Poetry Can Save People and Countries

For the Valley News
Thursday, October 04, 2018

Czeslaw Milosz, the 20th-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 his 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, especially Walt Whitman. But their contradictions often contain paradoxes that betray the rich complexities of human experience, which Whitman embraced boldly, declaring at the end of his poem Song of Myself, “Do I contradict myself, then I contradict myself, I contain multitudes.”

So, 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, probably agree more than disagree about poetry’s truthful double role as both a redemptive and elegiac literary force.

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. 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.”

The first thing democracy requires is also the first thing poetry requires, namely, imagination, without which it’s 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, both intellectual and compassionate, both judicious and fearless. Such transport is human-saving and thereby nation-saving business. Poetry and fiction serve as literary vehicles to transport readers “across” the transom of self to other where one discovers that she is “one [of them], too.”

The poetic nation-saving cure that Milosz espouses originates from a creative process that militates against any form of authoritarian control. Many poets have died and/or suffered severely for their witness to fascism and demagoguery throughout the ages. Carolyn Forché’s exhaustive anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness is full of such poets as Miklos Radnoti, Robert Desnos, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Paul Celan and Mahmoud Darwish, whose poems shame chicanery, elegize martyrs, bear witness to injustice, speak truth to power and make new.

But poets rarely 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 in inspiring poetry first before cant she ensures “memorable speech.” So even the most innovative poetry, like Whitman’s “meter making arguments,” possesses the verbal magic of waking up a nation, of turning locked heads away from conventions and “special interests” that stultify an entire populace, as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, James Wright, Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath all did with such enduring genius.

Like Esteban the handsome dead giant in Gabriel Marquez’s parable, The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World, beauty has 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 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 precisely that body which lies beautifully but hidden in the open before the reader, the village and the nation, appearing strange and even off-putting at first. It’s Emily Dickinson’s hypostatic riddles, Robert Frost’s terrifying georgics, Sylvia Plath’s haunting mythologies, John Ashbery’s hypnotic disquisitions. If the body lies unattended — ungroomed — its beauty remains inert, the town untransformed.

It’s fair to say that America, in all its diversity, brawn, ingenuity, beauty, genius and democratic ideals, is an inherently poetic country, although its people have not been inclined to read poetry as a national pastime. Only 6 percent of Americans at the most, according to the latest NEA statistics, read poetry or literary fiction. And yet more poetry is published in the U.S. than in any other country. Big business reigns over poetry in the American zeitgeist like a vulture over roadkill.

“Life without poetry is, in effect, life without sanction,” Wallace Stevens claimed in almost religious 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. So, the mere act of writing must be enough in a 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 safeguard what Aristotle called “the common good.”

Each new generation of poets in their mostly unelected roles as witnesses to the truth, the common good, and, by default, any transgressions against these ideals, strives to find language that reimagines human experience by virtue of merely writing. Too many great poets like Osip Mandelstam, Nazim Hikmet, Dante, Boris Pasternak, Paul Celan and Joseph Brodsky have been censored or banished during their lifetimes for doing just that.

Walt Whitman proclaimed that “the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” How now to respond 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 Polish 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.”

Chard deNiord is the poet laureate of Vermont and the author of six volumes of poetry, most recently Interstate (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015). He lives in Westminster West.