Poetry and Poets in a Time of Crisis
Matthew Zapruder on How One Imagination Can Activate Another
For a long time now, it has been clear to many of us that we are coming to a turning point, if we have not already arrived. We do not yet know whether this election presents a crisis, is the result of one, or is its harbinger. No one does. A destabilized future yawns before us, as a great, worrisome vacuum, into which all our most terrifying visions can easily rush. We might have thought we had some idea about the shape of the future, its challenges and structures, but it seems we do not. Maybe we did not all along.
We only know that the immediate signs are bad. Deep, potentially irresolvable fissures in our democracy have revealed themselves, along with an epidemic of rage, as well as hopelessness. The results of this election were, for at least half the country and much of the rest of the world, a massive shock. Yet even had the results been different, we would still have been in a time of crisis. All the local and global problems were already there, and remain.
I am the father of a two-year-old son, so even before the election these facts worried me deeply. Since Trump’s victory I have felt even more spiritually sick, adrift. I keep looking around for a father of some sort, but mine has been gone nearly ten years, and there don’t seem to be any others available.
Since election night I have been experiencing an intense lethargy. During the day, as well as in the middle of the night, I am visited by sudden, destabilizing visions of the future. All night, intermittently, I feel them pressing into my mind. These visions bring anxiety and high alertness, though for no immediate perceivable danger, which in turn brings paralysis, and diurnal exhaustion.
I am a poet, which means that my areas of expertise and concern are language and the imagination. In the days after the election, shattered and exhausted and frustrated and angry and intensely anxious about the future, as so many of us are, I felt certain it was essential to begin to ask, what does this crisis mean for poets, and poetry? What, in these times, must we do? Can poetry help save us?
I have always believed that poetry has its own special role, distinct from all other uses of language. I agree with W.S. Merwin when he writes, “poetry like speech itself is made out of paradox, contradictions, irresolvables … It cannot be conscripted even into the service of good intentions.” He then goes on to explain, however, that circumstances can challenge this belief:
Poets have been known to be smug about their fine uselessness, but the Vietnam War led many poets of my generation to try to use poetry to make something stop happening. We will never know whether all that we wrote shortened that nightmare by one hour, saved a single life or the leaves on one tree, but it seemed unthinkable to many of us not to make the attempt and not to use whatever talent we had in order to do it. In the process we produced a great many bad poems, but our opposition to that horror and degradation was more than an intellectual formulation, and sometimes it tapped depths of bewilderment, grief, rage, admiration, that took us by surprise. Occasionally it called for writings that may be poems after all.
It may very well be that we have entered another time when most poets will feel compelled to use poetry to stop things from happening. Yet I believe that even if poetry did not do this, it would be vital to our survival.
It has always seemed to me that if you want to convince someone to act in a certain way, or to explain why something is right and something else is wrong, prose is far better than poetry. Poems of course at times convince, explain, advocate, argue, but in the end, they always are ultimately interested in something else. We could call that something else beauty, or the possibilities of language, or maybe just freedom. It is something that has to do with allowing the mind to be completely, almost anarchically interested in exploring the possibilities of the material of language itself.
That is what makes poems an undependable vehicle for advocacy. The poem is by its nature and design easily distracted. It wanders away from the demonstration, the committee meeting, the courtroom, toward the lake or that intriguing, mysterious light over there. What is that light? It looks like something, I’m not sure what, I’m sorry to leave this very important conversation but I have to know.
This wandering, though, is not a mere luxury or privilege. It has an essential purpose. In Wallace Stevens’s essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” he makes the argument that poetry is a place where we can preserve our imaginations, and resist the “pressure of the real,” that is, the incessant drumming in of information, of news, of terrible events and realities. If we do not do so, he argues, we lose something essential to our humanity: our imagination.
Stevens wrote his essay on the eve of the entry of the United States into World War II, when the news was pressing down on everyone. The drumming of information he was identifying has become immeasurably louder. Sometimes I feel like I can’t hear anything else. Sometimes it seems to me that unless I turn off all the electronics in my immediate vicinity, I will be surrounded by a kind of existential buzzing, a deafening sound composed of everyone’s thoughts, opinions, commentaries, clever jokes, contradictory certainties, intense worries, gateless fears.
That all this loudness takes place in language seemed to be of special concern to me as a poet, since my artistic work depends on freedom and lightness but also serious attention to that same language. To be continually surrounded by language used exclusively for utilitarian purposes is a threat to the disinterested yet sacred attention a poet must have to words. Also, poetry has an intimate, necessary relation with silence. The work of poets is impaired by too much noise and language, a scarcity of silence.
Since election night, the noise of all this communication has become not only intolerable to me personally, but also a matter of immediate, wider concern. The pressure of the real is everywhere. It’s completely understandable grief, and fear, and freaking out. And also community, and necessary information. Some find solace on social media and elsewhere, that really does make sense. Networks will surely be a source of action and resistance. We need to know what’s happening.
But there is a point where it becomes too much, a kind of roar of opinions and fears that does not truly stir us to action or make us more aware. There is a danger to unfettered catastrophizing, which will sap our energy and distract and drain us. On social media and elsewhere, our attention has been monetized, not figuratively but literally, to a personally and societally harmful degree. We are fully in danger of succumbing to the rope-a-dope of the outrage machine. If we aren’t careful, we’ll punch ourselves out by Inauguration.
