In the final week before Election Day, “One Poet’s Notes” has been offering 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 social or 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 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 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 Stanley Kunitz, former Poet Laureate of the United States, comes from an essay, “Poet and State,” that appeared in his book, A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly: Essays & Conversations, published in 1975 by Little, Brown and Company.
I can recall how vehemently the theologians of the left denounced American writers in the thirties who refrained from producing agitprop tracts. Those who were most abusive were the very ones who later felt that they had been betrayed by their dogma. Some of them turned eventually into reactionary scolds. The Weathermen of the sixties—idealists, most of them, intoxicated by their faith in the holiness of violence—were, in their turn, incapable of grasping that a society bereft of the graces and values that the arts perpetuate would not be a society worth inheriting.
I think of the poet as the representative free man of our time. Since the Industrial Revolution anyone who works for himself and alone has become a rarity. The writer is more different from others than ever because of his immediate, whole, and solitary relation to his work in the midst of a society whose men labor in packs or gangs and are productive only in bits and pieces. Among writers the poet is freer than his brothers the novelist and playwright, because his work, unlike theirs, is practically worthless as a commodity. He is less subject than they to the pressure to modify the quality of his work in order to produce an entertainment. Nothing he can do will make his labor profitable. He might as well yield to the beautiful temptation to strive towards the purity of an absolute art.
[Monday, “One Poet’s Notes” will present an additional view on the relationship between poetry and politics by Robert Pinsky.]
Other voices in the Poetry and Politics series: