Friday, July 25, 2008

Instrumental Poetry and the Environment

In contemporary poetry there is an interface between environmental activism and poetry, but I’m not sure how well known the leading figures in it are, or how many people read their publications. My guess is they haven't received much attention. I assume Green poetry falls under judgments directed against any kind of poetry attempting to be “instrumental,” that is, to change how we feel, think, and act. The battle-cry for the anti-instrumentalists is Auden’s “Poetry makes nothing happen,” a statement he amplified by asserting that history would be exactly the same if no poems had ever been written. That’s shocking from someone who admired science and the scientific method as much as he did. It’s not a statement that can be proved or disproved and therefore qualifies as fairly idle speculation. If we look at his biography, we can understand why he might make it, disillusioned as he was by the Spanish Civil War and by the bad poems with political content written by Stalinists during “the low dishonest decade.” But as is so often true with Auden, he overstated his case; he seems to have enjoyed provocative comments for their own sake. The preponderance of the evidence is that poetry has in fact made a difference in history. Relevant arguments have been made elsewhere and involve figures as notable as Dante, Milton, Blake, Whitman, Yeats, Rukeyser, Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Rich, and Audre Lorde. Instead of rehearsing them here, I’d like to analyze the attitudes that underlie the assertion that poetry “makes nothing happen.”

Begin with Eliot’s description of poetry as “a superior entertainment.” If poetry’s value is only as entertainment, why should we care more about poetry than we do about Broadway musicals, standup comics, movie thrillers, TV's "Desperate Housewives," video games, and poker playing? Sweden doesn’t give Nobel prizes for those things, so clearly they aren’t generally regarded as important to global culture. Eliot’s loophole is, no doubt, that very Eliotic adjective “superior,” which he doesn’t bother to define. Knowing what we do about him, we can speculate that superiority involves playing on the keys of a refined knowledge of the Western tradition, the use of original, carefully chosen language, and a serious engagement with contemporary reality. If that’s what he meant, then “instrumentality” is still on the table, or at least being purveyed under the counter. Poetry is being asked to keep us in touch with crucial works in the tradition, to influence how we use language, to strengthen our grasp of what is real, and to hone our ethical faculties. Those are certainly "instrumental" uses for poetry. For some readers, the next step would be to translate a clarified sense of justice into some kind of activism, and it's only this instance of "instrumentality" that is ever criticized.

My sense is that the majority of the readership is uninterested in or actively dislikes poems with ethical, political and activist aspects. Why is that? Possibilities: activism is a kind of work, it’s only occasionally fun, and we are a fun-loving people. We like to be entertained, but we don’t like the “superior” part of entertainment. We think we’re short on time and money, so we don’t want to expend what he have on noble causes; our discretionary income should go for new Japanese cars or tickets for the Superbowl; our free time should be spent skiing or watching the latest episode of "Law and Order." Because poems about injustice (unless we are the object of it) make us feel guilty, we dismiss a poetry of engagement as inartistic and ineffective. American culture is the culture of self-affirmation. We like people and things that “make us feel good about ourselves.” We like to attack others, but we don’t enjoy taking our own inventory. The attitude of “I am totally cool” can be raised to the national level so that the United States comes to be described as “the greatest nation on earth.” Another statement that can’t be proved or disproved, it’s interesting mainly as an index to the national character. Anyone attempting to prove it, though, would have to reckon with statistics on infant mortality rates here; the inaction of Federal government where clean energy is concerned and its failure to address environmental issues like water pollution and global warming; the huge disparity between American wealth and American poverty; chronicles of greed like the implosion of Enron and the adventurism of the mortgage industry; the persistence of racial prejudice and homophobia; the disparity between salaries for men and those for women employees; and the shockingly high percentage of incarcerated people. (One in seven Americans has or has had a relative in prison.) By mentioning these things, I've just qualified myself in some quarters as an "America hater." But self-correction is actually a form of self-respect. If I didn't give a damn about my native land I wouldn't bother to point out its errors and misdeeds, I'd do something more fun.


I’m spending the summer in Rhode Island and recently took an excursion to a stretch of the shore south of Narragansett where, instead of beaches, land meets sea in rock outcroppings big waves crash against with breathtaking drama. It’s just one of thousands of beautiful natural sites in this vast country whose great good fortune is to have an amazing variety of geological formations, climates, plants, and animals. And yet there is a sector of the population who doesn’t seem to recognize the value of this inheritance. You can’t walk on the Narragansett Bay rocks without constantly stumbling over litter left there by visitors who don’t feel any obligation whatsoever to take their garbage with them when they leave. Worse still are the graffiti announcing profundities like “Jake Loves Brittany, May 2003.” By now Jake has gone on to Stephanie or Tiffany, but so what: his bright pink graffito is still there and will be for a century unless someone with special training, polluting chemicals and tools comes to erase it, an expense not included in state or local budgets. What’s wrong with this picture? Why are kids brought up here to think it’s cool to deface natural sites that belong to everyone? Does this sort of thing bother anyone else, or is it just me? I suppose it’s just me, the indefatigable reformer, Cassandra prophesying to an unheeding Trojan populace. Nobody likes a scold, and I apologize for being one. What’s my problem, why can’t I get with the program and just let it all slide like everybody else? I really don’t know the answer, but I do know that the impulse is instinctive, pre-rational. When I see someone brutalizing another person or an animal or a landscape, I first feel sick, and then I feel angry. I'm also preaching to myself here, since I'm aware I don't devote enough time to fighting the abuses that cause me so much chagrin. Sorry about that.


Mark Granier said...

Elegantly put Alfred, and no need to apologize (to me anyway). I find myself in much the same boat.

Things being various said...

[NB Originally I posted this comment by accident to the wrong day - apologies for any confusion]

I'd like to unpack Auden's 'Poetry makes nothing happen'. In context, the poem written in 1939 'In memory of W.B. Yeats', Auden refers specifically (though he widens it out to include all poetry) to Ireland:'mad Ireland hurt you into poetry./Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,/For poetry makes nothing happen', but he goes on to say 'it survives/ In the valley of its saying where executives/ Would never want to tamper … /it survives,/ A way of happening, a mouth.’

i.e. poetry certainly doesn’t make things happen but it offers us a way that could make things happen.

And later Auden says:
‘Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night.
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start
… ‘

If our political or environmental or other concerns still hurt us into poetry I don’t think Auden would deny the healing fountain. Poetry works in other ways than the purely polemical.

(And it’s true nearly 70 years later Ireland still has her madness and her weather.)

Another reading of that line ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’. I expect others have noticed (I can’t claim originality, I’m not a scholar) the double meaning therein. It can read ‘poetry doesn’t make anything happen’, but alternatively ‘poetry makes Nothing happen’, i.e. poets are like god at the moment of creation.

Alfred Corn said...

Thanks to Mark and Janet for their thoughts. I want to make it clear that I'm not saying every poem must have a political subject in the foreground. I am urging those who automatically dismiss poetry with political subject matter to reconsider. I'm not saying that a valid political argument is all a poem needs. I am saying that our feelings about justice and an endangered environment can, as with all other feelings, fuel the writing of imaginative texts that have the quality of art.