CAN POETRY SAVE AMERICA?
Czelaw Milosz, the twentieth century Polish poet and Nobel laureate who became a U.S. citizen in 1970, published a poem titled “Dedication” in 1946 in which he wrote, “What is poetry which does not save Nations or people?/ A Contrivance with official lies.” In acknowledging poetry as an art with the power to save nations, Milosz contradicts the claim that fellow poet W. H. Auden, a dual citizen of both the United States and England and cultural spokesman of his age, made in his 1938 elegy for W.B. Yeats, namely, that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Poets are famous for contradicting themselves, but their contradictions often contain paradoxes that betray the rich complexities of human experience, a metaphysical fact that inspired Walt Whitman to proclaim that he “contained multitudes.” The best poets in every nation divine the double nature of truth in memorable language, capturing the alloyed relations between joy and sorrow, victory and defeat, power and helplessness. I think Milosz and Auden would, given the legacy of poetry’s political efficacy and witness throughout history, most likely agree more than disagree about poetry’s double nature as a redemptive and elegiac literary force.
History supports both Milosz and Auden’s claims, for it’s true that poetry has failed to prevent wars and atrocities, but it’s also true that poetry has served as a vital witness to oppression in its truth-telling in both fictive and literal ways. In the political darkness of the 1930’s no poetry halted Hitler’s racist war machine, prompting the eminent literary critic George Steiner to observe that the holocaust didn’t take place in the Gobi Desert. Even if one acknowledges Milosz’s belief in poetry’s inherent power to save nations, such a claim seems preposterous as a political claim. So, why do poets and lovers of poetry continue to quote Milosz’s famous line about poetry’s nation-saving ability? What exactly are poetry’s nation-saving powers? Milosz fails to mention any of them specifically in his poem “Dedication.”
Poetry is a transformational language with the capacity to issue passports to its readers for entering transcendent realms of awareness where the mind broadens and affections deepen; where strange associations make striking new sense, where unlike things coalesce in figurative magic; where miniscule details turn into immense particulars; where “language means more and sounds better” (Charles Wright), where language finds form and verbal music, where language ends and silence begins, where the sayable defers to the unsayable. It’s no coincidence that the language in two of the most definitive American documents—The Declaration of Independence and “The Gettysburg Address”—flows with a verbal economy that expresses truths Thomas Jefferson called “self-evident.” These two prose poems fly under the radar of poetry as manifesto and speech-writing respectively, but it shouldn’t be that difficult or strange for Americans to read similarly essential language as complements to these two documents. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem,” Wallace Stevens’ “The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” Galway Kinnell’s “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World”, Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue,” Nazim Hikmet’s “On Living,” Miklos Radnoti’s “Letter to My Wife,” Anonymous’ Gilgamesh, Adrienne Rich’s Atlas of A Difficult World, Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” Philip Levine’s “The Mercy,” Carolyn Forche’s “The Boatman”, Vijay Seshadri’s “Trailing Clouds of Glory”, David Tomas Martinez’s “The Only Mexican,” Natasha Trethewey’s “The Age of Reason”, Wislawa Szymborska, “Hunger Camp at Jasko,” and Mahmoud Darwish’s “In Jerusalem” merely begin a list of poems that could serve as primers for a much longer list of potentially nation-saving verses.
The first thing democracy requires is also the first thing poetry requires, namely, imagination. Without it, it is impossible to envision a State where the genius of its people thrives in both personal and political freedom. Like democracy, poetry is an ongoing experiment that tests its readers ability to “get the meanings of poems” which convey “the main things” (Walt Whitman) in every new age. One of the main things, if not the main thing, that gets lost in demagoguery is a citizen’s recognition of the other as one’s self. “The most sublime act is to set another before you,” wrote William Blake in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” The poet finds a way via a transpersonal speaker to cross over from self to neighbor, self to stranger. “But I felt: you are an I, you are an Elizabeth,/ you are one of them./ Why should you be one, too?” Elizabeth Bishop wrote in the voice of her six year old self in her poem “In the Waiting Room.” And so are we all “one of them, too,” but only if we exercise our imagination in acts that are both artistic and social, intellectual and compassionate, discerning and fearless. Such spiritual transport is human and thereby nation-saving business.
Poetry as well as fiction serve as literary vehicles for transporting their readers “across” the transom of self to other where one discovers that she is “one [of them], too.” The poet Mary Szybist captured this transformative quality of “the other” that is necessary for what John Keats called “soul-making” in her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards ceremony in 2013:
Sometimes, when I find myself in a dark place, I lose all taste for poetry. If it cannot do what I want it to do, if it cannot restore those I have lost, then why bother with it at all? There’s plenty that poetry cannot do, but the miracle of course, is how much it can do, how much it does do. So often I think I know myself, only to discover in a poem a difference, an otherness that resonates, where I find myself, as Wallace Stevens once put it, more truly and more strange. It is what some describe as soul-making. I count myself among them. I think often of the words of Paul Connolly who said, “I believe it is not arguing well, but speaking differently that changes a culture.” Poetry is the place where speaking differently is the most prevalent. Speaking differently is what I aspire to . . . .”
