P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.19 - December 2017
Does Poetry Make Anything Happen?
In discussions of what’s often termed “political poetry” sooner or later someone is bound to quote, approvingly or critically, W. H. Auden’s famous line from his elegy to Yeats: “Poetry makes nothing happen.” And then, right on cue, someone will likely quote back the equally renowned passage from William Carlos Williams’s “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower”:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
I like a good poetry argument as much as the next poet, but it seems obvious to me that both Auden and Williams are simply being accurate, yet both are expressing partial truths—hence the never-ending argument. Of course poetry makes nothing happen, if by that straw man you mean poetry influences elections, gets the municipal garbage disposed of, or gives inoculations to children. That’s an impossible standard, and one that typically is not applied to, say, football, watercolors, or crosswords. Why should poetry have to do such heavy lifting when we don’t ask other arts, hobbies, or pastimes to do the same?
Well, as Williams would no doubt reply, we hold poetry to a higher standard because it is, at least potentially, a holy and useful enterprise; and a world without poems would be an impoverished one. There is a reason, after all, that religious scriptures and prayers are often written in poetic form. As it happens, I agree with Williams as much as I do with Auden, which is to say, partially. For what it’s worth, my own life would be unimaginable without poetry, and I have indeed found much “news” in poems.
The whole argument is probably a perfect example of the kind of dispute that often is termed, disparagingly, “academic.” And it’s true that seminars and lecture halls are rife with precisely this kind of dispute. So it’s fitting, I hope, that my contribution to the discussion this month will spring from a poem describing precisely such a classroom debate. Linda Pastan’s poem is one that I confess took a good while to grow on me. As a longtime teacher, I was perhaps a bit defensive about what seemed its critique of academic arguments. In any case, the poem quite pointedly centers around the difference between classroom discussion and real-world actions. It also reminds me, not incidentally, that what’s at issue here is not simply politics, in the sense of partisan allegiances, but something much deeper, which she rightly terms ethical.
But here’s the poem:
In ethics class so many years ago
our teacher asked this question every fall:
if there were a fire in a museum
which would you save, a Rembrandt painting
or an old woman who hadn't many
years left anyhow? Restless on hard chairs
caring little for pictures or old age
we'd opt one year for life, the next for art
and always half-heartedly. Sometimes
the woman borrowed my grandmother's face
leaving her usual kitchen to wander
some drafty, half-imagined museum.
One year, feeling clever, I replied
why not let the woman decide herself?
Linda, the teacher would report, eschews
the burdens of responsibility.
This fall in a real museum I stand
before a real Rembrandt, old woman,
or nearly so, myself. The colors
within this frame are darker than autumn,
darker even than winter--the browns of earth,
though earth's most radiant elements burn
through the canvas. I know now that woman
and painting and season are almost one
and all beyond saving by children.
--Linda Pastan. Carnival Evening: New & Selected Poems 1968-1998.
In the real world there are lots of murky areas that don't resemble the scenarios that often appear on the blackboard. It can be difficult or even impossible to gather all the needed facts before acting, for instance; and plenty of situations present nothing but differently ugly options. And quite frequently there's no time to weigh options, anyway; you act in the moment, or you don't. So your carefully prepared positions can be blown out of the water before you start.
I haven't been in too many dangerous or traumatic situations in my life, thank goodness, but nonetheless one thing I've learned from experience is that you just never know how you'll respond until it happens. Surprises, both good and not, tend to occur. A mother I knew once stood paralyzed while her son was drowning in the deep end of a pool. He was pulled out by my own mother when she realized that the boy's Mom was unable to save him. An old friend of mine, a martial arts expert who won competitions, once got his clock cleaned when he intervened in a bar fight. Just couldn't put the training into practice in a real-life situation, it seems. Fighting just isn't the same as sparring.
One response to such facts might be to say that academic debate is mere hooey, and to look down one's nose at the sob-sisters who wring their hands and dither about such stuff. (Let's call this attitude The Hardnose.) Difficult choices, tough situations demand ruthless, decisive action, etc., and in political matters let's not second-guess the heroes (such as law enforcement or military folks) who are on the front lines doing our dirty work so that most of us can live our safe and blameless lives.
The other extreme might be to dither and qualify and try to legislate every possibility and maybe even make things worse by indecision, armchair quarterbacking, and general high-horsiness. (A stance which we could call The Hamlet.) One problem with Hamlet, as the Hardnose will always be glad to point out, is that Hamlet often screws things up even while trying very hard not to.
As a longtime classroom teacher myself, I'm temperamentally more of a Hamlet than a Hardnose. In any case I do recognize that too much Hamlet-ing around can be counter-productive; and it's easy enough to mock. But I don't think that Linda Pastan's poem is mocking it, exactly. As I read it, the poem dramatizes a painful reality, one that sharpens perhaps with age--the tragic fact that sometimes a situation is simply hopeless. Some things are beyond saving, all options bad, and the usual either/ors chalked up on the blackboard can come to seem obscenely simplistic or unreal.
But none of the above suggests, to my mind, that it's a bad idea to hold such seminars. Poems and philosophy classes don't change laws or governments, typically. But that doesn't mean they're useless. At their best, they change us. And that’s one of the great bits of “news” that Pastan’s poem brings me.
If nothing else, poems can help us recognize when we're actually in one of those hopeless situations. Reflecting on such scenarios outside of a crisis can--or so any teacher hopes--help hone the skills, perceptions, and knowledge base that just might be useful when shit hits fan. Or maybe it won't help much at all, and we'll just stand paralyzed while horror occurs. That's always possible. But the possibility, even the likelihood of such a thing happening is not an argument against moral reflection.
As for the realm of pure politics, the politicians who tend to worry me the most are those who don’t much believe in or practice moral reflection. Oh, every successful pol pays lip service to such things, but when you look at their actions instead of their speeches, it’s clear that some have little patience for gray areas. I won’t name names here, but I’m sure everyone can supply their own examples. President Truman’s much-quoted “The buck stops here” slogan rightly points to the fearsome responsibility shouldered by any chief executive. But it doesn’t suggest that decisiveness is a virtue in itself or in the absence of careful reflection, including moral reasoning. We have seen such Hardnoses occupy high office: politicians who are slow to learn from, or even admit mistakes, among other problems. They all need a good course in poetry, it seems to me.
© 2017 David Graham