Tide of Voices: Why Poetry Matters Now
I am delighted to be speaking to you this evening, and, before I begin, I want to add my thanks to Miles and to the board of the seminar which makes this event possible. You know already that this is a stellar annual gathering of writers; you may not be aware that, of such events in our country, this is probably the one which takes the most lavish care of its visitors. So we are extraordinarily well-lodged, we are even offered a massage during our visit to Key West. Thus you will see relaxed and happy writers on stage speaking to you.
The title of my talk this evening is "Tide of Voices: Why Poetry Matters Now," but I'm going to invite those of you who are uncomfortable with sentences that don't go all the way out to the end of the page to substitute 'literature' for that word 'poetry' when you hear it, because I think my remarks will be applicable to all sorts of literary forms. And I want to begin with a quotation from the contemporary American poet Elizabeth Alexander. A little line or two of Elizabeth's provides an epigraph for my talk. This is a poem in which the speaker is a teacher who has grown frustrated with her class. The class believes that poetry is all rainbows and sweetness and love. And she says to them, "'Poetry,' I tell them, 'is the human voice, and we are of interest to one another. Are we not?'"
So this is "Tide of Voices." In the early 1940s, the psychologist Abraham Maslow constructed a hierarchy of basic needs, a famous description of what human beings require. Above all else, he said, we need to be safe. When you're out of danger you can think about food and water, and when you have those things you can think about shelter, and once you have that you can turn to your emotional needs. When you're safe, fed, out of the weather, and loved, he thought, then you can turn your attention to a more complex human need and desire to create.
Now, obviously, there's a certain truth in this scheme. When you have a pressing need to get warm, for instance, or you're driving on the freeway and trying to get out of the path of a terrifying truck, you probably aren't thinking about a poem or a story you want to write. But it also seems clear that there's a certain middle class perspective inherent in Dr. Maslow's scheme. For most of the world, the kind of stable conditions he believed were necessary for human beings to be free to invest their energies in creative work simply do not exist. Not in a reliable way. All over the world food and water and shelter are often in question. On the streets of Key West, food and water and shelter may be in question. Emotional security is obviously an uncertain commodity. And safety? Well, who exactly feels safe at this moment in history? Oh, safe, of course, enough to walk across the street for ice cream or to consider what to eat for dinner here in our good company this evening. But I don't need to tell you that there are many reasons that our momentary ease floats above a large pressing sense of insecurity. A dread for the fate of the world. Nevertheless, here we are, talking about the writer's art. What this suggests is that poetry goes on, no matter what, as long as people are breathing and speaking. Arguably, you may need poetry more when it is impossible to meet other basic needs. I want to read you a remarkable poem by Jack Gilbert that speaks to exactly this subject. It's called "A Brief for the Defense."
[Reads "A Brief for the Defense"]
Remember now, that Gilbert's poem is called "A Brief for the Defense." Who or what is being defended? In the face of human suffering, in the face of the pain in the world and the threats under which we live, how can we take delight, find pleasure in music and poetry? I love when Gilbert says, "We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world." What is being defended there finally is poetry itself. The very human need to sing.
The twentieth century alone is rife with examples of poets finding voice in circumstances that by all rights should have silenced them—the need to speak gathering itself and finding form when it would seem impossible to do so. The Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya scratching her poems on bars of soap in a Gulag shower to help her commit them to memory since she had no paper or pen. The great Turkish modernist Nazim Hikmet serving a twenty-eight year prison sentence, smuggling bits of his epic poem out of jail in the clothing of friends who came to visit him hoping that at least some of its ten thousand lines might survive. The marvelously energetic young American Tim Dlugos wildly scratching out lines in the hospital, waking up after being sidelined by an opportunistic infection, giving form to the moment in which he found himself with a characteristic combination of grace, desperation, and good humor.
"Giving form to the moment in which he found himself"—is that a description of a human need as fundamental as the other ones on Dr. Maslow's list? One of the functions of language is to give voice to subjectivity so that it can be shared, to bring us out of the isolation of silence and onto common ground. The truth is that language mostly fails to do this well. When a friend says, "I feel sick," we get very little information about just what that discomfort feels like: where in the body it is, what its weight or shape or heat or movement feels like. We take it on faith that it's true because we cannot ourselves feel our friend's discomfort. We trust instead that her language points to something real. Here are some lines from a terrific first book by Craig Morgan Teicher who happens to be here in the audience tonight. He's addressing just this issue. He says, "To speak is an incomparable act of faith. What proof do you have that when I say 'mouse,' you do not think of a stop sign?"
