What is the Poet’s Responsibility?

What is the Poet’s Responsibility?


“What did you expect? You, hypocrite reader,
et cetera? You want some opiate, a poetic abracadabra
so your ordinary responsibility for our ordinary political failure
can be charmed away?” Douglas Oliver [2]

What is the responsibility of the poet, on top of one’s responsibility as a citizen, lover? Artists are often obsessed, and certainly selfish about their need to create. Monet by the deathbed of his wife Camille finding to his shame his concentration on the form of her face, purple shadows. In this essai I suggest that poets have a triple-accountability – to the poem, their audience and as citizens to the world, which poems become part of.

Plato never one for the arts, through Socrates, says of the artist, “If he truly had knowledge of the things he imitates, he’d be much more serious about actions than about imitations of them, would try to leave behind many fine deeds as memorials to himself, and would be more eager to be subject of a eulogy than the author of one”.[3] At least Plato here offers artists a choice. The Old English scops (Old Norse skalds) went into battle with their Lords – poets in oral cultures were celebrated, historians, entertainers, story tellers and PR men combined with recording devices.[4] If the poet still had an assigned role then the questions under the rubric of this essay title would be very different.

Wolfgang Iser points out that, ‘The more comprehensively a medium fulfills its socio-cultural function, the more it is taken for granted, as literature once used to be. It did indeed fulfill several such functions, ranging from entertainment through information and documentation to pastime, but these have now been distributed among many independent institutions . . .’[5]  Poetry is generally ignored by philosophers, politicians, grocers, bankers, artists, and educationalists, but poetry’s popularity, before the Enlightenment, was primarily due to its use as a pedagogical tool in rhetoric studies.

“The aesthetic is not the political, but it may make the political possible.” Isobel Armstrong[6]

Jurgen Habermas wanted the boundaries maintained between philosophy and literature between both of these and science. In his last essay ‘Philosophy and Science as Literature’, he argued that: “In everyday communicative practice, speech-acts retain a force that they lose in literary texts. In the former setting they function in the context of action in which the participants cope with situations and – let’s say it – have to solve problems. In the latter setting they are tailored to a reception that removes the burden of acting from the reader, the situations that he encounters, the problems he faces, are not immediately his own.”[7]

Max Weber’s take on the ethics of responsibility built on an image of an individual responsible only to himself and to his perception of his responsibility. In the 1960s Adorno defended art’s autonomy against those who sought to “transcend” it in favor of a direct intervention in reality, or who preached “commitment” in art;

Rivera travelled to Europe in 1907 and came upon avant-garde formal experiments

but Mexican revolutionary themes and became interested in mural painting. In Italy in 1920 he learnt fresco techniques and returned to Mexico the following year the government had initiated a public program of mural paintings. Rivera, Siquieros and Orozco founded the Union of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors; their manifesto rejected bourgeois easel painting for monumental public art that could educate the illiterate peasant masses.

Pierre Joris regards this increasing “push for clarity, the need to be read exactly literally” as responding to a need which is “profoundly political—in the widest meaning of that word.”[8]

James Sherry has characterised two primary approaches to poetry and its responsibilities to the world, as the ‘lexical’ opposing the ‘formal’: ‘In one view poetry is instrumental to ideas; in the other the writing attempts to be non-instrumental, to become the content in order to forefront the materials of its construction.’[9]  The latter view would ignore the vast majority of poets, alive and dead, and the cumulative history of literature. Pierre Bourdieu viewed poetry, in terms of economic and social institutions, as ‘the disinterested activity par excellence.’ [10]  Ann Lauterbach recalls, ‘One day at lunch James Sherry remarks to me, ‘A piece of white paper is worth, say, half a cent, put a poem on it, and you have to give it away.’[11]  George Steiner worries whether art helps, and wonders, ‘If I have spent the day teaching King Lear or Bach, or in front of Goya, I come home and it may be that the cry in the street is muffled; that it reaches me less directly than if my feelings and responses had not been trained to a deeply passionate involvement with fictions – in the widest sense. If this is so, we must find a way of sharing aesthetic, philosophical experience which makes us more responsive to human pain, and not less.’  [12]

In response to Steiner’s concern, I would cite a poetics that is concerned with the everyday, not the sublime, and with the ordinary, not the transcendental. Most humans live apart from natural environments; the ecological crisis is not just a technological effect, but also a cultural crisis.[13]  Various critics have suggested that language itself is partly to blame (Derek Bickerton), for distancing us from real experience (Bachelard).

