag at the fort emerged unscathed, and Key began composing his poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” the original title of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
I know that poetry begins in a not-knowing rather than a moral impulse. A poet’s consciousness is, in this sense, improvisational and open to transformations, felicitous accidents, and an intuitive response to language-generating meaning and music—that is true whether the spark igniting the poem comes from a word, a phrase, an image, or a moment in experience, present or remembered. This spark is what Osip Mandelstam calls poryv, or impulse, and what Emerson thinks of as what is oldest and best in us, the alien visitor. This not-knowing is a hovering and receptive state of consciousness without intention or conscious knowledge of direction.
I also know that consciousness can be incised by experience, seared by memory, awakened by what is seen and lived and that the poet’s language also passes through this fire and is marked by it. The surrender of conscious control so necessary to the receptive artistic state does not mean that the mark of experience will not be burned into the poem and be made legible there. When we read for this mark, we read for witness, and at times, along with aesthetic pleasure and the frisson of newly made meanings, we are also not perhaps persuaded but certainly transported to regions of experience that might inform our conscience so as to make art in the light of it, as poet Marina Tsvetaeva once proposed.
Havel concluded his speech by praising the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution of the United States as documents of enduring inspiration to the world. In closing, he had this to say: “History has accelerated. I believe that once again, it will be the human spirit that will notice this acceleration, give it a name, and transform those words into deeds.”
This brings me to the present, wherein we are experiencing a dizzying historical acceleration.
We know that technological developments are double-edged, in the sense that they enable and disable certain human capacities. The speed in communicative technology, the speed at which we are bombarded by information and imagery, and at which we are expected to process it, has eroded our ability to sustain the contemplation so necessary to the creative act. We have developed a certain skittishness, flitting through the web link to link, through the labyrinths of social media at twittering speed. We’re grateful that we can look up any fact, translate any word into fifty languages at once. We have entered Indra’s luminous web of interconnection, and we also live in the midst of a tsunami of information, data, and statistics, but does this grant us knowledge and wisdom that require patient assimilation and judgment?
I think of literary writing as a means of retrieving a human knowledge irretrievable by other means. Composing poems and writing stories is a meditative, spiritual act of resistance. It requires a capacity to sustain contemplation, to be attentive to all that is about us, and to hold within ourselves an awareness that we are here, in our living moment, between two unknown realms—before our births and after our deaths. We speak, through art, to the millennia of artists who came before us, and the art we make will send its messages to the human future. Curiosity about our predecessors and care for our descendants is a collective accomplishment. Art is what has been left behind, and art is what we will leave to the world to come. We gaze at the same moon as the cave painters of Chauvet, even though there are now boot prints upon it. The wine-dark seas of Homer are still our seas, even if part of their waters are now dead zones. If we retain our capacity for meditative awareness, the languages of art that allow us to speak through time will not be lost. The slow, solitary engagement with music and word, paint and light, with our bodies in space and time that is the precondition of making art might not only preserve our capacities as artists but also as humans possessed of intuitive intelligence and inner life.
Poets and artists are conversant with centuries of their kind, and their visions may address the most pressing need of the epoch: that of saving the biosphere of Earth. Poetry needs no other justification.