“The Efficacy of Poetry is Nil”:
Lenses, the Lyric and Disaster
I want to talk about poetry in light of politics, of event, and particularly in light of public disasters which effect a wide swath of the population, events such as acts of conflict (think of the events of September 11 or, more recently, of Paris) or events natural and unnatural (think Hurricane Katrina, the Indonesian tsunami, the BP oil spill), as opposed to personal ones which may look like (write it) like disaster, such as losing a loved one to cancer or a fire which destroys one’s possessions. This is not a value judgment; I don’t think one kind of disaster is more worthy of lyric response than another.
But I do think a lot of the worst poetry to which we’ve been subjected, and some of the most difficult poetry to execute successfully, is poetry responding to public disaster. Perhaps this is because the increasing ability to expose oneself, so to speak, publicly—that is, our current exposure to media makes communicating on a grand scale imminently accessible—means dashed off poems of mere visceral response devoid of craft are often written and read almost immediately. Perhaps it is because the dramatic immediacy of the events often drowns out subtlety and nuance. Perhaps such narrative or referential foreground too often dictates predictability; we foresee the conclusions the poem will come to. Perhaps it is because the place of articulation at these moments is elusive, at best, and the experience of disaster puts us at the point where articulation breaks down.
The nature of disaster is to render us mute, mouths agape and dumb. The experience of disaster is ultimately unsayable, or, as Michel Blanchot’s brilliant and difficult Writing the Disaster embodies, it is, at best, fragmentary. As Blanchot says, “the disaster de-scribes.” Yet, as writers, we must speak in just such a void; it is what we do, attempting to articulate that which is beyond articulation. And, as Czeslaw Milosz says, it is just during such times that the “schism between the poet and the great human family disappears and poetry becomes as essential as bread.” I am continually looking for strategies that are successful, which do help, at least, to mend that great schism. This is some of what I’ve found so far.
At one end of this pole might be poems whose speakers are located somewhere within the events/action itself. I think of Wilfred Owen, Mahmoud Darwish, Miguel Hernandez’s poems written from a Spanish jail, C.K. Williams’ “Tar,” to name a few. These speakers witness political ramifications first hand without much distance between them and the events.
At the other end of this continuum are poets whose poems are “about” disaster in the sense that they circle it. Osip Mandelstam and Anna Ahkmatova wrote many lyric poems that might seem on the surface entirely private. But the very articulation of private feeling, as opposed to rhetoric that directly served the Stalinist state, was, in itself, a reaction and, indeed, a protest. Seamus Heaney’s bog poems, on their own, seem bounded by their subject; but, in the context in which they appeared, with other poems about Northern Ireland’s Troubles, the violence and complexities of the ancient begins to dialog with the specific conflicts of what was his present-day Ireland.
The “poetry of witness” inevitably comes to mind as the predominant model for a first person poetic response to suffering, but I’ve never been satisfied with it. Witness implies, to me, an objectivity that I find false in journalism, politics, or poetry. The sheer act of observing a thing necessarily alters the thing being observed. Heisenberg tells us this in physics, and it is no less true in poetry. There can be an added awkwardness in being a North American traveling to disadvantaged, “third world” cultures and “witnessing” their suffering, then returning to the comfort of a laptop to record and lyricize the suffering. There is the burden of privilege; we can leave the disaster and write about it. In addition, there is the danger of being the holder of information, values, righteousness. “The effectiveness of the speaker,” writes Joan Aleshire in her essay “News that Stays News,”“lies in his or her vulnerability, when the ‘I’ makes no claims to knowledge outside its own experience.”
In an age in which we can witness suffering on a screen in real time, what does the term poetry of witness even mean? Think about the death of Nedha Soltan in the Iranian protest movement of 2009, witnessed by/through/on small screens likely before her family would have had time to be notified. Or the fact that much of this nation witnessed people wilting from thirst in 2005 after the federal levee failures of Hurricane Katrina even as they were told there was no way to get them drinking water. More recently, a toddler’s limp, drowned body on a tourist beach flashed across our screens, its pathos only equaled by our helplessness to do a damn thing about it, our inevitable scrolling down to the next piece of informational flotsam.
We can witness suffering as it is experienced, but our abilities to respond, on every level, lag behind. The idea of witness in such an instantly accessible world becomes, then, more problematic, the witness rendered ineffectual or unintentional voyeur.
