Why Poetry Matters
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 16, 2003
“In Memory of W.B. Yeats” by W.H. Auden
I . He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
“Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.
O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!
The Sermon by Rev. Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz:
When I first zeroed in on this sermon topic quite a few weeks back, I was going to talk about poetry, not politics. Had I delivered this sermon in (say) early December, rather than in mid-February, it would have been a different piece of work, almost entirely.
But it’s funny how, sometimes, the stresses and strains and comings and goings of “real life” actually impede upon what we do, and what we talk about, here in church. And that is the way it should be, after all: We are no isolated temple here, no rarified abode of the “elect” or the “enlightened”. For us, rReal life” brings our religion to life; our religious values are not values unless they’re real—unless they’re lived. There are so many ways, too, that the “real world” needs the voice of faith in times like these. (Or, at least, that it needs a voice of faith that unites and does not divide; a religious vision that lifts our vision “beyond the present sin and shame”.)
I was going to talk about poetry, not politics. But, in recent days, in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I selected this topic early this Fall, and in ways far more evidently than I can ever remember, politics and poetry have become enmeshed, entangled—or rather, have shown the intimate relationship (hidden, perhaps; beneath the surface often) that they have always enjoyed one with another.
Perhaps Laura Bush should have known as much. Back sometime around Christmas or thereabouts she invited a whole bunch of American poets to a White House conference on “Poetry and the American Voice”. One of these poets was Sam Hamill, editor of Copper Canyon Press and author of thirteen books of poetry of his own. Hamill responded to his invitation, in typical modern fashion, by sending out an email to all of the poets he knew urging them to send him their poems (or statements) opposing an American invasion of Iraq. These he would then put in book form, and forward to someone who would be attending the conference, who would, in turn, present it to Mrs. Bush. (Hamill himself never considered going to the conference; indeed, he said later that he felt “nauseated” when his invitation from the White House arrived in the mail.)
Within days, the email had reached far and wide (even I received it, and I am hardly in the upper echelons of American poetry). Within days, too, almost 2000 poets had responded to Hamill’s plea, and had sent in poems opposing the Iraq war. Then, some leading poets announced that they would not attend the conference, in order to protest the Bush administration’s policies. Others said that they would go, but that they would try to find ways there to express their anti-war sentiments. Marilyn Nelson, poet laureate of Connecticut, said that she planned to wear a silk scarf decorated with peace symbols in order to attract Mrs. Bush’s attention (how very Connecticut!).
Faced with this open rebellion within the poetic community, the White House sounded retreat, and cancelled the conference. But as Katha Pollitt asks in The Nation: “The White House, so bold to make war, is afraid of poems and scarfs?”
And she continues:
“So much for democracy, free speech, vigorous discussion. In this most insulated and choreographed of administrations, the ‘American voice’—note the singular—is welcome only when it says what the White House wants to hear. And yet, as so often, censorship backfired. ‘They did us an extraordinary favor,’ Hamill [said]. ‘They revealed that there are many, many poets opposed to the Bush regime. And they demonstrated their fear of the carefully chosen word—their fear of poetry.’
Fear of poetry? Why on Earth would anyone be afraid of poets—a rather frail and ineffectual group (in the popular mind at least) if ever there was one. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” W.H. Auden wrote in his famous eulogy on the death of William Butler Yeats. It cannot change the weather, or the temperament of men and women, or of nations. “It is difficult to get the news from poems,” wrote William Carlos Williams. Poetry might seem detached and isolated, kind of ivory-towerish, cut off from the real world of business and corporations and buying and selling and warmaking and things that (supposedly) “really matter” in the “real world”. In the aftermath of the brouhaha over the cancelled poetry conference, Mrs. Bush herself said, “There is nothing political about American literature.” “Poetry makes nothing happen…” “It is difficult to get the news from poems,” as Williams wrote, the news of the day—war, war, and more war, in our own day, it seems—seems so much more with us, so much more critical, important.
But then, William Carlos Williams went on:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably each day
of what is found there.
“Poetry makes nothing happen,” wrote W.H. Auden. But the remainder of his poem is an ode to the timelessness and the enduring truth of Yeats’s voice. Poetry may make nothing happen, but it abides and survives and speaks on and lives when the ways of the executives and politicians and the warmakers and the madmen of our day have passed away, and have passed from memory.
“There is nothing political about American literature,” Mrs. Bush said (so by inference, she was also saying that poetry doesn’t matter in the world of politics). She hadn’t wanted to have a political discussion, the First Lady said; she had just wanted to bring people together to talk about three American poets she liked—Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Emily Dickinson. But, as one writer has said, “It would be hard to find three writers more subversive than the three she chose.”
Whitman was openly gay, and his anti-elitist epic of radical democracy, Leaves of Grass, was considered so “scandalous” when it was published that it got him fired from his government job.
Nothing political about Langston Hughes? Really? Langston Hughes was a lifelong radical, a Communist sympathizer hounded by Joe McCarthy and the Republican right wing, who wrote constantly and consistently about racism, injustice, and class divisions in America. He was also an avowed atheist. In his poem, “Gods”, he wrote:
Yet the ivory gods,
And the ebony gods,
And the gods of diamond-jade,
Are only silly puppet gods
That people themselves
One doubts in Hughes would have warranted an invitation to the Bush White House were he alive, and writing, today.
