The first of Stephen Pearl Andrews' writings in The Errant Compass, a column by The groundUp.
Poetry is the most potent form of communication, in that it’s the most concentrated. In the soundest poetry, no words are wasted—even if the poem is a prolific torrent of words. It’s not a matter of being economical, as such. It is, rather, cutting scythe-like through the dense thicket of overgrown, stout weeds, also known as everyday language. Shelley said that poetry “awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought.”
Yet does it change the world? Is it up to the task of throwing down sham democracy, bringing an enlightenment that is efficacious, one that will change the course of history? Auden says not. Or does he?
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
An awful lot happens in these six lines. Surviving the valley of your making signifies tremendous progress in a world that commonly holds words in its cheeks like cold hash to be spat out. Those raw towns, we’re all living in them now. We stand on the shore of that river, many of us do, waiting for the words that will survive their mishandling by shrill dogmatism, cynical manipulation, mental laziness, an unreasonable love for clichés, a fetish for the comforting yet ultimately hollow lies of double-speak. “A way of happening, a mouth.” That is a substantial portfolio for poetry, to be not the happening itself, but the tenor, tone, tune, in which things happen.
This becoming modesty may stand as the counterpart of Shelley’s beautifully extravagant, wildly monomaniacal, and possibly deluded claim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” But poets knew what he was talking about. It’s the fervor of the anarchist, ten days after the incandescent speech that led to the strike, when workers are beginning to feel the pinch of hunger or the pain of reprisal, when the spouse has doubts and the worker second thoughts, and everybody has to dig in, and there are no good words, not even adequate ones, to describe the shifting moods that underlie what lies ahead. That’s the time for poetry. It imbues. It knows, not infrequently, how to be clinical, to slice through commonplaces with its scalpel, or to be indirect, even oblique, because that’s what the momentary geist demands. That’s right—geist isn’t a permanent phenomenon. It’s an epiphenomenon, a sidelong glance. We are speaking of a ghost, meaning metaphysical reality. Which is what politics embodies, ultimately. An encounter with death, impending, foretold, twice-told. Nothingness. What is unseen.
Poetry is not pragmatic. Whenever someone tries to use it for their own ends, it resists, just like the genuine revolutionary. It is radical, in that it refuses to let itself be coopted. Naturally, people erode poetry all the time, turning it into doggerel and debasing its essential purity. But that is simply verbal rape. The true poem, you can’t get to its immutable aspect. Whether people mishear, that’s up to them. A stone is a stone, and a stone can’t hear. When we speak of a poem’s communicable aspect, we’re referring to those persons who have, in potential at least, ears with which to hear. And that excludes, unfortunately, those who go around with their ears cocked, listening only for “messages.” Poetry is an excellent messenger for conveying rapture or despondency—not so excellent for sound bites.
Adrienne Rich, who once reminded writers that everything you write will sooner or later be used against you, brilliantly captures poetry’s language paradox in her poem “What Kind of Times Are These,” a question most of us are asking ourselves at this precise moment. It deserves to be reproduced here in its entirety, because quoting it selectively falsifies its subtle thread of thought:
There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled
this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.
Rich puts on a master class of subterfuge, enmeshing her reader while speaking quite straightforwardly. But her message is not a thing, not a noun. The message is: listen. She evokes the revolutionary road, the persecuted, the disappeared, but pulls a verbal bait and switch against our preconceptions. “This isn’t a Russian poem.” It’s “not somewhere else but here.” Perhaps you were going to wax solidary about Ukraine, that place where those bad things happen? No, it’s here. Right now, even though she wrote it in 1995. That is poetry’s power. It survives the poet, even. She was simply a medium, but one without a reductive post. What does she talk about? “Ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise.” Don’t’ try to turn that into a symbol or a flag, for you will fail to do anything except display your own information-obsessed perversity. She’s not going to say where the place is, because somebody will come right along and commodify it. Or “make it disappear.”
The final stanza enlists the reader—not in a cause, precisely, because the cause, whatever name it goes by, must speak for itself. Twitter poetry, by its nature, cannot exist. That thing happening on social media, it’s something else. A false idol. The speaker in Rich’s poem asks, rhetorically, why she tells you anything. And answers, “in times like these,” she must beguile you with a simple yet infinitely complex image (not to be confused with a symbol), to even get you to listen.
It took me a long time to understand that when bluesman Alvin Lee, in the curious protest-themed rocker “I’d Love to Change the World,” sang lyrics that at first seemed defeatist or shoulder-shrugging. But he was performing the same beautiful, thought-provoking gestures as Rich.
I'd love to change the world But I don't know what to do So I'll leave it up to you.
That’s what poets are good at—not telling you what to do. Instead, inviting you to think and after that, possibly act. That’s the most dangerous provocateur that exists.