AN OPEN LETTER
I want to talk about some of the things I’m after when I write, my sense of the American predicament, and what I hope for poetry and for people in relation to words. I know I’m also talking to myself here, and I can’t speak to the success or failure of what transpires in the poems that follow. I simply hope that this short rant can provide a clarifying context, a brief look at what confounds and compels my efforts. I realize, of course, that this could be bone-headedly presumptuous, but there are things far worse than speaking out of turn.
In fact, part of what energizes me is all the nay-saying I hear about what poets and poetry can do. Poetry will never reach the general public. Poetry shouldn’t be political or argumentative. Poetry will not succeed if it’s excessively imaginative. Poetry can’t change anything. Because the first people I heard saying such things were poets, I used to believe these notions were born of thoughtful consideration and humility, but now I see them as a kind of preemptive apology, a small-hearted justification for the writing of a hobbled poetry– a poetry that doesn’t want to be too conspicuous, a poetry that knows its place, that doesn’t mean to trouble the water, that is always decorous and never stomps in with bad breath and muddy boots.
But why not? Why not a rambunctious and reckless poetry, when the ascendent social order permits nearly every type of corruption and related hypocrisy? Why not risk everything, at least more often if not always? So much is at stake. This culture, deranged by both spoken and unspoken imperatives, mocks the complexity of our loneliness, our spiritual hunger for dynamic meanings, our thirst for genuine human community, for good magic and good sense. And, given the growing heap of human wreckage, why not approach language and its transforming potential with the most tenacious eye, with a ferocity bordering on the psychotic? What the hell happened to the notion of poet as town crier, rabble rouser, shaman, court jester, priestess, visionary, madman?
Given the way things have gone, it’s almost impossible not to be overtaken by despair. Writing poems in SUV-America can feel like fiddling amidst catastrophe, but if one must fiddle shouldn’t one play that thing till it smokes? And in stirring the words with our tongues, our paws, our long nights, and the simmering tangle of our brains, maybe we could move our general kin to listen.
The mainstream discourse is dominated by pop muzak, murderously repetitive police dramas, spineless newscasts, insipid movies, and simple-minded talk-shows. Even if we, as poets, do find ourselves regularly locked in the attic, we assist in our own erasure if we accept this gag without a fight, without trying to make poems whose clarity and relevance can’t be denied. I have grown sick to death of meeting people who say they don’t like poetry, can’t understand poetry, when they probably haven’t read any since high school when they were offered a few leaden standards whose anemic music was further muted by a number of teachers who taught the poems lovelessly in a “unit,” then gave a test. And it goes on and on. Why act as if this were just the way it is, as if there were little we– as poets– could do to renovate the house of living words. Maybe we could measure more critically the distance that separates us from, say, a non-academic audience. Maybe we can speak more irresistibly, more often, and to more people, unless the prevailing lack of essential speech has so defeated us that we’ve simply decided to die quietly at our desks. I can’t believe this is the case, and I can’t stop thinking that good poems– in a kind of chorus on the loose– could comprise a general invitation to a much needed wakefulness.
A lot of people are starving for better light to see by, searching as they are in the well-worn shadows. At the very least, poetry could be one tasty dish in a much needed feast: we should serenade those who don’t know poems, who fear poems, who don’t trust words that ask them to step into new sensations and unsanctioned territories. We should pursue them as though we are love-struck and cannot help it. I’m only half-kidding. How else can people enlarge their grasp of what being alive means? And why else are we here? The alternative– stoically scratching our heads while the world burns down– is simply too degrading to the helpful purpose of language and to our lives as people who work to illuminate the possibilities of consciousness.
I think about being in America, being a citizen and poet living in the American Empire, home of truly virulent strains of racism, sexism, moneyism– and now, a wildly aggressive nationalism which may force us to live with war and its omnivorous machinery for far longer than the Bush Regime holds sway. Why write as if the socio-political atmosphere doesn’t have direct bearing on how everyone makes it through each day? Isn’t bad news a kind of weather, a surging storm we lean into every time we open our eyes? The intricacies of our various travels between optimism and cynicism are utterly shaped by the society we inhabit– and the delight or rage each of us lives with hour by hour defines our style of travel, the tenor of our lives. The growing presence of the zombie must be a sign that for many it’s simply better to be blind than to see and respond to the world that surrounds us.
Doesn’t a working Democracy require a full-hearted willingness to voice everything, to insist upon a chance for the most hopeful outcomes? Isn’t the current prevalence of smiling apathy and timid speech an emblem of a whelming fascism? Whether this is driven by The State, The Church, The General Opinion, or all of these in concert doesn’t matter. I don’t want to be a member of a society famous for its massive yet poorly distributed wealth, its high-tech fire-power, its environmental stupidity, and its somnambulant, sports-loving population. And, if I must be a citizen in such a place, I certainly don’t want my poems to be in cahoots with the nightmare. Why should poems merely add quirky spice to a cultural medley that affirms a plague of perpetual consumption and really loud cheering?
