Some notes on poetry and dissent — remarks I made on a PEN New England panel with Greg Delanty and Linda McCarriston at The Massachusetts Poetry Festival:

A poet always works with and strains against language. That may seem like a truism, and you may ask “What’s political about that?” Well, for starters, the question of what to accept about the way the world is represented in words, and what to reject.

As a child, the words come from the world that was there before you arrived, and you presume, because you must, that there is some correlation between the words and the things and actions and qualities for which they stand. This is the original suspension of disbelief required to understand the world with words. And then you go about choosing among the words offered and toughening your spirit on the successive disappointments that you suffer as you learn, again and again, that the words are inadequate, that you must find new ones, or combine them in a new way, that you must try again, all the while knowing you will fail.

Let me read you a favorite poem of mine, by the great polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, as a way of describing the act, the ethical and political act, of writing poetry:

A Knocker

by Zbigniew Herbert
translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott

There are those who grow
gardens in their heads
paths lead from their hair
to sunny and white cities

it’s easy for them to write
they close their eyes
immediately schools of images
stream down from their foreheads

my imagination
is a piece of board
my sole instrument
is a wooden stick

I strike the board
it answers me
yes—yes
no—no

for others the green bell of a tree
the blue bell of water
I have a knocker
from unprotected gardens

I thump on the board
and it prompts me
with the moralist’s dry poem
yes—yes
no—no

Maybe in another time, a time when the world had not been poisoned by a century of genocides and mechanized murder, and before the continuing threat of ecocide, a poet could trust his or her culture’s assumptions about what it means to be good, or powerful, or heroic, or simply human. We do not live in a time like that. And so, we are “moralists” or ought to be as Herbert unapologetically suggests he is. It is not the finger-wagging moralism of the self-righteous Herbert’s talking about here; it is instead the weighing of words, and a rigorous attention to how these same words have been used before. Because the discourses of the past have brought us to a sorry spiritual state, we can take nothing for granted, nor can we be silent.

Here’s a recent poem of my own — not great, way too simple, but at least short — that asks a similar question about the poet’s relation to the received world:

PERPLEXITY

In my sixth decade
I have not been able to decide
if we have made a mess of everything

because we have turned away
from what the old stories, poems, rituals
sought to preserve by teaching us

or if we’ve learned those lessons all too well.

Though I’ve railed against Caesar
and raged against the gods,

I am still unable to decide.

So, if, as writers, we do not fear the misrepresentation of the world, if we do not guard against it, work against it when hunched over the page, then what are we doing? Are we merely looking for approval? For money? For a fellowship? A teaching job?

How do we address racism, or racialized oppression, that has deeply injured our ability to see one another clearly in America? It seems to me that poets are of little value who cannot see clearly through the fog of stereotypes, untruths, and alienating narratives that profit a few at the expense of the rest of us. Why should we continue, as writers, to acquiesce in our own infantilization, as if literature were a playground where what happens has no consequence in the world?

Who sets out the terms by which we try to understand our lives and what strictures and taboos stand in the way of our finding meanings that feel authentic to us?
What are the premises, encoded in our culture, that justify the continuing privilege and power of those who frame life’s questions in terms that ensure that the orthodox will prevail?

Inga Clendinnen, writing about our responses to the holocaust, calls our moral paralysis “the Gorgon effect,” a sickening of the imagination and draining of the will that occurs in the face of horror. It seems to me that this enervation has found its creed in postmodernism’s special brand of aestheticism, especially in the latter-day cult that elevates detachment to a primary literary virtue. Chief among its tenets is the belief that to pass judgments, to argue passionately, to take a stand of any kind is unsophisticated. To be a sophisticate is to be cool and detached, not heated and engaged. The trouble is that such a view precludes both blessings and curses. It is, simply, an attitude, a certain tone, and by now many readers have been miseducated to believe that when they hear this tone they are in the presence of art. Worse, young writers, to be considered serious, often feel they must adopt this pose.

There is, of course, a historical dimension to all this, and those of us born just after the Second World War are especially attuned to it, I think. While after those global atrocities many writers fled politics to create “literature” as a world apart, just as dentists, glad to have survived, would go back to being dentists and farmers to being farmers, many of us who were born in the aftermath of their decision, who came of age during the cold war, have grown to see our situation as writers somewhat differently. Weaned on “duck and cover” drills, newsreels of the holocaust, and the certainty of a final flash in the sky, we know what a thin crust we walk on still.


Sixty years ago, at the end of World War II, Albert Camus wrote, “In the face of so much suffering, if art insists on being a luxury, it will also be a lie.” Is this any less true today? The world needs writers, not high-brow entertainers, and responding to its political and ethical questions is not optional. While we will mostly fail, writing the necessary texts, the ones we need to survive, is the goal. Why aim any lower?

Here’s how the postwar critic George Steiner put it “. . . any thesis that would, either theoretically or practically, put literature and the arts beyond good and evil is spurious. The archaic torso in Rilke’s famous poem says to us “change your life”. So do any poem, novel, play, painting, musical composition, worth meeting.”


There is language that sheds light, and language that hides reality in fog. Orwell had it right about language. It’s always first of all about language. That’s what it means to “come to terms” with something. Some people use euphemisms to make the intolerable tolerable, others to sow confusion and rationalize their actions.

And yet, without beauty — in the case of poetry the satisfying and pleasurable play of language, the bodily, erotic tongue caressing the thrilled ear, the soul remains asleep while the intellect goes on chewing its flavorless daily bread. I’m reminded of Yeats’ comment that some poets have pulpits but no altars and others have altars but no pulpit, his version of Aristotle’s charge to the poet to “delight and instruct.” The temptation is to try to oppose the pulpit-less deco-poets by leaning way out over the pulpit with a wagging finger in the air. But the real alternative is to have the full sanctuary, to enact the poem there under that dome powerfully, the candles and incense opening the heart to words that challenge us to engage the moment we live in.

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