The project of poetry, in a way, is to raise language to such a level that it can convey the precise nature of subjective experience. That the listener would envision not just a mouse but this particular one, in all its exact specificity, its perfect details. Such enchanted language could magically dissolve the barrier of skin and bone and separateness between us and render perception so evocatively that we don't just know what it means, we feel what it means.
Now here is Robert Lowell's version of "I feel sick": "I hear my ill spirit sob in each blood cell." What a chilling phrase that is. First, we understand what kind of illness it is, a sickness of the soul, but one that pervades the entire body. And that sickness is not merely present, it sobs. Listen to the sound of that verb. Sob. The long vowel clipped off by the 'b,' ugly, a bit mimetic of the sound of painful crying. Say the line to yourself and you'll hear how much work the lips and tongues have to do to make all those vowels—eleven of them to be exact—in a very quick succession.
Try this. I'll say it and you say it back to me: "I hear my ill spirit sob in each blood cell." [Repeated back] Very good, very good. Ok. Do you know how much work your mouth is doing to get through that line, how much shaping you have to do around those vowels and to make three l's—ill, blood, cell—and two b's—sob and blood—and then that d sound. Do it again. "I hear my ill spirit sob in each blood cell." So the thickness of that language is working very hard to convey something of the character of the experience to which it points. How could a line which includes the words 'sob,' 'blood,' and 'cell' be anything but miserable? Now here is Adrienne Rich on the pain of an arthritic wrist. "In the night hours when the wrecked cartilage sifts round the mystical jointure of the bones, when the insect of detritus crawls from shoulder to elbow to wrist bone." Ow. Listen to the verbs there: 'sifts,' 'crawls.' They're both monosyllables with a kind of awful physicality to them. What could be grimmer than that insect of detritus? Pain here has made the body other, or at least a part of the body. That wrist is no longer even comfortingly mammalian. As cartilage sifts by itself during the night, that horrible insect travels inside the body.
And here is Sylvia Plath describing what it feels like to have a fever: "I am a lantern— // My head a moon / of Japanese paper. My gold beaten skin / infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive." Now the process of becoming other, alienated from oneself has gone even further. Plath's speaker feels her head has become an object, a lantern, and then that object itself is recast as a metaphor—the lantern becomes a moon, its paper skin as thin and malleable as John Donne's famous "gold to aery thinness beat." The metaphor making faculty of the mind seems itself inflamed. One figure for the self tumbling out after another. Clearly, we have traveled a very long way from the blunt vagueness of "I feel sick."
The difference between those voices. And they sound markedly individual, do they not? Completely different ways of describing subjective experience. The difference between them, I want to argue, is a matter of the texture of subjectivity. That is what is meant by a writer's voice: how the texture of subjective perception finds its way into speech.
Of what is that voice composed? Voices begin in the body, so that's the place to start. A voice is a physical production, the product of breath, larynx, voice box, mouth, tongue and nasal passages, each of which—you can hear how my voice box is not functioning very well this evening—each of which represents both points at which sound originates and also an opportunity for the individuation of that sound. The subtle vibratory tones produced by the body add the pacing and rhythm of breath, the particular qualities of lung capacity, the duration of a comfortable exhalation.
It's been speculated that Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are in part such different poets because of the scale of their breathing. Think about those big embracing lines of Whitman, which cause you to swell up your chest with breath before you say them as opposed to Emily Dickinson's quick, breathy hesitations. Now you add to that, to the body itself, the myriad inflections produced by culture, differences not only of language but of region.
What is spoken in New York City and what is spoken in Houston—should we actually call them both English? I go back and forth between these two cities each year, and I've done this for a decade, but I find I still have to re-enter each one vocally. If I speak in Houston the way I do in Manhattan, I am regarded as rude and incomprehensible since I am moving at much too fast a clip and ignoring the social niceties. If I speak in New York as I do in Texas, walking up to the deli counter and saying something like, "How are you today? It's certainly getting warmer. I think I'll have some coffee, if you don't mind, and a little milk with that," I will be seen as insane.
This prevailing social etiquette—which actually has nothing of rudeness about it but simply exists in order to get things done efficiently for a large number of people—dictates that I should walk to the counter in New York and say, "Coffee with milk." Needless to say people in Houston do not know what "cah-ffee [accented]" is and the Texan prolongation of syllables, "cof-fee [accented]," is not sold in the north. The cultural influence.
