Does poetry make things happen in 2018?

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WB Yeats on poetryI was thinking about how little poets seem to matter to modern political administrations. Maybe to modern society as a whole. Their light has, it seems, been waning for several decades as our collective attention shifts.

I was thinking about what an odd, awkward fit it would be for a poet to be invited to today’s anti-literacy White House. Would he or she have to start each conversation with the question “Have you read…” dreading the answer would be a blank stare, a silent shake of the head and the turning of eyes to smartphones and TVs blaring Faux News.

I was thinking of how John Kennedy asked Robert Frost to read a poem at his 1961 inauguration. Poetry still mattered then. Of how Carter, Clinton and Obama also invited poets to read at their inaugurations. Poetry seemed to fade after Kennedy, possibly because the Vietnam War invited more protest than introspection. Possibly because his death cut down many muses, as well. Possibly because we turned increasingly to TV and then the internet as our source of inspiration, not books. A 2015 CNN article noted:

The cult of people who buy books of poetry in the U.S. is almost certainly dwarfed by the 20 million or so viewers who watch a single episode of “Game of Thrones.”

A mere five poets were invited to attend and read at presidential inaugurations in more than 50 years. The CNN article noted:

Many Americans’ exposure to poetry today is limited to inspirational snippets on fridge magnets or a few verses recited every four years when a poet is trotted out at a presidential inauguration.

But that’s only true for Democratic presidents. Republicans shy from poets. At the Trump inauguration? None: just a handful of wannabe celebrities, some sycophants and has-beens. No poets, no authors, no reading, no evidence of culture deeper than the superficial. Not even as good as a single episode of America’s Got Talent.

Thus is the new world of politics: reduced to a small screen and a handful of words. No deep insight, no big reads. Is poetry disappearing from our lives? Sublimating to texting, Twitter, Instagram and such platforms that require little to no thought, but demand instant response and mindless reaction?

In his 1821 essay, A Defence of Poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote (emphasis added),

“Poets, according to the circumstances of the age and nation in which they appeared, were called, in the earlier epochs of the world, legislators, or prophets: a poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters. For he not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time… Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

But is that true today? Can they legislate what it seems few in power read? Or care about?

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature and didn’t care enough about it to attend the ceremony. The medal he eventually accepted, many months later, has a line from Virgil’s Aeneid: “Inventas vitam iuvat excoluisse per artes. This is “loosely” translated on the site as, “And they who bettered life on earth by their newly found mastery.” More accurately, it would be translated as those “…who have ennobled life through arts discovered.” Virgil’s Aeneid. Is it still read and taught today? Recited in classrooms, debated, the subject of homework essays? Is the reference outdated and now obscure?

In 1918, W. B. Yeats wrote in Per Amica Silentia Lunae : Anima Hominis (part v) (emphasis added): “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry. Unlike the rhetoricians, who get a confident voice from remembering the crowd they have won or may win, we sing amid our uncertainty…” But what if our egos are so inflated, so self-assured, so narcissistic that we never quarrel with ourselves? Never engage in our own inner dialogue? How can we ponder things outside ourselves if we have no uncertainty? Ego is a cage, an anchor, a shackle and the bigger the ego the more it holds us down. It resents poetry and its flights. It hates Icarus.

Has the age of poetry passed us? Burned up Icarus-like in the hot sun of social media and game consoles? Slunk away from the online echo chambers and meme machines? W. H. Auden wrote in his poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,”

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper…

Auden was thinking of Yeats’ poem about the Dublin uprising. But poetry did make things happen, before then. Wallace Stevens argued in his poem, Of Modern Poetry, poetry is an “act of the mind… wholly containing the mind, below which it cannot descend.”

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice.

Perhaps that’s where the fault lies: what suffices today are not acts of the mind, but those of reaction, of response, of unthinking immediacy, of thoughtless gesture. Poetry can transcend, but not easily descend to these depths. But first it must be read.

I was thinking about how poets once gave us all meaning, gave us collective symbols and symbolism, gave us a voice. Now we all just shout at one another online.

I was thinking about reading and memorizing poems in school and how poetry was taught from an early age, given a respected place in the syllabus. Poetry was like learning a new language, one full of shadows and hidden meanings, of obfuscation and cunningly revealed secrets, of arcane rules, of misdirection and the promise of riches if you could but decipher the magic. Even today, when I read a poem I am transported into that world; a place where I have to explore, find the clues, seek the keys to uncover its riches. Is poetry still taught in school? I don’t know.

