What Use Is Poetry?
In an address to the Yale Political Union on April 23, 2013, Meena Alexander began with a line from Shelley’s 1821 essay, “A Defence of Poetry.” The resolution—“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”—led to a lively debate. What follows is a slightly revised version of the text she wrote for that occasion.
A while back, I was in Colorado in a hall with huge windows that gave out onto the Rockies. I was stunned by the rugged, slashed beauty of the mountains I could see if I turned my head just slightly. As often happens, after a reading came voices from the floor. A woman in a red sweatshirt stood up. She was near the back of the packed hall, and I had to strain to see her—but her voice was loud and clear.
The question ricocheted off the walls: “What use is poetry?” I caught my breath. She might have been Plato’s daughter asking me. I remember the hall as deathly silent. I thought: nothing, there is nothing I can say. Out of my mouth shot a few words, words that, a whole year later, I turned into the unshriven heart of a poem. The poem has a simple enough title—“Question Time”—and it will appear in my book Birthplace with Buried Stones, to be published in October 2013.
I remember the scarred spine
Of mountains the moon slips through,
Fox fire in a stump, bushes red with blisters,
Her question, a woman in a sweatshirt,
Hand raised in a crowded room –
What use is poetry?
Above us, lights flickered,
Something wrong with the wiring.
I turned and saw the moon whirl in water,
The Rockies struck with a mauve light,
Sea creatures cut into sky foliage.
In the shadow of a shrub once you and I
Brushed lips and thighs,
Dreamt of a past that frees its prisoners.
Standing apart I looked at her and said –
We have poetry
So we do not die of history.
I had no idea what I meant.
We might think of history as what is rendered up of the past in recorded memory, recorded by those who are in a position to do so, having access to the power of public inscription. But there is an important underground stream of history I have learnt to recognize: secret letters, journals, inscriptions, scribblings on bits of paper smuggled out of prisons. Poetry closer in intent, it seems to me, to this buried stream takes as its purview what is deeply felt, “felt in the blood and felt along the heart,” as Wordsworth once wrote in lines that lie at the core of a meditation on the past and its impossible nature—impossible, that is, for a consciousness that would seek to return.
Poetry takes as its purview what is deeply felt and is essentially unsayable; that is the paradox on which the poem necessarily turns.
Poetry takes as its purview what is deeply felt and is essentially unsayable; that is the paradox on which the poem necessarily turns. A poet uses language as a painter uses color, a primary material out of which to make art. But language that is used all the time and all around us—in sound bites, advertisements, political rhetoric, newsprint—needs to be rinsed free so that it can be used as the stuff of art.
The poem in its act of meaning-making turns away from the literal, its truth bound to what can be evoked. And evocation is sparked by memory. Abhinavagupta (ca. 950–1020 ce) realized this clearly. In his reflections, he writes of how poetry—far from dealing with the literal—reaches into what lies in memory, in memory fragments. It is in this way that rasa, the quick of aesthetic pleasure, is reached:
On the other hand rasa is something that one cannot dream of expressing by the literal sense. It does not fall within workday expression. It is rather of a form that must be tasted by an act of blissful relishing on the part of a delicate mind through the stimulation of previously deposited memory elements . . . beautiful because of their appeal to the heart. . . . The suggesting of such a sense is called rasadhvani and is found to operate only in poetry. This in a strict sense is the soul of poetry. (Source: The Dhvanyāloka of Ānandavardhana with the Locana of Abhinavagupta, Harvard University Press, 1990)
While poetry is bound to the sensorium, to the sensual powers of bodily being, to memory that draws its power from feelings heightened by the senses, it is also bound to place. It is in place that we locate ourselves, mark ourselves in relation with others; it is in place that we survive. But what becomes of the past when place is torn away, when the sensorium is radically displaced, and when exile or dislocation marks out the limits of existence?
Why do we have poetry in a time like this? For me that question folds into another: What does it mean to belong in a violent world?
I think of the invisible archive that each of us bears within, a deeply personal ingathering of sights and sounds and scents and bits of the sometimes ruined materiality that memory allots—and perhaps this is another way of thinking about the coruscating flow of the inner life that gives meaning to our existence, all that comes up when we dare to say “I.” And surely this is the province of poetry.
Embedded at the heart of Percy Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry” (1821) are lines in which he evokes the unbidden power of the poem: “It creates for us a being within our being. It makes us inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.”
What is this counterworld, this being within our being, this zone of desire that poetry evokes? Surely there is a great and buried truth here, something to do with our ecstatic being, the piercings of sense that mere rationality cannot afford, a way of making sense, lacking which we would all be hostages in our own skins.
There have been moments in our shared human history in particular parts of the world where poets and also singers have been banned. But why? What is there to fear? Precisely this: the force of the quicksilver self that poetry sets free—desire that can never be bound by laws and legislations. This is the force of the human, the spirit level of our lives.
The poem is an invention that exists in spite of history. Most of the forces in our ordinary lives as we live them now conspire against the making of a poem. There might be some space for the published poem, but not for its creation: no ritualized space is given where one is allowed to sit and brood, although universities can give you a modicum of that.
In a time of violence, the task of poetry is in some way to reconcile us to our world and to allow us a measure of tenderness and grace with which to exist. I believe this very deeply, and I see it as an effort to enter into the complications of the moment, even if they are violent; but through that, in some measure, poetry’s task is to reconcile us to the world—not to accept it at face value or to assent to things that are wrong, but to reconcile one in a larger sense, to return us in love, the province of the imagination, to the scope of our mortal lives.
In some sense poetry’s task is to reconcile us to the world—not to accept it at face value or to assent to things that are wrong, but to reconcile one in a larger sense, to return us in love, the province of the imagination, to the scope of our mortal lives.
Poetry is a forsaken art not for those who write or practice it, but for many others. Yet there is a kind of grace that poetry offers, something that paradoxically is hard to catch with words, an elemental rush that Shelley tries to evoke in his “A Defence of Poetry,” that extraordinary chronicle of the exalted, impossible task of the poet from which we have taken the line for today’s resolution.
Toward the start of his essay, Shelley speaks of beauty and the way by which the intuition of what he calls “this indestructible order” is something granted to the maker of art. Then comes a leap of faith. He argues artists are “the institutors of law, and the founders of civil society”—in short, legislators: what they were called in earlier times.
Now this seems to me to be a leap that could not sustain the body that sought to land, from its free fall, into some possible space of survival. Surely we need to unhook the idea of the intense apprehension of beauty and “this invisible world” from ordinary legislation, our notion of congresses and parliaments, of procedures and plenipotentiary powers.
I hear little hooks popping.
A bodice unbuttoning.
A heart pounding, breathing.
But should we? Surely the affective life—and, I would argue, poetry in the broadest possible sense that Shelley meant—is crucial even in the life of legislators and the decisions that are made. The nature of gun laws and the issues of immigration are just two examples that we might make, drawn from our recent debates.
But perhaps for Shelley the shadow of prophecy is what allows for the poet as legislator—in his words, poets as “hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.”
My mind turns to the poet George Oppen’s response to Shelley. In a poem called “Disasters,” Oppen writes:
of wars o western
wind and storm
of politics I am sick with a poet’s
of the unacknowledged
world . . .
What is this unacknowledged world? All too often it is a world that lies too deep for tears.
I was in New York City on 9/11. Poetry was a way to survive. I wrote on tiny bits of paper I carried around with me. People read out poems to each other, on the radio, in Union Square and other public places. There was something about the poem that could allow one the intense expression of emotion so necessary to a time of crisis. I wrote a cycle of elegies for the dead. Here is one of them. All these poems found their way into my book Raw Silk.
The lyric poem is a form of extreme silence, which is protected from the world. To make a lyric poem I have to enter into a dream state. But at the same time, almost by virtue of that disconnect, it becomes a very intense location to reflect on the world.