It is necessary to add something like familial style, the way certain elocutions and speech patterns are structural elements of a family's language and become used by all. There are certain phrases of my mother's, "Lord help us and save us" for instance, that I have never quite gotten out of my head, and there's a certain catch in my father's voice, "ooh kinda like this," that's a rising sound made in the back of the throat, "well I don't know," that has never quite left me either.
To bodily difference, cultural difference, and familial style, we still have to add something else in order to account for the wild individuality of human voices. There seems to be something like a style to individual thought processes, a mode in which we narrate experience to ourselves and conduct our ongoing internal monologues. This, I would argue, is partly composed of language in the usual sense and partly of something subtler and not entirely made of words: internal process, consciousness taking in the world, scrutinizing itself, the mind in the act of being awake.
I once worked with a student who was incarcerated at Sing Sing in Ossining, New York, and he said the most difficult thing for him was that it was never quiet, because the other men who were in the prison needed, all the time, to keep talking—"I'm reading now, I'm sitting in my room, I'm thinking about this question"—all the time making a kind of externalization of that inner voice in order to be real to themselves. And this is what we do all the time on some subtler level.
That inner voice is certainly related to the voice we use when we talk to the world and reflect in it, but they aren't the same thing. I doubt any of us sounds to other people the way we sound in our own heads. Poetic voice is an attempt to make a version of that illusive inferiority, to bring it into the light of the page. Or maybe, more accurately, to fuse the inner voice with the outer one in order to make a speaking presence on the page that feels like ourselves. "Feels like ourselves." It sounds simple, but it's anything but. I couldn't begin to explain how it's done, save to suggest that a very long work of practice and refinement goes into what would seem natural: sounding like yourself, your unmistakable self. Is it still possible to talk about an unmistakable self? Here's a poem by Mark Halliday that takes this question under advisement. This is called "Seventh Avenue"
[Reads "Seventh Avenue"]
Great poem. Amazing poem. Romantic notions of the self were formed in resistance to the new industrialism. If people could be put in front of looms for fourteen hours a day, their only use as producers of goods to be sold, their lives entirely regulated by a factory schedule, well, doesn't it make sense that it would be necessary to proclaim the brilliant depths a soul could plumb? Wasn't there something in us to be affirmed besides our use as an economic unit? But Wordsworth and Keats and company could not have foreseen the scale upon which an assault on individuality would be mounted by an increasingly global capitalism. Beauty, soul, art itself—those luxury goods each become one more item on the economic scale. Mass tourists in the Louvre hold their cameras high over their heads and snap images of a Mona Lisa they can't see with their eyes because there are too many people in the way. The driver who sets out from Key West to Seattle enters into less a shifting world of regional difference than an unfolding interstate highway system of remarkable regularity where even the familiar names morph together into combined Dunkin Donuts, Taco Bells, Burger Kings, Exxon Mobile stations. And this isn't just on a cross-country drive. Increasingly, a mall on any continent is alarmingly alike. And the stylish T-shirts made by hand in Brooklyn last year pour forth in streamlined versions from the factories of Mexico and China and Singapore into the sale bins of the planet.
And at the same time, it is no exaggeration to say that poetry is thriving. Never in my lifetime have there been so many readings, festivals, seminars, creative writing classes, workshops, gatherings. I've never known young people to be as keenly interested, as open to poetry. I think this is because art is never made by committees, resists the focus group, cannot be market-tested, cannot, if the truth be told, be sold. Sure, you can buy a book of poems, but no one is going to get rich from this undertaking, and no one is going to invest in poetry futures or trade poetic commodities. It is the stubborn, essentially worthless, production of one person, one sensibility, giving form to how it feels to be oneself.
That is paradoxically precious and absolutely worthless. A poem has no value, cannot be possessed. You can memorize it, give it away, sing it, email it to everybody you know. Is it yours or anyone's? It can only have been made by the one who made it, but you make it your own as you take it in. You can imitate the poems of others, but that isn't really the point. The goal is to make the poems that no one could have made but you, whatever those turn out to be. That is why poetry is at this moment necessary, irreplaceable, of inherent value. It is not threatened, not in the sense that people are about to stop writing it or reading it or thinking about it. It's threatened in a larger sense, in that its root, which is the particular idiosyncratic stuff of selfhood, may itself wither or become as rare as a Florida Panther. To what extent can the forces that run the world homogenize us? We don't know the answer to that yet.
