Poetry Makes Nothing Happen

June 15, 2016

51hnlWJ4w2L._UY250_Auden said that, not as a criticism of poetry but as a defense of it against ideological pressures in the 1930s from both the right and the left that poets take sides.  When it comes to writing my own poetry, I am with Auden, and with John F. Kennedy, who declared that “Society must make the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him [or her].”  And I agree with Yehudi Amichai that “all poetry is political. This is because real poems deal with a human response to reality and politics is part of reality, history in the making. Even if a poet writes about sitting in a glass house drinking tea, it reflects politics.”  Following a number of recent tragedies people have posted Adam Zagajewski’s poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” just as the New Yorker did after the nine-eleven attacks.  He didn’t write the poem to address any specific event, but it speaks to our hearts and minds about many of them.  I’m interested to hear your thoughts about how poetry speaks to tragedy, and whether it’s most moving to you if it does it deliberately or indirectly.

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  • Reply Kevin Prufer June 16, 2016 at 7:50 pm

    Yes, I agree with this, too. Poetry’s ability to express polyvalent thinking is, in itself, valuable politically. That is, poetry thinks complexly about complex political problems, right? It thinks in multiple directions, feels in multiple ways at once — musically, rhetorically, architecturally. In this, poetry — political poetry! — can be a valuable counterweight to the idiocy of cable news, talking heads who reduce intricate problems to simple solutions (build a wall!) and slogans (ditto). It allows thinking to be complex and encourages political discovery over political dogma. Them’s my thoughts. I like your blog!

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet June 16, 2016 at 8:42 pm

    Polyvalent: yes, exactly. Exactly what’s missing from most public discussion now. And I think of WC Williams:

    It is difficult
    to get the news from poems
    yet men die miserably every day
    for lack
    of what is found there.

  • Reply eileen cleary June 17, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    I think that when a poet alchemizes experience or shared tragedy beyond observation, when she sees something in it new or meaningful, when she somehow braids that with music, this allows the experience to be seen anew, or perceived differently, by the reader. Certainly within herself. The idea of seeing and hearing things through in “poem light”, as Jane Hirshfield would say. is made possible by making a poem. The poem becomes a room to ponder the experience in, and a door to travel through it. The witness poem is more than the art made from tragedy, it is a witness, a magnifying glass, a balm. I believe a lot of poetry is political poetry, and all of poetry is witness poetry-witnessing ourselves, the world and others.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet June 17, 2016 at 1:45 pm

      Thanks for this Eileen. I agree with you that “braiding with music” transforms whatever experience passes through it, and I think the Jane Hirshfield phrase “poem light” is apt, and the notion of the poem becoming a room. These elements of time and space are what make the experience poetry rather than journalism. I think what you describe is a rich middle ground between the poles I proposed.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet June 17, 2016 at 4:57 pm

    Here’s another piece of this topic for me. For years a phrase was lodged in the back of my mind like a shard of glass: “It is [something negative] to write poetry after the Holocaust.” Silly, trivial, useless, arrogant–I couldn’t quite remember the condemnation. Whatever it was, it was a challenge to what I do and what I am, but I only looked it up recently: The critic Adorno said, “It is barbaric to write poetry after the Holocaust.” Barbaric. He revised that statement many times over the years, and the version that makes most sense to me is a question: “How do we live our lives after the Holocaust?” A complicated question, and one I’ve thought about a lot. But at some point I realized that even though the Holocaust is the largest mass murder in human history, we live every day of our lives in the shadow of ongoing tragedies, from personal to national. My response to Adorno’s first statement is an emendation: “It is necessary to write poetry after the Holocaust.” How do we live our lives? Alertly, reflectively, with determination to get to the truth of our feelings and thoughts. The way I know how to do that is by writing poems, but obviously there are dozens of ways to work toward those truths, whether it’s the arts, the sciences, mathematics, the humanities. The poets who matter to me are the ones whose poems on any subject seem to be a matter of life and death, at least metaphorically. Political in the largest sense. A few who come to mind: Wislawa Szymborska, Emily Dickinson, Tomas Transtromer, Robert Frost, Heather McHugh, Mark Strand, Frank O’Hara, Pablo Neruda, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Rainier Maria Rilke, C. D. Wright.

  • Reply Anne L. June 21, 2016 at 12:29 pm

    here is an older essay (from 2006) by Mark Doty, a consideration of Szymborska as well as of the uses of poetry in times of suffering: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/features/articles/detail/68672

    Doty writes, “What are the uses of elegy? To confirm that loss is real, that individual disappearance matters; that the rupture in the known world is pointed to, held up for attention, shared. Death is, simply, not to be understood. But to assume that therefore no accommodations with it may be made is to give up on language’s project of discovering and articulating meaning in experience. Through negotiation with the fact of mortality arises our education as human beings.”

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet June 22, 2016 at 9:50 am

      This is beautiful and apt. This seems to me to affirm that all poetry is political, and to say why. Thanks.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet June 22, 2016 at 9:55 am

    A friend of mine sent this reply via email: “Sharon, I read your mini-essay with real interest. It’s a subject I am thinking a lot about. I have one student who believes that all poetry must be political all the time, which I reject. I believe that writing a lyric poem is doing what political poems are making it possible for us to do, or yearning towards. It’s all important.” This makes me think of Seamus Heaney’s long poem “Station Island,” where he wrestles with exactly this question. He had been attacked for not writing more explicitly political poetry during the Irish “troubles,” and went on a visionary pilgrimage to wrestle with what he should do. Along the way he is confronted by ghosts of victims of the violence, who accuse him of not doing his part. But in the end the revelation he receives urges him to continue with what he’s doing: “Write for the joy of it, cultivate a work lust….”

