america kills its poets
America kills its poets.
If you are a novelist you can be sure it will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry.
America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
Our poets die of optimism mixed with politics. They drink in a poisonous reverence for Whitman. (If they were ever alive to begin with. I am not concerning myself with Billy Collins here.) They’re outraged by the present and, in the same breath, dreaming of a common language.
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations
Whitman wrote in the aftermath of the Civil War. He was filled with the false hope that accompanies reconciliation, and nobody could have articulated that hope more clearly or more beautifully. It was also the only thing he had to say. His career reads like this: first, he published Leaves of Grass. Then he published it again. Then again, and again, and so on, until the end of his life. No person today would call Reconstruction a time of unity and justice, but to Whitman, that was how it seemed.
We at war. We at war with terrorism, racism, but most of all, we at war with ourselves.
We are still engaged in a civil war. What does every serious American novel scream, if it is actually set in America? It screams: GET ME OUT OF HERE! I CANNOT STAND THESE PEOPLE! That is how Ellison’s invisible man feels. It is how Nathan Zuckerman feels. “Why do you hate the South?” “I dont hate it,” Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately. It is how little Pearl and Natty Bumpo feel, before they disappear into the woods. Countess Olenska returns to Europe. Richard Katz hides from everything, even his art. Nick Carraway leaves East Egg in disgust. Huckleberry lights out for the territories. GET ME OUT OF HERE!
The scream of an illegitimate voice. It may not feel like constructive criticism, but it does measure how far we are, still, from democracy.
We have no Celtic or Arthurian myths to console us. Our polemicists are poets — Paine, Jefferson, Lincoln, King — so our poets try to take up that theme as well, the theme of democratic unity. Ginsberg had no idea what to write after “Howl.” Eliot is both preacher and candidate in Four Quartets. The result is an absurdly condescending poem, except for “Little Gidding,” where everything goes up in flames.
Thank goodness Dickinson believed her writing would be burned.
When I was a senior in college, my girlfriend gave me The Dream of a Common Language. She read “Cartographies of Silence” out loud to me, and we both loved it because of the last line: “The truth breaks moist and green.” That’s what we yearned for. It is still one of the most beautiful endings I’ve ever read.
But there’s also this: “In Dreyer’s Passion of Joan / Falconetti’s face, hair shorn, a great geography / mutely surveyed by the camera.” What is Dreyer doing here? Well, he’s here because Rich is quietly entering the fray. She is determined to re-take Falconetti’s rebellious androgyny from Henry Miller and Tropic of Cancer.
There are even bursts of “self-esteem”: “these words / moving with ferocious accuracy / like the blind child’s fingers.” Ferocious accuracy! At least it’s less egregious than “Phenomenal Woman,” our most recent version of “Song of Myself.”
Rich devoted ever more of herself to polemic. I saw her speak: she was grumpy, and bitter about the state of the country. I also saw Gloria Steinem speak. The dissimilarity could not have been more striking. Steinem was full of anger and joy. Her watchword was activism, and she suggested good, practical measures. Advocating for equality did not mean, to her, feeling the sacrifice of nights “though which two people / have talked till dawn.”
Some poets find their voice in the midst of the struggle, like Bob Dylan. The rest get bruised. cummings remained childlike in his poems. The harder we try to argue otherwise, the more obvious it becomes. O’Hara only wrote to his lovers and friends. Plath and Berryman replicated the war as something inside themselves, and then went to work on it, not unlike Edward Norton shooting himself in the face. I learned this trick the day Jay Cee took me to lunch with a famous poet.
(…The whole section about the poet anticipates “Lady Lazarus.” The performance, the pantomimed arrogance, the anguish. But then we’re back to “I peered over at Hilda, who sat on the other side of Betsy.” Get me out of here!)
Some poets do find a space beyond Whitman; Elizabeth Bishop comes to mind. She chose to follow Dickinson rather than Whitman: “the sensation of falling off / the round, turning world, / into cold, blue-black space.” Bishop writes from the yellow margins, in the null space of a waiting room, but contemplating a volcano “spilling over / in rivulets of fire.” Langston Hughes turned toward music and accepted that Harlem might one day explode — in fact, that it probably would, rightfully so.
Only an American like Eliot could write that “the poetry doesn’t matter.” But it does. The poetry matters as much as the message. Uneven Adrienne Rich matters as much as poets like Bishop or Hughes. In a curious way, she is more real to us because she let critique and radio stations invade her poetry, like Ginsberg and so many others. In Passions, Jacques Derrida writes: “Literature thus ties its destiny […] to the space of democratic feedom. No democracy without literature; no literature without democracy.” He described American democracy perfectly when he called democracy that which is [still] to come.
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty–
The woman who gave me The Dream of a Common Language came from a family that hated our being together, on religious as well as political grounds. We fled briefly to Ireland, her working on plays, me writing fiction. Then we came back and imploded. She became a lawyer, and has not returned to the theater. I became a graduate student and have not completed my novel.
Cheryl Strayed, I’m looking forward to reading your book, but Rich’s dream of a common language should not be turned into a religion. That’s not a common language, or what Rich would have wanted. Her legacy should be a nation where the conditions are such that literature can thrive. May Adrienne Rich be remembered as she really was: ringed with ordeals she was mastered by, but also capable of poems deep as earth.
Over the past two decades I have witnessed the increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice in our country.
There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art–in my own case the art of poetry–means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage. The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A President cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.
I know you have been engaged in a serious and disheartening struggle to save government funding for the arts, against those whose fear and suspicion of art is nakedly repressive. In the end, I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope. My concern for my country is inextricable from my concerns as an artist. I could not participate in a ritual which would feel so hypocritical to me.