Inherent in the transpersonal act of “speaking differently” as a poet lies the same intellectual challenge of imagining the lives and work of others, which is the social calculus of democracy. Walt Whitman celebrates this selfless act as his first order of democratic business as a poet, challenging his fellow Americans to get the meanings of others in his poetry. He views this poetic challenge as necessary intellectual exercise in the second canto of his sublime manifesto, “Song of Myself” where he poses these questions to his reader:
Have you practiced so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
In questioning his fellow citizens about their capacity to possess the intellectual readiness for reading poetry, he invites them to “practice” learning to read, rather than merely exhorting them to do so. He knew that the only way for a person to establish a proud sense of intellectual and emotional ownership of the corrective truth that poetry conveys is for them “to get” poetry’s meaning on their own, to possess it proudly as both an intellectual and affective gift.
As a disseminator of poetic meanings in the landscape of American life, Whitman started simply with “songs” that celebrated the sundry voices of his fellow citizens:
The varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deck-hand singing on the steamboat deck …
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else …
This music of immense particulars annealed what Whitman believed was an indefatigable human metal that comprised the undergirding of the nation’s democratic principles. The corporate genius of America’s body politic renewed itself, he maintained, with non-legislative principles that were inherently sublime if fragile, prompting him to draft his own secular beatitudes:
Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men—go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families—re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body.
The poetic nation-saving curative that Milosz testifies to originates from a creative process that militates against demagoguery, an act for which myriad poets have died and suffered. Carolyn Forché’s exhaustive anthology Against Forgetting, Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness is full of such poets whose poems shame chicanery, elegize martyrs, witness to injustice, speak truth to power, make new.
But poets don’t write with the self-conscious intent to save nations. They write to write, usually after being “hurt into poetry,” as Auden said Yeats was by “mad Ireland.” The best muse is always less political than poetical, but sometimes both. So even the most experimental poetry, or perhaps I should say especially experimental poetry, possesses the verbal magic of waking up a nation, of turning locked heads away from conventions that stultify an entire populous, as Whitman and Dickinson did, as William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg did, as James Wright, Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath did. Like Esteban the handsome dead giant in Gabriel Marquez’s parable, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” beauty possesses the power to change people, and in that act of changing, save them as well. Like poetry itself in Marquez’s story, the townspeople don’t recognize Esteban at first as beautiful; in fact, they call him a “big boob” since they imagine him breaking chairs and hitting his head on door beams. But soon they come to appreciate his good looks and fall in love with him. Marquez captures the magic of poetry in the ironic but passive effect Estaban has on the townspeople’s imagination. He describes it this way in a paragraph that could be a prose poem at the end of the story following Esteban’s funeral:
They knew everything would be different from then on, that their houses would have wider doors, higher ceilings, and stronger floors so that Esteban’s memory could go everywhere without bumping into beams and so that no one in the future would dare whisper the big boob finally died, too bad, the handsome fool has finally died, because they were going to paint their house fronts gay colors to make Esteban’s memory eternal and they were going to break their backs digging for springs among the stones and planting flowers on the cliffs so that in future years at dawn the passengers on great liners would awaken, suffocated by the smell of gardens on the high seas, and the captain would have to come down from the bridge in his dress uniform, with his astrolabe, his pole star, and his row of war medals and, pointing to the promontory of roses on the horizon, he would say in fourteen languages, look there, where the wind is so peaceful now that it’s gone to sleep beneath the beds, over there, where the sun’s so bright that the sunflowers don’t know which way to turn, yes, over there, that’s Esteban’s village.
Poetry is that body that lies beautifully but hidden in the open before the reader, the village, the nation, appearing strange and even off-putting at first. It’s Walt Whitman’s muscular “meter-making arguments,” Emily Dickinson’s hypostatic riddles, Robert Frost’s terrifying georgics, Sylvia Plath’s haunting mythologies, John Ashbery’s hypnotic disquisitions, Allen Ginsberg’s candid love poems to America. If the body lies unattended—ungroomed—its beauty remains inert, the town untransformed. A nation must “weigh and consider” its poetry in order to be saved, to venture speaking “differently” as Mary Szybist has challenged herself to do as a poet. The new language of the country—what James Wright called “the new imagination” in a letter to his friend Robert Bly, lies in the midst of the crowd as good medicine for demagoguery. And yet, as the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has pointed out about the poet, particularly the poet of praise, in her book The Fragility of Goodness, “the peculiar beauty of human excellence just is its vulnerability” like the “tenderness of a plant.” The same can be said of democracy itself as a reification of “goodness” since it is formed, engineered, and balanced as a political act of faith by the “fragile plant” of the citizenry.