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet June 25, 2016 at 9:25 am

    So I was talking with a poet friend the other night, and someone mentioned the movie Il Postino, a fictional story about the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in exile on an island off the coast of Italy. Neruda befriends the local postman, who is gradually drawn to poetry himself, and begins to write it to win over the woman he loves. It works, they marry, he keeps writing. After Neruda has returned to Chile, the postman-poet is about to read a poem for Neruda at a large Communist gathering when he and others are shot and killed by police. My friend said: “Poetry is dangerous. It can get you killed.” This is the opposite of “Poetry makes nothing happen,” isn’t it? Where do you stand on this?

  • Reply David Hurst June 26, 2016 at 9:33 pm

    I have been thinking and rethinking a response here for almost two weeks. Every time I come close, my words fail me. It is not just that poetry is political, I cannot see it otherwise, but it is more than that too. Words are political. Our every utterance speaks volumes of experiences and culture and class and race and gender… A mode of expression that values distilling emotion and experience into crafted elegance (or crafted inelegance as the case may be) cannot but be political. Immediately, I think of Federico Garcia Lorca whose words in City That Does Not Sleep exhort us to action: “If someone does close his eyes,/a whip, boys, a whip!/Let there be a landscape of open eyes/and bitter wounds on fire.” It is not the poetry that must act, the poetry reports, compels, inspires, enrages. Poetry is the conduit of action.

    And there is Neruda, and beyond poetry, Garcia Marquez, and Puig (whose Kiss of the Spider Woman left me breathless twice–once in print and again on the screen). And beyond these writers, countless I could name–I just think of these first because they have had such a powerful effect on me. When I read a poem or a story and the hairs raise on my neck or the tears rise unbidden, I think the conduit has worked, I received the message loud and clear–perhaps not the exact same message the writer intended, but I can feel the passion and the push. Words. They make nothing happen, but as we consume them, they make everything happen. Lorca again: “Life is not a dream. Careful! Careful! Careful!”

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet June 27, 2016 at 8:49 am

      Dave,this was worth the time you took. “Poetry is the conduit of action”–yes. You described being moved in every sense of the word–emotionally, physically, moved to think and feel and act. It seems to change us at an almost cellular level. I agree: they make everything happen. And that Lorca quote takes my breath away, and echoes what my friend said about Neruda: poetry is dangerous. It can get you killed. It can also electrify, awaken, stun. Thanks for this.

  • Reply Megan Bohigian June 26, 2016 at 10:08 pm

    The notion that all poetry is political is akin to the idea that all writing is in some way persuasive–if it is written for a reader to read it. I have always loved the subversive ways poetry works on readers on many levels–mind, heart, logic, music, the reverberations of the right word.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet June 27, 2016 at 9:02 am

      I too think of poetry as inherently subversive, that it questions everything, starting with the ground we think we stand on. Reverberations–that’s definitely the right word. I’m thinking about the word “reader,” which seems a little more complicated to me, and also the word “persuasive.” I do think that any serious poet wants to make his or her vision as clear as possible–including a poet like Ashbery, who says just that about his famously difficult work. I think they are trying to translate their private visions into some kind of public language as well as they can–not to persuade, necessarily, but simply to show others: this is how I see the world. And persuading summons up rhetoric and logic and reason for me, and I think poetry compels most powerfully through its music, through emotions, through the unconscious.

  • Reply Clarissa Adkins June 26, 2016 at 11:09 pm

    I see in all these posts the overall idea that poetry (and art) help us reclaim what tragedy and disaster take away from us. And, not as venue for personal accounts, but as a turnkey for the argument of reclamation . . . just a couple nights ago, my mother-in-law and eight-year-old son were evacuated from her house in Greenbrier County, WV by a raft run by volunteer fire fighters. I’m tucked up away in Cambridge, MA for a week of writing and learning, while the people I love are experiencing one of the most traumatic events of their lives. I felt ashamed the next morning, because after I confirmed that they were safe and sheltered and that going to them was impossible, I imagined trying to write about their night. Even now, they’re still there, waiting for smartest short- and long-term arrangements to be made. Critics, such as aforementioned Adorno, would encourage me to ask, “Why write about it when words won’t absorb, erase, or prevent their experience?” or “Isn’t it shallow to turn disasters into poetry?” Yet, I think this is how it happens–whether it’s the same day, or looking back, we are always drawn to take from tragedy what tragedy takes from us–what Zagajewski describes as, “the gentle light that strays and vanishes / and returns.”

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet June 27, 2016 at 8:44 am

      Clarissa, this is interesting and moving. I like that first point, about poetry as reclamation, and then your shift to your family’s current experience. I think, in terms of the Adorno quote, it’s important to distinguish between natural disasters and those caused by humans–war, the Holocaust, other genocides, hate crimes, all the horrible cruelties. These raise more complicated issues of the human capacity for what some would call evil. Fires, floods, and earthquakes are devastating, but not deliberate. So the question is partly: how do we live with being part of a species that has both the capacity to make great art of all kinds, but also the capacity–and apparently the inclination–to cause great destruction?

  • Reply Kathleen Flenniken July 2, 2016 at 2:09 pm

    Sharon, going back to your original question– is poetry most moving when it responds to tragedy deliberately or indirectly–I have to admit that I am dubious of poems that crop up immediately after a tragedy (and writing as I am on July 2, 2016, opportunities for such poetry are seemingly countless). Yes, humanity IS polyvalent (Kevin Prufer’s word) and achieving that mixing and mulling in a poem is difficult, and may I suggest, takes some time? So I turn to existing poems that speak to our turmoil in indirect ways, that feel prescient because they speak so clearly of the human condition. Not that there won’t be brilliant poems written about what we’re going through now–but they won’t be hurried.

    I’m enjoying this conversation.

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