There is a fascinating discussion going on in the current Rooster Moans workshop on “Poetry, Politics & Anti-demagogy,” of which I am a participant. At stake is the nature of a good poem in relation to politics, which to me means mixing standards of aesthetics and ethics.
One of the lynchpins driving the workshop is Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Dedication,” including this crucial passage:
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.
Below is part of one of my rambling comments on this topic, which has proved to be polemical.
Thanks goes out to the great folks in this workshop, a small group yet highly intelligent every one!
(excerpt from my workshop entry)
It looks like I am going to be using this workshop, which includes the social aspect of poems as relates to Milosz’s idea of influencing nations, to begin to work out my philosophy of poetry and its relation to ethics.
Poems can have different purposes and audiences, and be used for activism and therapy. Different aesthetics attach to the different roles of poems, and I am not ready to relinquish my own.
I think a great poem in many ways is just this :
We could have a nuclear war
and destroy all humanity
and most of nature.
How many people in our busy world think about this? They don’t have time. Or time to worry about the environment. This workshop has only five participants so far. The problem isn’t the workshop but that in our society people are too hassled, harried and chore-yoked to pursue their art. There should be fifty people in this workshop. But our society cares little for supporting art, much for supporting bombs.
Meanwhile, the art of poetry, driven by the Poetry Foundation, seems to be moving away from social engagement into a rarefied realm of denial. Highlighted voices attack the notion of accessibility just when, more than ever, poetry is needed as a means to evoke deepest emotion in the public--
a public that rushes blindly along trying to make money while the Earth, in terms of wild gorgeous abundance, withers and tilts precariously into an unknown future led by greed and guns.
Poetry is needed that addresses these issues, directly, now. This doesn’t mean that it is mandatory for everyone to read such poetry, or accept its aesthetic; but it should be available broadly, not effectively squelched by cultural norms and leaders who reflect those norms; and it should be allowed to have a place in influencing social movements, just like say the poems of Neruda, or the paintings of Diego Rivera.
I think it telling and sad that Pablo Neruda was forbidden to come to the United States, because he was considered a dangerous subversive.
Poetry should not strive to be an ethereal pulchritude of words and sounds without relation to helping our society avoid calamity. I think that is the core of my philosophy, and I think Milosz would agree.
Yes, it’s true, having an ethics professor in a workshop on political poetry is akin to taking a paddle to a hornet’s nest.
[Owl Who Laughs]