Presented at the annual poetry meeting of the Chinese Writers Association in Da Li, Yunnan Province, China, on May 16, 2005. Translated into Chinese by Baolin Cheng.
We are here to discuss the “plight of poetry” and what is to be done about it. Our theme suggests that poetry is in trouble and perhaps losing its authority to communicate. This is a common theme in our time of mass media.
I don't believe that poetry is in any more trouble now than it was in 1798, when Coleridge and Wordsworth created English Romanticism with a single volume, The Lyrical Ballads, or the 12th century, when Ibn Sara wrote the beautiful poem “Eggplant” in the shape of an eggplant, or 1955, when Allen Ginsberg produced “A Supermarket in California.” Poetry is here to stay, and I see no social condition or historical upheaval that is likely to diminish it. Great wars come and go and poetry survives, acquiring new idioms along the way. Yeats made the point beautifully in “Lapis Lazuli”: “All things fall and are built again, / and those that build them again are gay.” The maker’s delight transcends the wrath of its time.
“Lapis Lazuli” was written one year before Yeats’ death in 1939, the year that World War II began in Europe. He knew the war was coming and looked straight through it, into time and the human personality.
The poet’s business is everything that exists. It’s a big job. He is no god and rarely a prophet, but he can trace the gods’ passing. Maxine Chernoff and I have been translating the work of Hölderlin, who desired contact with the gods and whose legend claims the gods destroyed him:
And let me confess
I approached to see the gods,
And they themselves threw me down beneath the living,
False priest that I am, into the dark, that I
Sing my warning song to those who can be taught.
(From “As When on Holiday . . .”)
The closest that most of us get to the gods is our experience of time: birth, love, aging, and death. We can feel the movement of time in the mirror, in the passing of seasons, and in the cadences of our poems. The poet’s business is sound engineering, time management, and painting in words.
I recently wrote that poetry resists experience, meaning that experience is transformed in poetry to something like fate. Something occurs in language that seems suddenly inevitable or “necessary.” Even in accounts of the everyday like Frank O’Hara’s famous Lunch Poems, poems are closer to myth than they are to experience.
We keep hearing that language is inadequate to the world. This is a sentimental notion. As Shakespeare, among others, shows so magnificently, language is perfectly capable of saying anything. Language doesn’t fail poets; poets too often fail the language. I read that the U.S. diplomat George Kennan was such an elegant writer that his boss, John Foster Dulles, asked a dull-minded diplomat to rewrite his memos so Dulles would not be too persuaded by them. Language, especially poetry, can capture worlds the world didn’t know it had. Wallace Stevens wrote that poetry “freshens experience.” It clarifies, elucidates, and unveils. Ironically, it can unveil by means of opacity and paradox.
In our country, perhaps in yours, there is a perceived struggle between traditional or folk values and commodity culture. Commodity culture is winning, and one reason is its manipulative use of language. The advertising culture persuades us to desire, and to possess things that we do not need. This is not news. The genius of our current administration has been to convince the average citizen that commodity culture is traditional value. The television news carries stories on how well the stores are doing during the Christmas sales season, as if that were important for us to know. The American avant-garde may be perceived as decadent—the excesses of the Beat writers like Ginsberg and Burroughs, for instance—but there’s a strong moral strain in such writing that opposes war, commodity culture, and the manipulations of mass media. The genius of the Beats is that they understood how to use the mass media to do so.
You can write a poem about anything. Every surface has its depth, for, as Emerson wrote, “Under every deep a lower deep opens.” In Gennady Aygi’s snowy fields, the wind ticks in a seedpod. We hear the experience across two or three languages, and we know what to feel. Even loss is a gain for poetry, because the “all” counts. There is no plight, no shortage of life. Despite the triumph of existentialism and the conditionality of truth, poetry always stirs back toward those essences where the indefinable lurks, and we have an intimation of that place and condition Hölderlin called “Abgrund.” Abgrund is the Ur-ground, or soil, from which everything else is generated. In English, we use the word “abyss,” which is misleading in suggesting a vast hole in the ground. Abgrund is the place of necessity and fate, and it is not to be toyed with. It is significance itself. Now and then poetry needs a fresh blast from it.
A Dante or Li Po doesn’t show up every day, and when they do we often don’t know they are among us. The plight of Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins was belatedness and invisibility—they died before their work was known. But today any serious reader of poetry in English knows them well enough. It’s the poets of smaller vision who are forgotten. William Carlos Williams’ influential volume Spring and All (1923) was published in an edition of only 300 copies. Only a handful of William Blake’s illuminated books were produced because, at the time, few people had any interest in them. Now they are among the great books of the world.
The fate of the poet is to exist both in and out of his own world. Keats felt a loss of identity when he watched some sparrows pecking about in the gravel. Imagination takes us out of ourselves. It layers and deepens experience. That’s the happiness of language, which gives us words as shadows of the things they represent, real things in their shapeliness, and finally the real shadows cast by the sun that inspire the word “shadow.”