It's April. And you know what that means: National Poetry Month.
Poetry is hard. This is, I think, a relatively uncontroversial claim. It's hard to read and it's even harder to write. To be perfectly honest, I don't really understand poets. They are weird, alien people who interact with language and the world in weird, alien ways. Where do they eat? Do they sleep? When do they do their laundry? One imagines them walking around thinking very deeply and sensitively for weeks or months or years at a time and when some incalculable set of circumstances comes into being they wave their hands over a blank piece of paper and then there is a poem there. Something out of nothing and all that, I suppose.
But, we've read our Marx, and we know this idea does a great disservice to poets. Poetry is, like anything else, the product of labor. Even still, the work that goes into writing poetry cannot help but seem rarified, somehow exceptional. Even the strictest materialist reserves some awe for the poet — "Man therefore also forms objects in accordance with the laws of beauty," wrote the bearded German.
Embedded in that awe, however, is a sense of mistrust. Adorno once quipped darkly, "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." Writer and social critic Dmitry Pisarev proclaimed, with typical Russian stridence, "Boots are more important than Pushkin!" Indeed, few have been more skeptical of poetry than the poets themselves: the late Chilean exile Roberto Bolaño wrote scathingly again and again of Latin American literati sitting around discussing beauty in books and ideas while military juntas took over their countries.
And yet, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, the publisher Melville House invoked and inverted Adorno with the title of its very first book: Poetry After 9/11. The recently deceased Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe saw fit to lift the title (and epigraph) of Things Fall Apart — a profoundly brutal and deeply political work — from the first stanza of W.B. Yeats' "The Second Coming:"
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
And here at Nation Books in 2003, we published a collection called Poets Against the War, edited by Sam Hamill. It is an anthology of the best poems published on a website of the same name; more than 13,000 were submitted by nearly 11,000 poets. The relationship between poetry and politics is clearly fraught, and maybe Pisarev is right. After all, poetry didn't stop the war in Iraq any more than it stopped the war in Vietnam.
The New York Times — one of those august media outlets whose irresponsible reporting led, at least in part, to the United States' invasion of Iraq — has just started a blog called Times Haiku. With help from real human beings, an algorithm combs the articles found on the Times' home page and extracts sentences that can be retrofitted into the most basic haiku: one line of five syllables, one line of seven syllables; one line of five syllables. Here's one I particularly like:
As a leftover,
the soup was equally good
without the croutons.
The Times Haiku blog reveals how unstable and strange our language really is, how at any moment we might utter a phrase of impossible beauty without any awareness of it, a phrase that in another context — written upon a page with lots of white space around it or delivered in a smoky coffee shop with bongos in the background — might be met with an award or applause or money or whatever it is that poets want. (I told you, I don't really understand poets.)
In his 1934 "Discourse in the Novel," Mikhail Bakhtin wrote,
The word in language is half someone else's. It becomes 'one's own' only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language (it is not, after all, out of a dictionary that the speaker gets his words!) but rather it exists in other people's mouths, in other people's contexts, serving other people's intentions.
Words and language come to us from other people and pass through us to other people. It is in this place of contingence and instability that poetry operates. It is where the poet lives and it is why their work incites so much awe and mistrust, why Plato wrote in the Republic, "We are, at all events, aware that…poetry mustn't be taken seriously as a serious thing laying hold of truth, but that the man who hears it must be careful, fearing for the regime in himself." Plato, with his reliance on mathematics and forms, did not credit mere language with the capacity for "Truth."
The poets must be exiled from the republic, Plato argued through the character of Socrates. But this argument reveals, even as it denies the ability of the poets to convey anything like Truth, the fact that their work possesses some kind of political power and constitutes a threat potent enough to merit banishment.
Poetry does not provide boots, or food, or shelter, and people do need these things. But in defamiliarizing words themselves — a resource that in fact is used more than any other — poetry reveals the true nature and power of language. And how else do you start the process of providing people boots, food, and shelter — or stopping illegal drone strikes or electing a truly progressive politician — but with language?