In which case, poets have a particular responsibility, one Joseph Brodsky felt keenly: ‘The social function of a poet is writing, which he does not by society’s appointment but by his own volition. His only duty is to his language, that is, to write well. By writing, especially by writing well, in the language of his society, a poet takes a large step towards it. It is society’s job to meet him halfway, that is, to open his book and to read it.’ [14] He thought poetry the supreme art: “Poetry is not an art or a branch of art, it’s something more. If what distinguishes us from other species is speech, then poetry, which is the supreme linguistic operation, is our anthropological, indeed genetic, goal.”[15]

Like Brodsky, Charles Bernstein denies any overt role for poetry in political discourse (though Brodsky, from his experiences of Communism, believed that poetry itself was a freedom (after all the CIA funded Abstract Expressionism)). He writes, ‘[T]he task for poetry is not to translate itself into the language of social and linguistic norms but to question those norms and, indeed, to explore the ways they are used to discipline and contain dissent. Poetry offers not a moral compass but an aesthetic probe.’[16]  This is supporting a subtle moral didacticism (but not informational didacticism), and Kent Johnson has attacked this stance for fundamentally conflating ethics and aesthetics.[17]

“Responsibility is to keep the ability to respond”, said Robert Duncan[18] who fell out with his friend Denise Levertov for criticising her anti-Vietnam War poems which he thought failed from being didactic and not apologising, though he too was against the war. “The problems both Duncan and Levertov encounter in writing protest poetry reveal an increasing difficulty in resolving the tension between individual and collective voice as formed in the public arena of mass culture.” [19] Levertov in the 1970s turned to the personal lyric, believing that change at an individual level can be socially transformative.

The poet of postmodern poetics, Charles Bernstein, attacked ‘righteous monologue’ and the ‘digestible messages’ of the thousands of poems appearing at Sam Hamill’s popular Poets Against the War site’[20] – and plenty of them are poor didactic poems. Bad poetry is literal, clichéd and oversimplifies complex issues, but I am not agreeing with Dana Gioia who urges poets to become again ‘part of American culture’ by writing poems of ‘clarity and accessibility.’ [21]

I supported Sam Hamill’s position and was Sydney Convenor for Poets Against the War. I do suggest that poets have a triple-accountability – to the poem, their audience, and to the world, which poems become part of. And the latter itself is twofold, to what one had done – looking to the past – and to others – looking to the future.[22]  To be devoted to art, at the expense of personhood, is not just a trait of mystic voyants. In 1944, aged twenty-one, Larkin wrote to a friend, ‘I feel that myself & my character are nothing except insofar as they contribute to the creation of literature . . . To increase one’s value as a pure instrument is what I am trying to do.’ [23] Many critics find the direct political poems patronising. Richard Francis writes, “Wilfred Owen’s famous claim that ‘The Poetry is on the pity’ doesn’t add up because the two categories are connected by a one-way valve, so to speak, enabling pity to be a component of poetry, but not the reverse.”[24]

W.H.Auden was asked to participate in the Spanish civil war for propaganda value, being a well-known poet; in a letter he wrote: “I shall probably be a bloody bad soldier. But how can I speak to/for them without becoming one?” He went to fight in the International Brigade, but never fired a shot, nor drove an ambulance, nor carried a stretcher, despite common knowledge – it appears he was blacklisted for not being a member of the Communist Party.Cyril Connoly said he spent his time playing chess, Robert Graves thought it was ping pong.[25] Auden was shocked by the suffering, infighting and atrocities of both sides, but not wanting to support the Fascists, he wrote nothing on his return. He did modify his 1937 poem “Spain” but then would not allow it be published for some time, believing it espoused views he thought he should rather than he felt.[26]
‘Yesterday the classic lecture
On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle.’

After Spain, Auden went to China with Isherwood to observe the Sino-Japanese war, but left disenchanted by the role of the intellectual in war and politics. Aldous Huxley had left for America as a committed pacifist and opposition to war. Auden and Isherwood followed, wanting adventure, but more ambivalent about pacifism. Auden’s poem ‘In Memory of WB Yeats’ with the well known lines, “poetry makes nothing happen” appeared in 1939, in response to Yeats’ late poem ‘The Man and the Echo’ which asks if his early play Cathleen ní Houlihan had caused people to die in the Easter Rising.[27] It was the first poem Auden wrote in the USA, at a time when he and Christopher Isherwood were accused of cowardice for leaving England that year.[28]

The artifice of art worried Auden. His favourite poem, ‘In Praise of Limestone’, searches outside the language of poetry for truths laid down in limestone, a rock composed of past lives transformed by water. ‘In Memory’ was the first poem he wrote after leaving Britain. Auden wrote one of the first poems of the war; ‘September 1, 1939’ but later disowned it as “modish and corrupt.” Marxist Auden forgave Yeats for his right wing stance, his belief in fairies and spiritualism, his hobnobbing with the aristocracy, coming to the view that art is autonomous and should not be didactic, though Yeats did not hold this view, and as an ecopoet I don’t either.[29] Charles Taylor cites Schiller, as originally suggesting that art is self-sufficient, which Baudelaire continued, and which evolved into the doctrine of art for art’s sake.[30]

What did you do in the war? Samuel Beckett was in the French resistance and scorned Irish neutrality, “My friends eat sawdust and turnips while all of Ireland safely gorges”.[31] Then there’s collaboration. Alexandre Jardin’s recent book “Des Gens Très Bien” (“Very Nice People”), is an exposé of his famous family’s complicity with Jewish deportation and execution under Vichy: “In the end it was not at all necessary to be a monster to participate in the worst . . .  in my family there has not been any [feeling of] guilt after the war. My grandfather had the feeling of having done good. It is incredible.” Rose Bosch’s film ‘La Rafle’ (‘The Round Up’) depicting these events has just been released. In Britain there were rumours of German spies being welcomed here in the South West echoing March 1689), and outrage when De Valera visited the German envoy to offer condolence on Hitler’s death.[32] But it’s too easy to judge – Ireland was a weak infant state and I haven’t yet read Clair Willis’s ‘That Neutral Land’.

What did you do in the war? Who knows what you would do in a war? But if you want to write poetry it should be good so that it can “insist upon being read or ignored”. In the autumn of 1917 Yeats married a medium and reported that “spiritual instructors” had begun to whisper to him. Meanwhile Wilfred Owen wrote ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ on the 8th October 1917 (revised a few months later) and next day writes to his mother, “Here is a gas poem, done yesterday……..the famous Latin tag (from Horace, Odes) means of course it is sweet and meet to die for one’s country. Sweet! and decorous!” He hated the glorification of war. At the same time Edward Thomas was cut down by machine gun fire leading his men over the top and my Great Uncle George Bennett was torn up by a shell – he who lives by the sword . . . He was with the artillery, after a 10 day bombardment by 3,000 guns firing 4.25 million shells the British offensive started at 3.50 am on 31st July – that is when he died, I have his pennies bent by shrapnel, the same day as the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge. Four months later, the Allies had advanced five miles and lost 300,000 men. Each casualty is a life with family friends, numbers don’t add up. [33]

The artillery had planted nearly 5 tons of explosives per square metre of front. Who are the innocent?

Senator Yeats spent most of the Irish Civil War 1922 – 23 at the Savile Club, in Piccadilly (founded in 1868 for the purposes of conversation and good company). At the same time Virginia Woolf was writing that Clarissa Dalloway, “cared much more for her roses than for Armenians. Hunted out of existence, maimed, frozen, the victims of cruelty and injustice . . .no, she could feel nothing for the Albanians, or was it Armenians? But she loved her roses (didn’t that help the Armenians?”

Ezra Pound had criticised US neutrality in the face of the Armenian genocide, his Cantos opened a collagist Modernism, an opening of form, a freedom, but his politics were rightwing and anti-Semitic. He made radio broadcasts for Mussolini and was going to be put on trial for treason but was sent instead to a comfortable asylum for 13 years.[34] Auden, one of the judges who awarded the Bollinger Poetry Prize to Pound after the war, said he wouldn’t have if the award would have led to anti-Semites reading the Pisan Cantos and becoming disposed to violence (when it becomes an ethical not aesthetic matter). Clement Greenberg, on the other hand, wanted to refuse to honour Pound as a significant poet because he was a destructive citizen.[35]

Jorge Luis Borges supported the military dictatorship of Videla and even Pinochet, In 76 he gave a speech in Chile: “In and of itself a dictatorship doesn’t seem reprehensible, one has to consider the particular circumstances. In itself empires don’t seem to be wrong. The Roman Empire and the British Empire did a lot of good. . . . For a long time I believed in democracy. Now I don’t believe in it; at least not in my own country. [36] This was when atrocities were being committed in both Chile and Argentina. Do we want to ban his novels? Do we excuse him because it was personal, he hated Juan Peron’s fascist policies and support for Nazi Germany. When Peron became President, he demoted Borges from municipal librarian to poultry inspector and imprisoned his mother and sister. Borges claimed he didn’t know there was a torture centre near his home, saying, “I don’t read newspapers”.

[1] Robert Duncan quote from Jonathan Williams, An Ear in Bartram’s Tree, New Directions, 1969.

