Poets have another, not antithetical task: to refine the subtlety of language and thought so that the life of the mind expands. Subtlety and ambiguity are refiner’s fire. Without them language coarsens. It becomes rude and incompetent in exactly the way our politics have become polarized and hostile.
In journalism ambiguity is deemed an enemy; in literature it may be a device for widening the field of discourse. In journalism subtlety is often squeezed out, but in literature it is a tool of discovery. In politics the stupid and mendacious often win votes; in literature they’re just stupid and mendacious. The impulse to simplify leads to spin; spin leads to moral and even financial bankruptcy.
Life isn’t a beach read, and when we say we need a beach read to take a break from life we may be preparing the culture for a time when everything is a beach read. Too many breaks from the intellectual and emotional challenges of life may lead us to robotic existences. Challenge is the electricity that animates us; we can’t afford too many breaks.
In this era of sound bite journalism coarsening is an omnipresent danger. If a culture cannot transmit its best thoughts subtly enough it becomes susceptible to spin and the dishonest government spin covers.
For this reason poetry and politics have a close relationship. Poets push the language’s envelope. If that envelope is allowed to shrink the public mind shrinks with it. For example, given the disquieting talent of the current White House for spin, we have allowed the Iraq war to be couched in terms of military victory. We have allowed the White House to play a wicked game of reducing public discourse to a matter of what generals in the field tell the president.
It was never about that. Generals are ambitious. They tell their civilian bosses what they want to hear or they retire without another star on their shoulder. The Iraq war was never about military victory. A modern army prevailing over a tribal society was never the issue. The issue should have been whether Iraq can exist at all as a democracy and whether we would be handing imperialist tools to Iran.
But this wouldn’t have bothered the White House either, because fat cats have been stuffing their pockets since day one at the cost of American and Iraqi lives.
But what does this have to do with the conjunction of poetry and politics? A public accustomed to subtlety and ambiguity, crucial attributes of literature, would spot the wickedness of the White House ploy. But a public addicted to streaming news, sound bites, quasi-literate television anchors, political spin, tabloid journalism—such a public can be gulled by ideologues and profiteers.
That is why poetry is important. Someone accustomed to reading William Butler Yeats, Marianne Moore (inset),
A. Alvarez, Emily Dickinson, Hart Crane, Elinor Wylie,
Wallace Stevens, Carolyn Kizer, William Carlos Williams,
Maxine Kumin, John Ashbery, Mary Oliver, Nancy Willard, among so many others, is unlikely to be brainwashed by lazy journalists and dishonest politicians.
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