In the final week before Election Day, “One Poet’s Notes” will offer a daily series of diverse and differing views expressed in the past by well-known poets about the relationships they perceive between politics and poetry. For ages, connections between these two arenas of interest have been central to many debates concerning the proper place for poetry and other arts in discourse regarding decisions influencing actions responding to contemporary circumstances surrounding social or political issues, whether local or national.
Perhaps Walt Whitman’s famous line from the opening section of “Song of Myself” in Leaves of Grass remains a perfect starting point for any such examination and still stands as a succinct summation:
“The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.”
Nevertheless, disagreements over the appropriateness or effectiveness of artists—particularly poets—engaging in overt political observations and recommendations (perhaps seeing such activity as an obligatory part of their professional position) or promoting political agendas in their works (maybe even if accomplished more subtly) continue with each round of elections, as well as during every controversial political occurrence or crucial social event that arises.
Some suggest poetry may be unable to address the most horrendous acts of our times, such as the Holocaust. Indeed, George Steiner and Theodor Adorno appeared to declare the atrocities of Auschwitz beyond the reach of poetry. Other literary figures agree with the line in W.H. Auden’s poem, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” that claims “poetry makes nothing happen”; yet, readers also recall Auden authored the magnificent poem of social and political reflection, “September 1, 1939.” Of course, William Carlos Williams seemed to respond to Auden’s sentiment when he presented his opinion on the essential nature of poetry: "It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there."
Today’s commentary by Howard Nemerov comes from his essay, “Poetry and the National Conscience,” which first appeared in Reflexions on Poetry & Politics, published by Rutgers University Press in 1972.
Poets have often behaved, and do now often behave, as though they were, if not a national conscience, at least some kind of capital C Conscience, looking upon the doings of others as surely accursed and bound to lead to eternal perdition in the end. Some poets have made quite a good living at it, for prophecy is powerful magic that can be worked by anyone having sufficient hubris or chutzpah. It’s almost too easy. Prophets always predict disaster, and disaster unfailingly happens; far as I remember the only exception was Jonah, who succeeded in convincing the people of Nineveh to repent, and therefore failed as a prophet; the city was not destroyed. Jonah was furious, too, and that failure is almost undoubtedly the reason that his book is so much shorter than, say, the book of Isaiah, all three of him.
What fails to be observed in all this is that the world does not respond to these eloquent chidings by getting better; and in view of the continuing state of the world it would be simple prudence for poets to disassociate themselves from the conscience-keeping job entirely and at once, before somebody notices what a complete and utter failure they’ve been at it.
[Tomorrow, “One Poet’s Notes” will present an alternative view on the relationship between poetry and politics by Carolyn Forché.]
Other voices in the Poetry and Politics series: