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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Irrelevance

 

With the American government sending drones overseas, with our military involved over the past decade in conflict after dirty conflict; with the largest incarcerated population in the world, and most of these prisoners being males of a specific, long-underprivileged minority; with inequality actively on the rise around the world, American poets must write about the sociopolitical issues of their time. If they don’t, if they insist on writing about dead dogs and divorces, they are worse than irrelevant; they are, as artists and as human beings, morally wanting.

It is possible this line of reasoning may strike the reader as valid; the fact that many American page poets avoid this kind of subject matter may account, in the opinions of some, for our small readership and the general perception of our irrelevance. I spent some time among other writers and poets recently (a rare thing for me), many of them hailing from overseas and living and teaching in the U.S., and this idea was taken for granted. Immediately a sniffing contemptuous consensus arose: How remiss these American poets are, how morally deficient! They come from the country of drone warfare and Ferguson, but they remain silly and navel-gazing and parochial and frequently apolitical.

As the only born-and-raised American poet there, I felt a surge of defensiveness. At first this was purely patriotic; I’ll criticize us plenty, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let a bunch of “world writers” do it. Within a few moments, though, the rational, analytic part of me kicked in, and I got to thinking about poetic art during the American imperium–both my own work, and the work of poets I love.

First, the historical angle. At the height of the British empire, in Victorian England, what was the best poetry written? Victorians themselves thought it was Tennyson’s multipart elegy, In Memoriam A.H.H.; contemporaries like myself would add the God-mad, tongue-drunk poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, which were often thoroughly religious in character. (In fact, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” one of his few poems on a contemporary event, strikes me as having aged the worst. If it was ever any good to begin with.) Meanwhile, the newspaper verse of Rudyard Kipling has quite vanished from notice; we scarcely even grant such stuff the name of poetry.

Much of the best Romantic era poetry was written during the Napoleonic Wars…and had nothing to do with the Napoleonic Wars. It’s not as though Byron’s ode about Napoleon was considered special or valued for its relevance, either by his contemporaries or by posterity. Hamlet was written in the same year the East India Company received its charter. There are historical contexts for Paradise Lost, say, with Cromwell the rebel against an earthly monarchy dovetailing, perhaps, with Satan the rebel against the heavenly one; but this hardly matches topicality of a “drone poem.” At one point during the Vietnam War, Sylvia Plath wrote about being “cow-heavy and floral.”

I could build this list, I feel, indefinitely, drawing examples from every literary tradition you can name. Tagore’s Gitanjali? Indifferent to the Indian Independence movement. Yeats and Auden wrote excellent topical political poems (although I recall that Auden later repudiated “September 1, 1939”), but where and how did the atomic bomb blasts register in Eliot’s poetry? My point is not that topical political themes are kryptonite to the Muse—we have plenty of examples of excellent war poetry, especially from World War I—but rather that “relevance” and poetic power seem to appear independently of one another.

And, more importantly, that poetry seems utterly indifferent to moral pressure of any sort. It is one of the “humanities,” but it is not quite humanitarian. Tennyson had his “Charge of the Light Brigade,” but why does that poem still work, if it works at all? Clearly it’s not because anybody gives a damn about the Light Brigade. Clearly there’s something that makes poetry poetry that is separate from its contemporary relevance. What this is has for centuries baffled scholar and poet alike, and is, in any case, not the subject of this essay. It is enough that we distinguish between the two.

Which brings us to the original reproach, and the original question. Are we obligated to pursue both the topical and the poetic simultaneously? Or shall we pursue one and not the other? Just as a blogger pursues topicality but not poetry, might a poet pursue poetry and not topicality? Is there something (morally, aesthetically, sociopolitically) wrong with that division of aims?

If there is, well, most everybody worth reading is guilty. Quirky and oblique Kay Ryan is a poet who wrote through the height of the America’s foreign wars; ditto the religiously intense Christian Wiman, and A. E. Stallings writing about children and olives…. I could go on. Poetic life and political life, while never divorced entirely from one another, have created and continue to create only tangentially and intermittently related histories. Poets, and not just American ones, seem to wander where they will, like cats; and like cats we refuse to be herded into a single subject or theme. Our obsessions define the larger shape of our work, no matter how many disturbing photographs show up in our Facebook feeds. Just as we compartmentalize in our daily lives, we compartmentalize in our artistic lives as well. Poetry has been this way for centuries—sometimes writing about the latest sensationalized disaster, but most frequently, not.

So yes, I am an American poet, and yes, someone is piloting a drone in my name even as we speak. Now please excuse me while I go write a poem about Shiva meditating atop Mount Kailasa….