[2] Douglas Oliver, Penniless Politics. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1994, p76.

[3] Plato, Republic R, 599b

[4] One of the finest Anglo Saxon poems, ‘the Battle of Maldon’ celebrates Earl Byrhtnoth and his men who fell in battle against the Vikings in 991. “I am old, I will not go away, but I plan to lie down by the side of my lord, by the man so dearly loved.”

[5] Wolfgang Iser, The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993, px.

[6] Isobel Armstrong, The Radical Aesthetic, Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000, p43.

[7] Jurgen Habermas, Postmethaphysical Thinking: Philosophical Essays, London: Polity Press, 1998, P223

[8] Pierre Joris, “The Tea-Brown Light of Kindness (Notes on the work of Douglas Oliver).” Intercapillary Space [Weblog]. 20 Nov. 2006.

[9] James Sherry, introduction to Poetry Criticism: Poetry and Politics On October 26, 2000, the Poetry Society of America. The second debate in its continuing Poetry and Criticism series. http://www.poetrysociety.org/journal/offpage/poetry_politics.html [DL 9.1.2001]

[10] Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature , trans. Randal Johnson, Polity, Cambridge, 1993, p51.

[11] Ann Lauterbach, ‘Misquotations from Reality’, Diacritics, 26:3-4, 1996, p154.

[12] quoted by Maya Jaggi, George and his dragons’, The Guardian, 17 March 2001. . Walter Benjamin warned, ‘Our cultural treasures, have an origin which [one] cannot contemplate without horror… There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’ Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Ed., Hannah Arendt, Schoken Books, p256.

[13] Daniel Bell writes, ‘people live more and more outside nature, and less and less with machinery and things; they live with and encounter, only one another… For most of human history, reality was nature . . In the past 150 years, reality has become technics, tools and things made by men yet given an independent existence outside man in a reified world. . Now reality is becoming only the social world.’ Daniel Bell, ‘Culture and Religion in a Post-industrial Age’ in “Ethics in an Age of Pervasive Technology’, ed. Melvin Kranzberg, p36-7 Westview Press, 1980. See Val Plumwood for a cultural account. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason, Routledge, 2002.

[14] ‘An Immodest Proposal’ in On Grief and Reason; New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995

[15] ‘Anyone who regards poetry as an entertainment, as a ‘read,’ commits an anthropological crime, in the first place, against himself.’ Joseph Brodsky, Writers at Work, The Paris Review Interviews, Eighth Series, Ed., George Plimpton, 1988

[16] Bernstein’s paper titled ‘Enough’ which began, ‘In these difficult times, let us not draw away from our poetics in an attempt to redress the ominous possibilities of future U.S. government policies or the onerous effects of current government policies. As poets, we need to pursue our own forms of ethical and aesthetic response rather than engage in the sort of pronouncement by fiat and moral presumption of President Bush and his partisans.’ He continued, And it can provide a radical alternative to the outcome-driven thinking that has made the Official Morality of the State a mockery of ethical thinking and of international democratic values.’ Presented at the ‘enough’ reading and launch at the Bowery Poetry Club on March 9, 2003. enough: an anthology of poetry and writings against the war, Ed. Rick London & Leslie Scalapino, Oakland: O Books, 2003. Bernstein, ‘Enough!’, Poetics List archives, posted 10 March 2003 http://listserv.acsu.buffalo.edu/archives/poetics.html. [DL 29.3.2003]

[17] Johnson comments, ‘But it soon becomes clear that the real, unnamed target of Bernstein’s cry of ‘Enough!’ is not the moral arrogance of the Bush administration, but the ‘righteous monologue’ and ‘digestible messages,’ as he puts it, of the thousands of poems appearing at Sam Hamill’s amazingly popular Poets Against the War site.’ Kent Johnson ‘Bernstein’s ‘Enough!’, Possum Pouch March 12, 2003 http://www.skankypossum.com/pouch/ He continues, ‘[A]cademically-contextualized poetics really has little to currently offer beyond prescriptive pronouncements like Bernstein’s—pronouncements that fundamentally conflate ethics and aesthetics, and which, in so doing, preempt any idea of democratic dialogue and political unity within the multifarious poetic community.’ Kent Johnson has been associated with the Yasusada hoax. I have an interest here, being responsible for organising the Sydney activities of Australian Poets Against the War. Roland Robinson recalls the anti Vietnam War demos in the stadium at Rushcutters Bay. He read an Australian version of a poem Padraic Pearse wrote before his execution, Easter, 1916.