Perhaps as a way of dealing with this uncomfortable position of witnessing, many poems about disaster include the concept of a lens, a conscious viewing, of events even as they describe it. Do we feel the impulse to acknowledge these lenses in order to allay some of our anxiety? Is it simply more honest to do so?
Perhaps poems that acknowledge lenses also acknowledge that a lens can only contain part of the truth. Whatever lens we use—be it a literal one or the metaphorical one of artistic representation in a poem or painting, etc—we are only representing a subjective view of the thing viewed. We can never contain the entirety of the experience. Maybe the immediacy and sophistication of our technological ability to “capture” events tends to make us think that we have consumed the whole picture. That it is, somehow, ours. A poem that contains a lens must, necessarily, allude to a wider scope big enough to contain that lens. That is, it acknowledges that what is bounded by the lens, the circumscribed experience, is not the whole story.
I am reminded of the need to drive visitors who came to New Orleans after the storm to the Lower Ninth Ward as no camera lens and no amount of footage can convey the immensity of destruction on that level. It takes gazing in all directions, then driving a few miles and doing it again, then driving again and gazing, repeating and repeating this until one begins to see the vastness.
The witnessing of something through a lens has other, more immediate, implications, too, particularly when considering the military use of lenses. Consider this quote, from Paul Virilio’s War and Cinema, the Logistics of Perception: “If I had to sum up current thinking on precision missiles and saturation weaponry in a single sentence,” said W.J. Perry, a former U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Defense, “I’d put it like this: once you can see the target, you can expect to destroy it.”
The use of mitigating media in poetry can attempt to address our flawed perspective.
Given that there can be no objective witnessing, what point of view do we take? What do we do with our awkward eye/“I?” “In a sense, the “I” cannot be lost, because it does not belong to itself,” says Blanchot. A first person point of view can be an effective and powerful position in dealing with disaster, one that utilizes, but does not point to, the self. Aleshire describes one aspect of its power this way: “in its partial quality, its singularity, there is a certain—because limited—reliability.”
The “I” can serve to acknowledge one’s own culpability and participation, as well, folding oneself into the messiness instead of implying an impartiality. Yeats did this, to use one example, in “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” with the phrase “who are but weasels fighting in a hole” as a severely subordinated clause modifying the “We” who had once dreamed of ruling the world.
But there is often a discomfort, an awkwardness, with the stance when dealing with another’s suffering. Seamus Heaney’s “The Strand at Lough Beg” offers a first person narrative of his cousin’s death to sectarian violence. Years later, in “Station Island,” he has the ghost of that cousin come back to reprimand the poet for the “whitewashed ugliness” that “saccharined my death with morning dew.’”
If one places oneself in the poem, what does one do with such proximity? Does one assume some kind of authority? If so, what is that authority and how is it different from victimhood? Where does authority intersect authorship? Milosz writes in “Ruins and Poetry:” “People thrown into the middle of events that tear cries of pain from their mouths have difficulty in finding the distance necessary to transform this material artistically.”
The reverse is also true: there is also a challenge to writing about something from too much of a distance.
What about a poet who wants to write about an experience that she never comes close to at all? When writing about something outside of one’s sphere of experience, how does one keep from assuming an intimacy that is somehow false or posturing? Or from casting oneself in a savior-stance? It seems to me that appropriation is also an issue of not finding the right amount of distance. There can be an assumption that the “I” is more a part of the culture than it is, which can produce unintended stereotyping, dimensionless pity and cliché. All of these problems seem to be issues of being too distant while assuming that the “I” is too close.
As Susan Sontag put it: “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.” What then, is the line between this shrinking of distance to cheap effect and that of empathy or, to use Keats’ term, negative capability, emptying oneself and entering another’s experience?
The whole notion of speaking at all when confronted with such catastrophe provokes consideration. In the words of Blanchot: “There is a limit at which the practice of any art becomes an affront to affliction.” I think of Pablo Neruda’s “I Explain a Few Things,” about the Spanish Civil War, in which he says “and the blood of children ran through the streets/simply, like children’s blood.” Neruda subverts the distance, the relief, a simile could bring in equivocating the tenor of the simile with a more comfortable, diverting image.
Heaney uses the term “song and suffering,” and says “lyric poetry, however responsible, always has an element of the untrammeled about it....There is a sensation of liberation and abundance which is the antithesis of every hampered and deprived condition.” He goes on to say: “In one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil—no lyric has ever stopped a tank.”
Still, what else would we do?