And what of Emily Dickinson? At first glance, Dickinson might seem the least explicitly political poet of the three. Yet, ultimately, her work may have done the most to transform American culture and society. Her life was a living example of non-conformity and what the radical rightists today would call an “alternative lifestyle”. As one critic puts it: “every line she wrote is an attack on complacency and conformity of manners, mores, religion, language, gender, thought.”
As Katha Pollitt puts it:
“None of these quintessentially American writers would have given two cents for [so-called] family values… abstinence education, the death penalty, tax cuts for the rich, Ashcroftian attacks on civil liberties or the other hallmarks of the Bush regime. It’s hard to imagine them cheering the bombing of Baghdad.”
True poets, American or otherwise, never speak with “one voice”. Rather, they speak with their own genuine, God-given voices, and encourage all of us to do the same. They may well speak a word of truth to those in power, or a word of affliction to those who are too comfortable. Or, they may speak a word of comfort to those who have been afflicted for too long. They see with their own eyes, and reflect their own genuine experience through our common human lens.
Beyond a doubt, the deepest and most genuine poetry against war comes from those who have seen war:
Wilfred Owen was the son of a railway worker who was born in Shropshire in the English midlands in 1896. He hoped to enter the University of London, but after failing to win a scholarship he found work as a teacher of English in the Berlitz School in Bordeaux. Although he had previously thought of himself as a pacifist, in October 1915 he enlisted in the Artists' Rifles and joined the Manchester Regiment in France in January, 1917. While in France, Owen began writing poems about his war experiences.
Life on the Western Front was bitter indeed. In the summer of 1917, during the Battle of the Somme, a shell landed just two yards away from Owen and he was forced to spend several days trapped in a bomb crater with the mangled corpse of a fellow officer before assistance could pull him out. Following this experience, Owen was diagnosed with shell-shock, and was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital where he met the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who encouraged him to keep on writing, as did another writer at the hospital, Robert Graves. Over the next several months, out of the horror and pain he had experienced, and the futility of the conflict in which he was engaged, Owen wrote a series of war poems, including “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”:
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spoke and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him.
Behold, A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Owen then hurled his own experience of the hell of war against Cicero’s facile pronouncement—“Dule et decorum est pro patria more.”—“Sweet and beautiful it is to die for one’s country.”
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!--An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
There was no beauty, and certainly no sweetness, in war, Owen knew-- as only one who had experienced the hell of war firsthand could know. (Owen was later “cured” of his shell shock, and sent back to the Front, and was killed on the fields of France in November of 1919, during the last week of the Great War. He was 26 years old when he died.)
“Poetry makes nothing happen…” Wars go on. More young men—and women—and children—will die. New tyrants will rise. There will be the endless struggle for power and position and wealth and resources.
Yet Owens’s voice sings deeper and stronger in his death. His hopes may be unfulfilled, but his vision abides. And that is why poetry matters—
Poets pull our eyes away from the mundane and this-worldly to that which is within, and beyond. They challenge us to be the full men and women we would be, if we allowed the Spirit (call that Spirit by what name you will, or call it by no name if you prefer) to transform our beings, and move within us, and move with us.
Poets tell us to turn off the t.v. set—stop listening to the radio— stop reading the newspaper-- at least for little while—and to listen instead, intently, to the voice within. They remind us not to let others do our thinking and feeling for us, but to find our own voice, and own our own experience. In times like these, they remind us not to be swayed by mass opinion, mass marketing, mass thought—but to use our own inner powers of discernment to find our own truth.
Poets remind us that we are not alone. Through the depth of their reflections on their own lives, they reflect our own lives back to us. We sense in their words the uniqueness of their work, the uniqueness of our lives from one another—but the universality of the range of emotions—from deep love to deep rage-- which make us human. Poetry frees us, sometimes willingly, sometimes against our will, from the cell of our selfhood. It invites us to join with all the living, to connect with one another (with all creation) in the dance of life.
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably each day
of what is found there.
Without poetry—indeed, without all of the arts—our spirits would wither and die. We would be no more than cogs in some great inhuman machine. We would squander our humanity and curse our Creator.
We will need sages once again
to guide us through this convulsive time.
Will there be wise men and women once again
to shepherd this nation and this age
through the toils and snares that lie ahead?
Properly inspired, new cities might yet emerge
from the bloodied holy land of Gotham;
and Iraqui children also might yet sing
songs lilting, lovely, and liberated
as they taste at last the buttered bread of freedom.
And history’s wheel will turn gracefully,
as we claim another step in our ascent.
But unlead, uninspired, a corporate-sponsored war
full of bombast, but devoid of meaning,
reigns but more death upon an impoverished nation;
more missing fathers, mothers, children,
even their bodies snatched away, vaporized
in the brilliant evil of death which kills us all
who look directly in its face,
or seek to do its bidding.
And then history’s wheel will lurch ahead,
as we stumble blindly in the darkness of our folly.
Such is the news of the day. And you don’t need poetry to read it or to know what it means.
But with the poets among us (and the poet within each of us) untrammeled and unafraid to speak—no longer marginalized in the towers of academia, nor domesticized to parade forth as wall decorations at this or that public conference or soiree—we may yet avoid the madness of these times—and finally learn the blessing of our being here with one another.
The great Sufi poet Rumi once wrote:
Love has built its house,
Poetry is its frame…
May we each seek to live truthfully the poetry of our lives, so that we might become good builders of the edifice of love.