There is an uncommon light in the sky
Pale petals are scored into stone.
I want to write of the linden tree
That stoops at the edge of the river
But its leaves are filled with insects
With wings the color of dry blood.
At the far side of the river Hudson
By the southern tip of our island
A mountain soars, a torrent of sentences
Syllables of flame stitch the rubble
An eye, a lip, a cut hand blooms
Sweet and bitter smoke stains the sky.
New York City, September 13–18, 2001
I made a cycle of poems that I called “Late There Was an Island”; the poem I just read, “Aftermath,” is the first of those. While making my poems, I kept walking down to Ground Zero, as close as I could get, making returns, a pilgrimage, the site a graveyard for thousands, the stench of burning flesh and wires. Once, as I walked past Liberty Street, I was struck by the extreme youth of the soldier guarding the perimeter, a young lad freckled, fresh-faced. Behind him was the shell of the south tower, against which an ancient patriarch was getting photographed; small children screaming in delight at pigeons; a rescue worker, hands on his own throat, face sunk with tiredness, his gas mask at his hip.
The following month there was a meeting of a newly established Asian/ Asian-American Research Institute. I had been asked to serve on the governing board; the meeting was at the Graduate Center where I teach. It was the sort of occasion to which I would wear a sari without thinking twice—but now something nagged at me.
Two of my South Asian students had encountered trouble wearing non-Western dress: men yelling, one throwing a paper bag at her. A friend of mine who had gone out one evening in Boston told me on the phone how a man had yelled and spat at her.
There was a zone of suspicion that was extending over Asians, South Asians, brown people who looked like they could be Arabs. I wanted to pick my battles. I wanted some control over the small things of life. If it could be dangerous to look different, it made no sense to stick out deliberately. I needed to save my energies for writing, and I was writing a great deal of poetry.
I rolled up my sari in a manner that would not crease it, set it carefully in a plastic bag that I lodged in the center of my book bag.In the fourth-floor ladies room I slipped out of my slacks and put on my sari. I watched the silk on the tiled floor and stared at my face in the mirror.
How dark I looked, unmistakably Indian. I needed to think through my fear. Later as I made my poem, I heard Kabir, the medieval poet saint, singing to me, giving me the courage to live my life. This is the poem I made.
Kabir Sings in a City of Burning Towers
What a shame
they scared you so
you plucked your sari off,
crushed it into a ball
then spread it
on the toilet floor.
Sparks from the towers
fled through the weave of silk.
With your black hair
and sun dark skin
you’re just a child of earth.
Kabir the weaver sings:
O men and dogs
in times of grief
our rolling earth
Art in a time of trauma, a necessary translation. “Fragments of a vessel,” writes Walter Benjamin, “to be glued together.”
But what if the paste shows, the seams, the fractures?
In a time of violence the work of art must use the frame of the real, translating a script almost illegible, a code of traumatic recovery.
It seems to me that in its rhythms the poem, the artwork, can incorporate scansion of the actual, the broken steps, the pauses, the blunt silences, the brutal explosions. So that what is pieced together is a work that exists as an object in the world but also, in its fearful consonance and its shimmering stretch, allows the world entry.
I think of it as a recasting that permits our lives to be given back to us, fragile, precarious.
A few words to conclude.
I think of the poet in the twenty-first century as a woman standing in a dark doorway.
She is a homemaker, but an odd one.
She hovers in a dark doorway. She needs to be there at the threshold to find a balance, to maintain a home at the edge of the world.
She puts out both her hands. They will help her hold on, help her find her way.
She has to invent a language marked by many tongues.
As for the script in which she writes, it binds her into visibility, fronting public space, marking danger, marking desire.
Behind her in the darkness of her home and through her pour languages no one she knows will ever read or write.
They etch a corps perdu.* Subtle, vital, un-seizable body.
Source of all translations.
New York City
* A reference to Aimé Césaire’s cycle of poems Corps perdu (Éditions Fragrance, 1950), with etchings by Pablo Picasso.