I believe poetry can be proof that dynamic awareness is alive and kicking, a constant reminder to ourselves and to our fellow citizens that being alert, both inwardly and outwardly, rewards each person with more life? Doesn’t a good poem return each reader to that deeper sense of things, to that commonly muzzled vitality that can’t be bought off or shushed? I think being fully human demands this, demands poetry.
I say let the poems move in all ways; at least, then, we’ll have a chance to reach the bridge– and if we go mad let it be because we believed too much in the heart’s voice. Where else will we find the most cataclysmic wing of the imagination revealed in words? The dim-witted drowsiness that remains so pervasive is a sign of the gradual asphyxiation of the sweetest human yearnings, a kind of spiritual anorexia. Consider how much of our story we’ve already conceded to science and its robotic objectivism. Consider how the big religions seal our lips and drive the herd with that locked-down, self-congratulatory, God-says-what-we-say-He-says language. Perhaps even the realm of The Sacred might be rescued from dogma and returned to all of us in its broadest expanse– through poetry– if the poets dare to sing wilder hymns.
How else can we begin to free ourselves from the entrenched muck that is currently up to our necks? How can we learn how to live if the words don’t live with us? (A country that chatters with outrage over Janet Jackson’s breast, but remains all but silent about repeated displays of Saddam Hussein’s killed sons is a country to fear, indeed.) What strange, anesthetic winds have scoured the streets of this nation?
In a free society there is a central place for acute attentiveness, for uncompromising honesty and feeling– and for whatever inspires and sustains them. Enough tittering. Enough clever ballooning. Enough. There has to be a way to stop this dying, a way to make a literature that does more, a poetry with the kiss of a shark and the feet of a sparrow, a poetry at intervals beautiful then ruthless, friendly but full of useful delusions. If I lack the vision or if my own fear proves insurmountable I pray that those with the necessary instruments will soon bring the right noise.
– Tim Seibles
February 28, 2004
In 2011, the following things happened:
- A Tunisian street vendor immolates himself in protest of harassment and government corruption, starting "Arab Spring"
- Osama Bin Laden is murdered in a firefight with elite American forces at his Pakistan compound, then is quickly buried at sea in a stunning finale to a furtive decade on the run.
- Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warns that the future of the NATO military alliance is at risk because of European penny-pinching and a distaste for front-line combat.
- Chinese President Hu Jintao uses his White House visit to acknowledge "a lot still needs to be done" to improve human rights in his nation accused of repressing its people.
- AOL Inc. announces $315 million purchase of news website The Huffington Post.
- Protesters swarm Wisconsin's capitol after Gov. Scott Walker proposes cutbacks in benefits and bargaining rights for public employees.
- Obama approves the resumption of military trials at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, ending a two-year ban.
- Magnitude-9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami strike Japan's northeastern coast, a combined disaster that will kill nearly 20,000 people and cause grave damage to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station, world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
- Portugal becomes the third debt-stressed European country to need a bailout, following Ireland and Greece; prime minister announces request.
- Obama makes four-hour visit to Puerto Rico, the first president since John F. Kennedy to make an official visit to the U.S. territory.
- Rupert Murdoch's media empire unexpectedly jettisons News of the World, Britain's best-selling Sunday newspaper, after a public backlash over claims it used phone hacking and other illegal tactics to expose the rich and famous, royals and ordinary citizens. The scandal escalates with the arrest of Murdoch's former British newspaper chief and the resignation of London's police commissioner. Prime Minister David Cameron calls a special session of Parliament to address the scandal; Murdoch will testify that he's humbled but accepts no responsibility.
- Citing a "gulf between the political parties," credit rating agency Standard & Poor's downgrades U.S. debt for the first time since assigning the nation's AAA rating in 1917.
- Federal jury convicts three New Orleans police officers, a former officer and a retired sergeant of civil rights violations in the 2005 shooting deaths of a teenager and a mentally disabled man crossing a bridge following Hurricane Katrina.
- Afghan insurgents down a U.S. military helicopter, killing 30 Americans and eight Afghan commandos, the deadliest single loss for U.S. forces in the decade-old war.
- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says he will ask the U.N. Security Council next week to endorse his people's decades-long quest for statehood but emphasizes that he does not seek to isolate or delegitimize Israel.
- A demonstration calling itself Occupy Wall Street begins in New York, within weeks prompting similar protests around the U.S. and the world. Perceived economic unfairness is behind the frequent chant, "We are the 99 percent."
- Vladimir Putin's decision to reclaim the Russian presidency next year foreshadows a continuation of the strongman rule that many in the West call a retreat from democracy.
- After 46 seasons as Penn State's head football coach and a record 409 victories, Joe Paterno is fired, along with the university president, over their handling of child sex abuse allegations against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky; two top university officials step down following grand jury indictments.
- The flag used by U.S. forces in Iraq was lowered in a Baghdad airport ceremony marking the end of a war that left 4,500 Americans and 110,000 Iraqis dead and cost more than $800 billion.
In 2012, the following things have happened, are happening or will happen:
- A fire in a Honduran prison kills more than 250 inmates, starting a call for reforms in that country
- French Election
- Mexican General Election
- Egyptian Presidential Election
- The United States General Election