But I've been talking about individual voices as if what we really need to do is to be able to speak—to speak on our own terms. The other side is that we need to be able to listen.
Back when I was in high school, the country was fighting another war in a distant country. My community was one of the thousands that participated in a war moratorium; a day of marching and protest to call for an end to a conflict many saw as unnecessary and unjust. I worked as an organizer in my school, encouraging other kids to march on that Wednesday. We'd been forbidden to skip school by the principal but plenty of us went anyway in the interest of following Mark Twain's advice to never let school interfere with your education. A number of the students who traveled down to the University campus to march were members of my Advanced Placement English class, a course where we read novels by Fitzgerald and Vonnegut, among others. When we came back to school the day after the march, we were informed of our punishment. We'd been demoted to what was crudely known as bonehead English, where we'd spend our time writing paragraphs and practicing the rules of grammar. At the time, the punishment, which didn't last very long, probably because the school knew how much trouble the bored bunch of us might be, seemed arbitrary. But looking back, I don't think so.
People who read imagine the lives of others. Literature makes other people more real to us. It invites us to notice differences but, even more so, points toward commonality. Novels and poems and plays can't help but suggest that the subjectivity of others is real. That they have the same claims on dignity and compassion and a good life we ourselves do. If you speak up, our punishment said, we won't let you read. As if our school administrators understood that it was reading that had led to our troublemaking in the first place. Perhaps it really was, in that indirect fashion in which art does its work—The Great Gatsby that had led us to understand that the people of Vietnam had hopes and aspirations like our own. Maybe it was Slaughterhouse Five that led us to see that we could remain silent and thus choose absurdity, or we could open our mouths and risk having our books taken away.
I don't think I need to tell you that it has never been more important in human history that we learn to listen to the voices of others, that we listen intently and carefully. I call this talk, "Tide of Voices," because I was thinking of Hart Crane's beautiful description of a tide of sound entering his room on a New York City morning—"current of speech,"—which is also the sound of the mingled voices of this continent's history pouring into the present. Hart Crane loved Key West, by the way, although he was never actually here. He wrote a beautiful group of poems called "Key West, an Island Sheaf" built out of his imagining of the place.
But I was also thinking about the tide of voices lapping at this country's shores in our moment. The sounds of all the rest of the world speaking. To get a sense of how little we listen to that tide, all it takes is a quick look at the statistics on the publication of translated books, which make up the tiniest fraction of what's published in the states. Lots of American books find their way into other languages, but few indeed come the other way. The message is plainly that while the world beyond our boundaries speaks, giving us the opportunity to see who's out there and how they see things and how they feel, we have not been paying attention. That's the painful, inescapable lesson of 9/11. When suddenly so many Americans found themselves asking, "Why?" "Where'd that hatred of American power come from?" There's no answering this question if we are not listening.
I can't think of a better place to turn, thinking about this need, than to the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali. Here is his poem "Revenge" as translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin. Taha Muhammad Ali is in his early seventies now. He lives in Bethlehem where his family runs a souvenir shop.
It is revenge, of course, that brought the great corporate monuments of New York City down into the dust. And revenge that fueled the seemingly endless, capricious war-making that has followed. There is no end to revenge in sight but here on the page, within one life, a life which presents some excellent reasons the speaker might want revenge, might be moved to strike back. The chain of reprisal is ended for the duration of the poem and in whatever ways the text goes on reverberating in the minds of its readers and listeners.
Poetry's work is to make people real to us through the agency of the voice. "'Poetry is the human voice,' I tell them, 'and we are of interest to one another. Are we not?'" When people are real to you, you can't fly a plane into the office building where they work, you can't bulldoze the refugee camp where they live, you can't cluster-bomb their homes and streets. We only do those things when we understand people as part of a category: infidel, insurgent, enemy. Meanwhile, poetry does what it does, inscribing individual presence, making a system of words and sounds to mark the place where one human being stood, bound in time, reporting on what it is to be one. In the age of the collective of mass culture and mass market, there's hope in that.
Tina Chang, the young poet who is one of the new voices here this weekend, is the co-editor of an anthology being published by W. W. Norton. The book is called Language for a New Century: Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond. The title of this book represents my deepest hope for our art. May poetry indeed be a language for a new century. A way to place value on the dignity, specificity, and beauty of individual lives. A way to resist the streamlining diminishment of categories and generalizations. A way to speak, a way to be heard.