The Work of Language, From Here on
by R. T. Smith
–Scott Russell Sanders
from “Amos and James,” Shenandoah 45/3
Not long after the Persian Gulf War began I entered the poetry writing class I was teaching at Auburn University prepared to discuss a Theodore Roethke poem and two in-progress student poems, but as soon as I walked into the seminar room I sensed a sharpened, troubled atmosphere. The fifteen or so students – a widely diverse group for the Auburn of that day – were speaking “in hushed tones” among themselves, small groups and pairs, hardly aware of my entrance. I guessed it was about the escalating hostilities in Kuwait and Iraq, so I opened with a question.
In times of alarm and emergency, when the world seems suddenly altered, skewed, stakes raised, urgency in the air, why should we be sitting here debating whether a two- or three-syllable verb in line four or a less generic noun two lines later would serve the poems better? Diction, trope, pace, echo, nuance – is this the best we can do?
Slowly we talked ourselves into an answer I found fortifying and inspiring. Some students said right away that we must interrogate our subject matter and attitudes. Others suggested that we could not effectively speak/write of such consequential matters until our skills were developed. Another popular opinion: we should write about the deeply troubling times but should balance the personal with an historical and cultural awareness often missing from the poems we wrote and from even those we had read in the anthologies.
All well enough, but I was especially gratified when the conversation took a turn toward a much more thorough and resourceful discussion related to the mantra “words matter” that we’re hearing so much these days.
When a candidate, a surrogate, a sycophant, anchor, guest, satirist or commentator wants to suggest that an adversary is using shifty language, exaggerating, obfuscating or being imprecise (especially in a pejorative manner, then excusing it with the old, “don’t be so picky . . . you know what I mean”), media professionals and amateurs alike will scold their colleagues with the charge to measure their words and not promote collateral damage with slipshod sentences. As a chant or charm, it’s not very effective.
From eleven till noon that warm Alabama morning, we spoke of the two aspects of poetry that Borges called “algebra and fire.” The former is easier to talk about, a matter of craft. As finished woodwork (or clockwork or surgery) should be disciplined, tight, flush, square, plumb, meshing, synchronized, so should wordwork. Silence is as important as pitch, connotation as weighty as denotation. Questions of line and rhythm, timing and rhyme, image and idea, music and yammer, regimen and improvisation. The list goes on. When we analyze a draft of a poem, we’re crafty, adversarial, hopeful, tentative, testing the wind and moisture, pulse and breath, heat and meter.
This is half of what we do in poetry class. We bring our senses, intellect, a fury for precision to the words before us and those that might be summoned to improve them. We assemble the evidence and sort it and wrestle the words till they bless us. But we can’t forget the fire, which I wouldn’t want to suggest is wholly separate from the algebra. They can collaborate so intricately that they form a bond, which suggests what the poem means and how it means, why it matters and is worth the sweat and time and frustration. But in its (hypothetically) pure form, the fire is the sine qua non, the passionate connection to particular words and even syllables, morphemes and phonemes, the slight lift we feel with a double l or the scent revived in our nostrils when we read “fox” because of one winter day in a stand of spruce . . . . Call it the irrational, instinctive, mysterious. It comes from both personal and collective memory. Words can act as charms, and different phrases are spellbinding for different readers. Although we can’t know who will feel the anguish of “Guernica” when we say “Picasso” nor who will, instead, be soothed by the memory of the blue paintings, as aspiring poets we have signed on to consider such matters. To factor in the inexplicable, to give our heart’s work over to figuring why “stirring dull roots with spring rain” is so resonant but discomfiting and why “Jenny kissed me” in its famous context so often arouses a satisfying response that “Mary Lou kissed me” will probably not.
In class that day we rededicated ourselves to the belief that we must be both the fervent anatomists of poems, elbow deep in their linguistic shadows, and at the same time their empathetic caretakers, that we read them and, more importantly, write them with our full beings on the job. This is how we make words matter, language count, and we surely have some responsibility to present those words in the public forum the best ways we know how. Black Elk said that anyone with a dream vision was obligated to act it out before the circle of the tribe. We may not be able to equal his spirit, but we can try.
The fleurs du mal of bigotry, posturing, selfishness, resentment and belligerence now dominating our national conversation have sprouted from seeds of discord sown, nourished, even prayed over for some time now. If one constituency stands to thrive in the discord, then those who cherish harmony must speak (and write) with precision, candor, thoroughness, music and magic. Sometimes rhetoric and peroration are the vehicles of such light, but more often language that aspires to the condition of art is the right tool. We question the overtones of one word, the accentual pattern of another and so on until we make an artifact that contributes to the conversation in what we hope will be an original and life-enhancing way.
Last week I was speaking with a former intern who was disconsolate over the conduct of the recent election, the results, the immediate aftermath. She had for days fled the entire melee, the discourse of combat, the reckless words that almost inevitably nourish reckless actions. When she emerged from her isolation and grief, she was rededicated to craft and fire, but with the additional conviction that humor, wit, satire were essential to saving ourselves from despair. She found Colbert, Stewart and SNL tonic, in part because the participants were able to laugh at themselves while laughing at their nemeses. I recommended Twain, and I would add Aristophanes, Heller, O’Connor.
Frost wrote that politics is about the grievances, while poetry is about the grief. I believe we’re in the perfect position to see that, however desperate he was for a neat equation and a clear distinction in the human heart, the real situation is infinitely more intricate. Grief and grievance, soul and appetite, mortal wound and flesh wound, mortal sin and venial. The enormity of frustration, anger . . . . Who would suggest that poetry and politics, grievance and grief don’t get tangled up and assail us in tandem?
How can a poem help? Last week I posted as Shenandoah’s Poem of the Week Yeats’s great “The Second Coming,” which vividly and persuasively articulates the current situation as many of us perceive it. It’s a warning, and hardly a forecast of brighter times to come. Here I want to post another wonderful (crafty and passionate) Irish poem, Michael Longley’s “Ceasefire,” in the hopes that it can suggest where we might go from here, what is the possibility of truce and negotiation, mercy and forgiveness, if hearts are willing and those who pant for profit and whose eyes are cold can be still and patient until we all, like Stafford’s famous narrator “hear the wilderness listen,” especially if the wilderness is within us.
Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.
Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.
When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:
‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’
[This poem can be found in Longley’s Collected Poems (Wake Forest University, 2007]
A few other poems worth reading as we consider (with no small alarm) how warlike the sounds from our political camps have become:
Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”
Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum”
Henry Reed’s “The Naming of Parts”
James Dickey’s “The Firebombing”
Stephen Crane’s “War Is Kind”
Richard Eberhardt’s “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment”
. . . but there are so many other poems that achieve that Frostian “momentary stay against confusion,” the evidence is clear: writing and reading hard-wrought poems with gravity, soul and sturdy architecture is one of the best things we can do in time of emergency. Thoreau advised this pair of priorities: rescue the drowning and tie our shoelaces. The act of making or re-making a poem can involve both, and I do not wish here to suggest that anger must be altogether banished or denied (“O for a Muse of fire”), but perhaps anger is a necessary section of the road and not a useful destination, despite the fact that right now it seems to fuel many flames and tongues.