‘I am Australia. / I am lonelier then he old woman Kunapippi. / Great my glory./ I, who raised Eureka’s flag.’ A Letter to Joan, An Autobiography, 1962-73, Macmillan, 1978, p90.

[18] Robert Duncan quote from Jonathan Williams, An Ear in Bartram’s Tree, New Directions, 1969.

[19] Anne Day Dewey, Beyond Maximus: The Construction of Public Voice in Black Mountain Poetry, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007, p121.

[20] Kent Johnson ‘Bernstein’s ‘Enough!’, Possum Pouch March 12, 2003 http://www.skankypossum.com/pouch/

[21] Dana Gioia, Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture, St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, l992,  p22, 232, 197. Mary Kinzie also calls for, ‘clarity and dignity.’ The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose: Moral Essays on the Poet’s Calling. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993, p62.

[22] See Alfred Schutz, ‘Some Equivocations in the Notion of Responsibility’ in Collected Papers Vol 2, Studies in Social Theory, Nijhoff, 1964, p274-6

[23] Quoted by Adam Kirsch, ‘Poet in Full’, The Walrus, http://www.walrusmagazine.com/article.pl?sid=04/03/10/2221215&tid=1

[DL 4.3.2004]

[24] Richard Francis, ‘Singing and Shouting’, PN Review, Sept-Oct 1993, Vol20:1, p88.

[25] Peter Edgerly Firchow, W.H. Auden: contexts for poetry, University of Delaware Press, 2002, p137-8.

[26] See Eric Hobsbawm, ‘War of ideas’, The Guardian, 17.2.2007.

[27] There were unconfirmed reports that leaders of the Easter Rising were reciting lines from that play as they carried out their doomed rebellion. “The Fenians who led the Rising were by 1916 suspicious of Yeats, some considering him a turncoat.” Harry Eyres, ‘How words can become action’, Financial Times, January 28 2011.

[28] They were named in parliament as examples of “British citizens of military age who have gone to the United States.” In 1944 Isherwood wrote to Cyril Connolly that, “our coming to America … was an altogether irresponsible act, prompted by circumstances —like our trip to China.” Quoted by Brooke Allen, ‘Brilliantly frivolous’, The New Criterion, Volume 15 March 1997, on page 71

[29] In a 1940 essay ’The Public vs. Mr William Butler Yeats’ Auden mounted a mock-trial of the poet but found for the defence. In 1988, Edward Said praised his decolonial attitudes

[30] He also cites Kant as coming close to claiming the independence of beauty in his third Critique from moral demands, or utilitarian usefulness. ‘But Kant doesn’t take that step. The beautiful turns out to be another way that we are in touch with the supersensible in us. It is a ‘symbol of the morally good.’ It is thus related and firmly subordinated to our moral destiny.’ Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, Cambridge, Mass., 1989, p423, 440,434.

[31] Ireland did suffer food shortages towards the end of the war.

[32] Clair Wills, That Neutral Island: A Cultural History of Ireland During the Second World War, Faber, 2007

[33] First Gulf War, US had 148 killed in action, 458 wounded, 121 killed in nonhostile actions and 11 female combat deaths. In June 1991 the U.S. estimated that more than 100,000 Iraqi soldiers died, 300,000 were wounded. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulf_War, other sources suggest 13,000 civilians were killed directly by American and allied forces, and about 70,000 civilians died subsequently from war-related damage to medical facilities and supplies, the electric power grid, and the water system and 40,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed in the conflict, putting total Iraqi losses from the war and its aftermath at 158,000. Beth Osborne Daponte, a Commerce Dept. demographer in 1992 she publicly contradicted then-Defense Secretary Richard Cheney on the highly sensitive issue of Iraqi civilian casualties during the Gulf War.

[34] ”The Pound case is one of the earliest and most flagrant examples of the ongoing abuse of psychiatry in the American criminal-justice system. For it seems clear that one man, Dr. Overholser, decided that Pound should not stand trial for treason and then singlehandedly engineered the testimony that led to his hospital confinement. Overholser believed that Pound was a great American poet who, although he had made ‘mistakes,’ should not have to face the risk of execution.” Dr. Torrey, Pyschology Today. Quoted by HERBERT MITGANG, ‘RESEARCHERS DISPUTE EZRA POUND’S ‘INSANITY’’ NY Times, 31,10.1981.

[35] May 1949 Partisan Review forum, “The Question of the Pound Award”. Clement Greenberg wrote, “As a Jew, I myself cannot help being offended by the matter of Pound’s latest poetry; And since 1943 things like that make me feel physically afraid too.”

[36] Katherine Singer Kovacs, ‘Borges on the Right’, Fall 1977 issue of Boston Review

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