Linh Dinh is right, of course, in this powerful brief statement on poetics, which takes as its touchstone a powerful stanza by Czeslaw Milosz. The question is why. Why do we (poets, yes, but citizens as well of a system—there are no nations, really, not anymore—designed to maintain the hegemony of a mendacious, thieving elite) … why do we tolerate and even promote poetry that is superficial, trite, and purposely “uncreative,” utterly lacking in scope and depth? Why do we write about what we wish rather than what we know? I’m not talking about politics, per se. It’s easy to write poems against war, against evil and any or all of the seven deadly sins; it’s easy to trick out our opinions in metaphor and cadence. What’s difficult is the thing Linh calls on poets to do: “speak out for the humiliated and tortured,” the “defeated and ugly.”
This is difficult because it means attacking the system that humiliates and tortures, which is the same system that provides its poets with sinecures and access to publication. Perhaps this is why we end up with poems like David Wojahn‘s “The Shampoo,” which Bill Knott correctly (in my view) excoriates, though his anger prevents him from ever getting to Wojahn’s cynical use of another person’s story, stripping it of historical context even as he gestures emptily toward the Birmingham of “sit-ins,” “firehoses,” and “placard-waving crowds.” Wojahn, a PoBiz veteran, erases whatever knowledge might have been entrusted to him by the mysterious “N.” and chooses instead to write about his wish that a child getting her hair washed might somehow redeem all the suffering that was going on around her. All this, of course, without the poet himself having to leave the barber’s chair, where he can safely toy with another person’s experience, “remembering [it] as my own.” Is this really what we want from poetry?
Linh, at least, is doing something else altogether. His “ Disappearing Poem,” for example. Is it “beautiful”? Is it “great”? And what do those words mean when poetry so clearly is springing from the ferocious center of lived experience?
As the Asian War Begins
There are longings to kill that cannot be seen,
Or are seen only by a minister who no longer believes in God,
Living in his parish like a crow in its nest.
And there are flowers with murky centers,
Impenetrable, ebony, basalt…
Conestogas go past, over the Platte, their contents
Hidden from us, murderers riding under the canvas…
Give us a glimpse of what we cannot see,
Our enemies, the soldiers and the poor.
The ambiguity of the last stanza should make us uncomfortable, particularly that ominous comma after “enemies,” which grammatically serves to define “enemies” as “the soldiers and the poor.”* This is not Bly’s own view, of course; he is speaking for “we” who were at the time—as we still are—caught up in the system that the war in Vietnam was designed to promote. (The system is using other wars today: therefore the recent news that an oil consortium led by Exxon has been awarded a lucrative contract in Iraq.) Should poets not be expected to give us glimpses, at least, into the workings of this system?
On the other hand, as the great Adam Zagajewski remarks in his introduction to The Poetry of Rilke (excerpted here), “Those of us who have witnessed (or even only read about) the several terrible sequels of World War I and understand that there are two contradictory betrayals lying in wait for every poet—one that consists in forgetting the pain of modern history for the sake of the spiritual life, untouched by the news, and another that has to do with paying close attention to the pain of modern history but forsaking the delicate, nameless substance of our interiority.”
Clearly (at least it seems clear to me), poets have some responsibility to walk and chew gum at the same time. The system, after all, affects our interior lives; some would say it actually conditions our interiority—though I’m not sure I would go that far. I can only speak for myself and say that I cannot wish that Rilke had attempted to write like Brecht, although I share Zagajewski’s view that “some kind of modern evil that manifested itself in World War I and flourished in the following decades in many ares of our planet never made inroads into Rilke’s poetic meditation. That is our loss. We’ve learned that to understand the nature of modern evil is an utterly difficult thing, perhaps impossible; having Rilke among the researchers working in this particular artistic laboratory would have been of inestimable value.”
What moves me most is the idea that poets are “researchers” and the poetry is the “laboratory” they work in to develop awareness and understanding of the real world. It’s distressing, after several decades of PoBiz, to see that most poets, myself too often included, have walked away from that role. Thankfully we still have poets like Bly and Philip Levine, Rachel Loden, Thomas R. Smith, Joy Harjo, Mark Nowak, Martín Espada, Sam Hamill, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Bill Knott (whose wonderful Collected Political Poems 1965-1993 is sadly out of print)**, and the poet who got me started on this post, Linh Dinh—all of whom are hard at work and reporting regularly on their research. I know there are others: each reader of this blog can certainly provide their own list.
With all this in mind, I want to end with another sentence from Zagajewski’s introduction to Rilke: “Don’t listen to any contemporary commandments that seem to represent the verdict of the Zeitgeist itself.” This is true whether one finds the commandments on Silliman’s blog, among the denizens of the Electronic Poetry Center or the Associated Writing Programs, in this self-congratulatory exercise by Marjorie Perloff and David Wojahn … or even on The Perpetual Bird!
* Bly tried to make this stanza more explicit when he revised the poem for its appearance in his Selected Poems (1986):
Who are our enemies? Perhaps the soldiers
And the poor, those “unable to rejoice.”
Unfortunately this introduced even more ambiguity; the quoted phrase seems to be a gesture toward Paul’s letter to the Philippians, but the source and meaning of the quote are unclear. Bly must have realized the problem because when he published Eating the Honey of Words: New and Selected Poems in 1999, he included the poem in its original version.
**Serendipitously, for this post at least, Knott has also written a sequence of wild homages to Rilke entitled my Rilke, which I highly recommend.