I was thinking about W. H. Auden and William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and what they still have to say to us through poetry, even long years later. And perhaps what we say to one another. If, that is, we still read poetry. Which I doubt more and more.

W. H. Auden (1907 – 1973) wrote a poem a few days after the start of WWII, titled September 1, 1939. It’s incredibly moving and thoughtful. It opens:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

After the events of 9/11, the poem gained a new meaning and a renewed, albeit brief, audience. As Scott Horton writes in Harper’s Magazine, the poem,

… was widely reproduced, recited on NPR, and interpreted with a link to the tragic events of that day… The poem expresses anger and sadness towards those events, and it questions the historical and mass psychological process that led to the war.

But it wasn’t really questioned for long. War was a burning brand that was taken to the Middle East again and again and poetry was replaced by Super Mario, Call of Duty and Pokemon or whatever glitterati was parading on “reality” TV.

I recently read Auden’s moving lines – the clever hopes expiring, waves of anger and fear, the dishonest decade and I cannot help but think of America: Donald Trump and his Hitlerian drive to start a new war, to control every aspect of the lives in his care. Of the decline and fall of the American intelligentsia. And with it declines poetry. Poetry is too elite, too intellectual. Too much like opera or jazz.

A 2015 article in the Washington Post noted that, “Some people are still reading it, although that number has been dropping steadily over the past two decades… In 1992, 17 percent of Americans had read a work of poetry at least once in the past year. 20 years later that number had fallen by more than half, to 6.7 percent.” Only opera was less popular than poetry. The writer concludes, “…for 20 years, the readers have been taking their attention elsewhere — and not even the internet is making them come back.”

Auden’s second verse is more German-centric, but if you ignore the reference to Linz – Hitler’s home until 1907 – and instead replace it with Queens, it eerily presages today’s growing autocracy and Trump’s determined march to war. Any war, it seems. North Korea now, but on the campaign trail is was ISIS (seemingly forgotten once he was elected). Maybe once his mind wanders away (as it always does), it will be Mexico, or Haiti or even Canada that next fills his military vision:

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

We must suffer them all again. The madmen, the dictators, the racists and bigots. And in the halls of power, not merely on the fringes. George Santayana’s famous quote about perpetual infancy and memory from Reason in Common Sense then comes to mind:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Auden’s poem continues:

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

Skyscrapers: Trump Towers? Vain excuses. Shouting. Craving to be the only one loved. Helpless governors. The last man standing, while we are lost in our haunted wood. The conservative dark that deepens and darkens daily. When Trump is successful in muzzling the media and being the only one allowed to speak, who, indeed, can speak for the rest of us?

Nearly 80 years later, the poem still speaks to us of narcissistic modern leaders and the threats of their totalitarian states. Poetry, Mr. Auden, might yet make us aware.

But Auden was not the pessimistic Charles Bukowski, who wrote after the Los Angeles riots,

nothing was corrected last
time.
nothing will be corrected this
time.

Bukowski had keen insight into the American character and the dark, violent currents that run in its soul. He would not have been surprised to see a racist or misogynist elected to the White House. The long shadow of the KKK still reaches into American politics. Nothing was corrected, he wrote. You might be excused for thinking Allen Ginsberg saw it, too, a generation or two earlier, when he wrote Howl (1955-56) that opens:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

On the basis of those lines, Ginsberg’s mad generation might seem little different from today’s evangelical, authoritarian, angry America that parades on social media, declaring Trump a gift from their god, marching in the street with swastikas, and closing their churches to desperate people made homeless by floods. But they are not. Ginsberg’s was the Beat generation, the seekers, the explorers, driven to experience, to learn, to find new horizons in body and mind.

This is not the generation who, as Ginsberg wrote, “…studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kabbalah because the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas.” This is not the generation that recognizes the reference when Auden wrote of “Exiled Thucydides.” These are the deliberately, aggressively illiterate, a closed-minded generation who accept more on faith than on reason or evidence. Who challenge intelligence and education as dangerous elitism. Who would turn their back on a new Kennedy challenging them to go to the moon because they wanted to go to church instead. This is not a generation to would rally around Ezra Pound’s injunction to “make it new” but rather cheer for Trump’s demand to make everything old, to retreat into a fantasy of a White-Christian-Paternal past that never existed except in their minds.

This is not a generation to be moved by poetry because poetry is reading and reading is elitism. Do they even know who their own poet laureate is and who appoints them?