Sixteen years after Whitman celebrated these United States as “the greatest poem,” he had a change mind in the wake of the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln; his “patriotism” had changed from euphoric praise to deep disappointment during the regressive administration of Andrew Johnson, compelling him to write in Specimen Days:
I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ’d in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ’d in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout.
Whitman felt that his and Lincoln’s meter-making arguments had made “nothing happen,” which raises the question: If poets are in fact the “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” as Percy Shelley claimed, then just how is a country or a people to go about enacting its poets’ “laws” in order to safeguard against the very kind of “hypocrisy” that Whitman laments in his diatribe above. What political instruments lie at poets’ disposal for implementing their principles? The answer to this is, as it has always been, deceptively simple, singular, and unchanging: the pen. By simply continuing to write and thereby witnessing to the reality of the age in language that “sounds better and means more.” The fact that only 6% of Americans read poetry and literary fiction is discouraging, yes, but if poets and prophets allowed numbers to discourage them, they’d never get anything written. William Carlos Williams’ caveat—“It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/of what is found there”— continues to resound as strongly as it did when it was first published in 1955.
In a time when an unprecedented number of lies emanate from the White House on a daily basis (more than 3,000 lies in 466 days according to CNN Politic) and Congress, along with presidential advisors, appear feckless in their attempts to prevent President Trump from reversing environmental safeguards, committing human rights violations against immigrant families, slinging profane invectives at third world countries, initiating hostile economic policies toward American allies Canada, England, Germany, and Mexico, indulging in daily twitter rampages, making vile misogynistic and racist remarks, complimenting such demagogues as Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, and Kim Jong-un while traducing fellow Americans John McCain, Barak Obama, and fallen soldier Humayun Saqib Muazzam Khan in the same breath, and refusing to recant his claim of moral equivalency between white supremacists and anti-racists protesters, it is clear that the country has entered a moral crisis that’s testing its very credibility as a functional democracy. Such contemporary American poets as Yusef Komunyakaa, Philip Levine, Claudia Rankine, Natasha Trethewey, Bruce Smith, Erin Belieu, Robert Hass, Patricia Smith, Carolyn Forché, Ishmael Reed, Sam Hamill, Anne Waldman, and Martín Espada, to mention only a few, have witnessed boldly to the despotic behavior of the president that presupposes not only the public’s gullibility, but its foolishness as well.
“Life without poetry is, in effect, life without sanction,” Wallace Stevens claimed in religious-sounding language. In its inherent truth-telling, poetry witnesses against perfidy, oppression, and demagoguery, whether its subject is flowers, salamanders, or politics. Implicit in Milosz’s claim for poetry as a nation-saving art form is the caveat that most poets who write poetry as antidotes to “official lies” won’t live long enough to see their nations saved by their verses. In fact, many will die forgotten and suffer what the late Irish poet Matthew Sweeney referred to shortly before he died as “posthumous oblivion.” So, the mere act of writing must be enough in any poet’s hope to extend poetry’s legacy as a literary force that “sanctions life.” The precepts of democracy itself are founded on the human right of citizens to exercise not only their right to vote but the daring belief in the citizenry’s collective wisdom to reify what Aristotle called “the common good.” Each new generation of poets in their mostly unelected roles as witnesses strive to reimagine the mere experience of being alive in their particular epoch. Too many great poets like Osip Mnadelstam, Nazim Hikmet, Dante, Boris Pasternak, Paul Celan, and Joseph Brodsky have been censored or banished during their lifetimes for doing just this. How to respond today to Auden’s claim with some evidence that his denouncement of poetry’s efficacy is at least alloyed paradoxically to the opposite claim that Milosz made for it?
Zbignew Herbert, Milosz’s countryman and fellow poet, captured the selfless artistic enterprise of writing the kind of poetry Milosz praised as nation-saving in his poem “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito”:
Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize
go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust
you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony
be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important…
Can poetry save America? “I wanted good poetry without knowing it,” Milosz goes on to write in “Dedication” following his bold, rhetorical question about the corrective nature of poetry: “That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,/ In this and only this I find salvation.” Like the townspeople in Marquez’s story, even the most sensitive and artistic citizens seem to discover the “salutary aim” of poetry late, often too late.
A beautiful body lies on its catafalque before the eyes of the country. What new window sills, doorways and ceilings will it inspire Americans to build? What new colors to cover the walls? What courage to discard the detritus that has gathered in its attic, cellar, and White House? “Be faithful,” Herbert abjures his reader in the last line of Mr. Cogito’s envoy. “Go.”