When Stevens discusses the pressure of the real, he talks about it as a violence done to our very selves. He writes that poetry is the way we can resist that pressure, that violence, not in order to avoid the real, but in order to preserve within ourselves the necessary space of imagination, possibility, humanity, love, a space that can help us live our lives. Poetry, because it is ultimately undistracted by whatever uses to which language is otherwise devoted (telling stories, arguing or convincing or informing, buying and selling, preaching, condemning, and so on) has a unique role in this preservation of an imaginative space.
I am sure that what we need is to work on cultivating within ourselves a condition of vigilant, clear-eyed readiness. We do not know what is to come. Whatever it is, we will need to act, to resist, and not to sink into passive acceptance, if it turns out what happens is not as bad as our worst fears. We cannot allow ourselves to already be so tired out by battling our own phantasms that we cannot act when it is time.
Poets, if you find yourselves worrying that your poems are not “about” political matters, here is my suggestion: every single time you feel that worry, finish your poem, make it as beautiful as you can, and then do some kind of concrete action. Support threatened communities, or the environment. Pledge yourself to participating in a voter registration drive. Give money to a political organization working tirelessly for change. If you do this, the world will benefit in two ways: from your activism, and from the beautiful poem you have made.
Regardless of how poets feel about aesthetic matters, we all agree we are citizens. We have the same obligations to activism and engagement as anyone else. Some poets I know have been working very hard in these ways for a long time. Others of us have been mostly asleep. One of the only good things I can say about this undeniable crisis is that it has made absolutely clear what some have never forgotten: that we all need to wake up and start putting our queer shoulders to the wheel (Ginsberg, “America”). Whatever kind of poetry anyone writes, or whatever art we make, there is always time to do the necessary work of making our society better.
There is another reason why a resistance to the pressure of the real, and the preservation of a free imaginative space in language, is vital to our survival. In some ways it seems to me that the greatest of all the problems we face as a species is our inability to understand each other. This happens in individual relations of course, but more troublingly, there are obvious and growing divides among entire groups who see the world in radically different ways. Often it seems as if these groups are living in several separate worlds (blue and red America, secular and fundamentalist, rich and poor, black and white, and so on, overlapping), each with their own facts. Maybe it has always been this way, and it is only now with pervasive instantaneous modes of communication that we realize this.
What is the special role of poetry in this condition? Poets, according to Stevens, help us live our lives, not by telling us what to think, or by comforting us. They do so by creating spaces where one individual imagination can activate another, and those imaginations can be together. Poems are imaginative structures built out of words, ones that any reader can enter. They are place of freedom, enlivenment, true communion.
One could say, correctly, that this is true of any form of literature, or really any use of language. But because poetry remains free of all the other obligations that any other use of language inevitably must take on, it can be devoted purely to the creation of these spaces, where one imagination in the company of another can remember what it is to be alive and free.
The creation of these imaginative spaces is necessary work. It seems to me that results of this election, and the widespread refusal to acknowledge obvious truths about the problems that face us, are not due to ignorance or lack of information. It is not that people have not been told enough times what our problems are, and what we need to do about them. People do not disbelieve in inequality or racism or global warming because they have not been informed: they disbelieve because they cannot or choose not to imagine it. They are cruel because to them, others have become an abstraction, and cannot be truly imagined.
People who do not have irreparably psychologically damaged minds can be healed. They can change. This is not the work of information, but of the imagination. As impossible as it might seem, it may be that true poetry is the only way we can begin to see each other again.
The role of poetry in our time of crisis is the same as always: to preserve our minds and language, so we may be strong for whatever is to come. And also, to preserve the possibility of mutual understanding, not by arguing for it, but by demonstrating it.
Two days after the election, I taught my graduate seminar in poetry, which meets Thursday nights. On the one hand, it seemed ludicrous to blithely continue moving through the syllabus without acknowledging what the students were feeling. On the other, for days, my students and colleagues had been talking of nothing but their shock and fear and confusion. The atmosphere was already heightened to an almost impossible degree, so devoting several hours to talking about what we were already all only talking and thinking about seemed intolerable.
The only thing I could think of to do was to ask everyone to bring in poems that they loved, so that we could read them aloud, and just sit and listen. Sitting and listening to poetry for an hour or so was not some kind of cure. For some, it didn’t really even seem to help. Some students cried, others seemed not to be very present. Their bodies were in the room but their minds were still wandering through anxious, uncertain, shifting futures.
I ended class by reading one of my favorite poems, by Frank O’Hara, “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.” In the poem, the sun comes to O’Hara early in the morning. The sun first reproaches the poet for not being awake when he comes, and then gives him some encouragement, with a bad pun on his first name: “Frankly, I wanted to tell you / I like your poetry. I see a lot / on my rounds and you’re ok. You may not be / the greatest thing on earth, but/ you’re different.” The class full of aspiring poets laughed.
The sun goes on to tell the poet he should look up more often, and to “always embrace things, people earth / sky stars, as I do, freely and with / the appropriate sense of space.” I almost never cry, but I got choked up, just as I do every single time I read this poem, because even though O’Hara died at the age of 40, after being hit by a jeep on the beach at Fire Island, a year before I was born, I love him, and am sure I know him.
The poem ends:
“Sun, don’t go!” I was awake
at last. “No, go I must, they’re calling
“Who are they?”
Rising he said “Some
day you’ll know. They’re calling to you
too.” Darkly he rose, and then I slept.
They are calling to you too, in poems. Some day you’ll know. This is the promise of poetry, in this time of crisis, and beyond.
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