In the wake of rising authoritarianism in the US, and isolationism here in the UK, I have found it hard to sit down and write poetry. Clearly this seems to be a time for action more than words.
Revisiting an essay from 2007, written in the wake of US censorship of Iranian poetry, I began to re-formulate and re-work some thoughts from this piece into an argument with and for myself about why creative acts still matter.
You can read the results in a new short piece on The Huffington Post. I welcome your thoughts in the comments.
“I have defined poetry as a ‘passionate pursuit of the Real.'”
-Czeslaw Milosz, The Witness of Poetry
After finishing The Witness of Poetry, I found myself mourning the loss of a man I never met and mourning, most importantly, a mind and spirit so capable of characterizing the poetics of the past century — and thereby helping us understand a bit more of ourselves. Milosz seems to have defined the major dialectic forces at work in twentieth century poetry: language versus mimesis, classicism versus realism, science versus imagination, alienation versus “the human family” and West versus East. Owing to Poland’s unique, liminal situation in the interplay of so many of these forces throughout Europe, Milosz speaks with a kind of visceral authority about such broad characteristics of poetry in the past century.
He is not without bias in describing these dynamics. Fortunately for me, his biases run along similar veins to my own, so I frequently felt he was expressing many of my own latent thoughts and beliefs in a much more articulate and compelling way. Regarding science supplanting imagination as an organizing principle for our lives, he points out:
… science not only contributes to the perfecting of ever more lethal means of conducting war. It also penetrates the very fabric of our collective life, causing transformations whose range still eludes our comprehension. The pollution of the mind by certain images, those side effects of science, is analogous to the pollution of the natural surroundings by technology derived from the same science.
and much later, in relating to the horrors of the twentieth century — from the holocaust to the atomic bomb — he points out the stakes in such a dynamic are not merely aesthetic, but that, “It is possible that we are witnessing a kind of race between the lifegiving and the destructive activity of civilization’s bacteria, and that an unknown result awaits in the future. No computer will be able to calculate so many pros and cons — thus a poet with his intuition remains one strong, albeit uncertain, source of knowledge.”
“Like priests in a town of agnostics, [poets] still command a certain residual prestige.”
-Dana Gioia, “Can Poetry Matter?”
The main problem I have with Gioia’s classic 1991 indictment of the health of the art, and all its subsequent aftershocks, is that this view of poetry still comes from within the tribe. Gioia blames the cushy life afforded by academia as well as tit-for-tat publishing and reviewing practices as the primary killers of poetry’s public appeal. But his article does not take into account other forces outside the scope of contemporary poetry and, owing to this fault, seems more inflammatory than revolutionary — adding another loud gripe, in fact, to the endless squabbling among poets.
Poets like to pretend that the decline of poetry is their fault, because if that were entirely true, then it would be entirely within their power to revive it as a major cultural force.
Art has always required its benefactor. Were it not for the Catholic church, for example, we would not have painting as we know it today. The church employed countless artists and kept them (and their art) alive. Poetry has never been practical, and the fact that it has now drawn inward to thrive primarily at the university level — like a tree pulling in its sap toward the trunk during a freeze — only leads me to be grateful that there is, in fact, some refuge for the impractical-but-necessary — for art — in our world. Universities are killing poetry? More like providing the last bastion to save it.
“Every word was once a poem”
In this so-called information age, we live among language more than ever before. For example, one of the latest fads drawing hype to itself faster than a black hole sucks light is Twitter: a web-based social networking site predicated on “tweets” — brief text messages uploaded to a web site that others subscribe to, follow and read. Thus, the blogging concept of writing for a perceived audience is accelerated to a dizzying pace.
All good poems, no matter their style, share this: an enforced attention to language, and some degree of innovation upon it.
I tried Twittering for a day, sending tweets when I changed my activity or mood. Between the web-based, software-based and cell-phone-based options, I was never disconnected from a sense that I could and perhaps should send an update in case someone out there might actually really care about the excruciatingly mundane details of my life. This is the fundamental promise of the internet, and social networking in particular: the audience that cares. It has been the impetus, since the beginning, for a mind-boggling number of words, from the early days of IRC and BBS systems to a shiny new rehash of the same fundamental drivers and mechanisms, which is now being called Web 2.0.
No, this is not an April fool’s post. Thanks to the Academy of American Poets, April is National Poetry Month, and apparently has been since 1996. Interestingly enough, according to some sources, April is also:
- Health Awareness Month
- National Blood Donor Month
- National Oral Health Month
Notice a pattern? I do. National months are only declared for causes that socially-minded people think ought to receive more attention. That is to say, they are things we should pay more attention to — like our health, giving blood, recognizing the plight of others — good, noble causes that would simply get swept by the wayside were it not for (and sometimes still in spite of) assigning this cause to one of the twelve calendar months in an attempt to raise awareness.
In marketing there is the taxonomy of medicine, vitamins and candy. Any product is usually most like one of these three. Plumbing services to fix a broken pipe, for example, are medicine — fulfilling an immediate, expressed need. Cable Television is mostly candy — entertainment that looks and tastes good. A gym membership would be like vitamins. And poetry, unfortunately, by virtue of having been trotted out in classrooms on its national month once a year for the past eleven years, has proved itself to also be perceived most like vitamins — good for you, and you know it — but an awful lot harder to sell than medicine or candy.
“Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.”
Stephen Nachmanovitch’s Free Play is one of the best books on the inner game of art I have ever read (Mastery and The War of Art being others). So when I came across a transcript of the lecture he gave to the National Association of Poetry Therapy in 2000 — available on his web site — I was keen to read it.
He relates to the therapeutic power of poetry, through theories of Gregory Bateson, as a kind of anti-solipsism and anti-myopia. That is, “there is a pathology inherent in all conscious thinking, and that pathology comes from taking a small linear segment of a circle of causation and taking it to be the whole thing,” which is, “related to our illusory notion of the self — to our view of taking that which we are able to consciously scan, in our own processes, in our own thoughts, our own feelings, our own memories … to be the whole.” Furthermore, he says activities like poetry “help us to perceive that the self is a provisional, illusory construct that’s useful for certain limited kinds of activity — but it’s not the whole Self.”
He later points out that cathartic or therapeutic poetry does not necessarily make for lasting or meaningful art. I would go further in pointing out that not all contemporary poetry necessarily strives, even unconsciously, for some awareness of the Self. Yet, at the same time, I still think one of the highest potentials of the form is this quality of encompassing. After all, one of the most fundamental properties of poetry is its ability to encompass qualities of perception and “truth” unavailable in the linear thought patterns of prose. Therefore both the reading and writing of poetry is an exercise in plumbing some nonlinear depth (or transcendental height) and is, by definition, this reconnection to a larger circle of consciousness, a less segmented, fragmented truth. And, as I have said before, such truths matter now more than ever.