It is a generation rapidly losing its empathy as a result of its antipathy to reading. As the Washington Post noted in 2016:

A number of recent studies have demonstrated that fiction — particularly literary fiction — seems to boost the quality of empathy in the people who read it, their ability to see the world from another person’s eyes. And good works of literature, particularly novels, can grant you direct access to another person’s mind — whether it be the mind of the author, or of one of their imagined characters — in a way that few other works of art can.
So if we’re reading less literature, it stands to reason that we may be becoming a less empathetic country as a result (research tends to bear this out). If changing reading habits are indeed making us less able to see things from other people’s points of view, that could have drastic consequences across the board.

Auden, however bleak his message, closes with optimism. Or rather, the optimism of the revolutionary clenched fist, the lone radical determined to stand up to the authoritarian state, burning with the flame of affirmation against the darkening night of despair and negation. The optimism that we can overcome, we can stand up to the madness and the crushing press to conform:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Harper’s adds:

While most of the poem seems thus a chronological bookmark, the last two stanzas—reproduced here–emerge like light from a break in the clouds. They seem to assert defiance in the face of the descending mentality of war. The language is surprisingly naïve but also very moving, and one line, “We must love one another or die” has become a badge for Auden.

Auden’s poem is both homage and a fun-house mirror. Wikipedia tells us how it reflects back to an equally powerful poem by W. B. Yeats (1865 – 1939):

The poem deliberately echoes the stanza form of W. B. Yeats’s “Easter, 1916”, another poem about an important historical event; like Yeats’ poem, Auden’s moves from a description of historical failures and frustrations to a possible transformation in the present or future.

Yeats’ poem, Easter, 1916, was about the bloody, unsuccessful uprising in Dublin that year. The first verse ends with the heart-wrenching words,

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That last line, “A terrible beauty is born,” is repeated at the end of the second and final verses as well. Unlike the LA riots, where, as Bukowski wrote, nothing in the national mentality changed, in Ireland the sense of patriotism grew, and a fervent desire for independence rose among all classes and professions. As Wikipedia notes:

The uprising was unsuccessful, and most of the Irish republican leaders involved were executed for treason… The deaths of these revolutionary figures at the hands of the British, however, were as much a shock to Yeats as they were to ordinary Irish people at the time, who did not expect the events to take such a bad turn so soon… the execution of the leaders of the Easter Rising by the British had the opposite effect to that intended. The killings led to a reinvigoration of the Irish Republican movement rather than its dissipation … Yeats moves from a feeling of separation between the narrator and the revolutionaries, to a mood of distinct unity, by including all subjects of the poem in the last line with reference to the utter change that happened when the revolutionary leaders were executed by the British…

Poetry, then, had relevance. It was the voice of the people, it bound them together with passion and hope. They shared tears and faith through his lines. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” wrote Auden in his poem to Yeats, but he was wrong:

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

I don’t want poetry to die. To become an antique, something done by Luddites and fringe artisans. I don’t want it to become like hand typesetting or using a typewriter, a quaint oddity, an affectation. I want people to read and love and cherish poetry, to collect books of poems, to share and discuss them, to be able to quote lines longer than what a fridge magnet can hold.

The great poets of the 20th century – Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, WIlliam Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Ted Hughes, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, W.B. Yeats, e. e. cummings, Philip Larkin, Pablo Neruda, Gary Snyder, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Leonard Cohen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and so many others – are gone from us. They gave us so much, they helped frame ourselves and our consciousness. So Auden was wrong: poetry matters. Or at least it did in an era when people read books.

Jennifer Benka, executive director of the Academy of American Poet told CNN:

Poems are comprised of everyday material expertly arranged in ways that require a reader’s time and reflection, but the reward is great: a memorable insight into our humanity, a line that perfectly encapsulates a moment or a truth we want to remember, an experience with language that provokes new ideas and deeper understanding.

Maybe I’m overly pessimistic. Maybe the internet will save poetry. It helped save and revitalize chess – another intellectual pursuit that was flagging. It helped revive Casanova studies, Machiavelli studies, wargaming, the ukulele, all sorts of interests and academic pursuits that had, it seemed, lost ground to the growing tide of anti-intellectuals. Poetry might be saved by being more available, by having an open platform not restricted by traditional publishing and book sales. Perhaps, as poet Brian Sonia-Wallace found out in the world of consumer malls, poetry can still move people in unexpected ways.

Please don’t let it die. This fractured, hurting world needs poetry today more than ever.

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