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Speak Out: Poetry- A Language for Current Times 

By Christina Lilian Turczyn
arttimesjournal May 29, 2017

“What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.
They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.” —Czeslaw Milosz

“What is poetry which does not save/ Nations or people,” Czeslaw Miloz asks in these lines. I have often asked myself a similar question. The language of poems is not the language of artificial condolence, or the erased cries of a people carried over water. The language of poems is not detached. The language of poems is not the distance between vision and a crosshair. Not death. Not pity. Not piety. Not artificial intelligence. Not collateral damage. Not the objectified “you.” Not the “you” that is the self I cannot accept. Not the opponent. Not the celebrity. Not the line. Not the refusal to cross. Not the refusal to love. Not the refusal to live in a way that cannot be repeated, and as a result, a way that cannot be fully explained. In one of his most recent publications, You Are the Universe, Deepak Chopra raises the question of whether atoms may think. Poetry is natural. Poetry is alive. Syllables move in created, re-created meaning. Everything in a poem is animate—that which is vital, dancing—cannot be pinpointed, or killed. I believe that is why texts that begin with nature as their focus survive for centuries. Consider the lines that birches etch onto sky.

People have died because of their poetry—for voice. For history. Revolutions have begun with poems at their core. People share love through poems. Does the power of poetry lie in its individuality—in hurling vertebrae into the white water of experience? Does it involve translation: Hearing a river song above the stones that form the memories of Maya Angelou or Paul Celan’s work? I have had the privilege of teaching many individuals alienated by their educational institutions who, after taking words and throwing them into their own, powerful experiences, transformed them into sea glass. “Still I Rise,” is a regenerative work. The language of poems carries the force of lives in a synergistic way that goes beyond what the self can lose.

Yet is poetry merely individual? Why then, political poetry? Why music? Why Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”, or the integrity, the courage of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”? Maya Angelou spoke after her many years of childhood silence when a neighbor asked her to read poems. Why is it that compassionate educators can connect with young people through words that do not lie? What is it about a poem that approaches understanding? Is it the melody that slips under translation? Is it the imagery that cannot be packaged by tense? What is the word for love? There are many words, but does feeling move through all of them, like water? Might that feeling be without borders? Why poetry NOW?

Renewing Language

Foundlings, stars/black, full of language: named/after an oath which silence annulled.” —Paul Celan

Poetry takes risks. In that moment of deep, concentrated feeling that poets are willing to share with others, they allow us to accompany them in their most harrowing or joyous days. Against silence. Even in their most mundane and fallible times. The run-down car that will run down in its own, rumbling way. Poetry walks the walk. Poetry does not judge. I am wary of universals. The poem that speaks for everyone seems diluted.

There is beauty in works that have not been translated. I accept the fact that you are singular; you accept the fact that my life will not repeat itself. Poems might be sensuous or abstract—at the same time that we exchange paintings; we visualize that childhood home, that texture of recollection. Through entering your language, I enter your street. I meet all of the people who have altered its contours. I begin to think about what they thought about in addition to what they left behind. In that respect, I understand why Jhumpa Lahiri wrote her memoir, In Other Words, in Italian. A new language invites the writer to hear in a new way. How does one translate the silence of pines? Or the silence of persons so abused that they will not ask for anything. Because of the coincidence of images, music, and feeling, poetry summons the entire self. Poetry is both individual and communal. The entire self reads to a child. The entire self stands up to a regime.


And yet, if poetry were only personal, why would it be so threatening? Although novels such as Orwell’s 1984 have radically changed the way people perceive their futures, poets are incarcerated, exiled, persecuted for their work. Poetry summons trauma, feeling, at the level of bone. Poetry summons unrest. Poetry calls an instant audience into an auditorium, or a square. Poetry connects protesters at a very deep level.

I do not know if I have ever read a settled poem, or a poem with a conclusion. “Traveler, there is no road; /you make your own path as you walk,” Antonio Machado writes. Most political parties would be uncomfortable with that line, I feel. Most poetry is not in any way didactic. Poetry is open-ended, following a process of discovery. By concentrating on the moment, poetry does not take an aerial view. Nor do writers follow a road map. There is a sense of the messy grittiness of uncensored language. In “The Longing,” Theodore Roethke refers to the “redolent disorder of this mortal life.” At the same time, poetry is politically effective. In reading a life-changing poem, one has the sense of immediacy, intensity of the writer’s words. Many of us might agree that poetry is most fully alive, but why? Maya Angelou pulls words out of her body. Bei Dao, out of dream. Is it the intensity that is alarming? Like meditation, poetry seems to slow down time, since any given moment is illumined. But it is more than that. It is the willingness of the poet to share his or her humanity through the language of history, grief, or invention. The language of grief must in some ways be created, as the traveler walks through snow. Poems of witness elide statistics, as does “The Colonel,” by Carolyn Forché. Poems heal.

Why Now?

And this season lasted one moment, like the pause/ between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace/but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.” —Derek Walcott

Our world is hurried, harried, fragmented, criss-crossed by the web, simultaneously global, yet at war. In her engaging and timely work, The Fifth Book of Peace, author Maxine Hong Kingston observes that: “Fiction cares for others. It is compassion, and gives others voice.” That might be true of poetry, as well. Self-reliance and the prevalence of the “I” have been central to American culture since its inception. Poetry offers a chance to enter the life of others—to see what it is they see from the hospital bed, or to feel what they feel when in prison, while writing. To read the braille etched onto the skin. To give hands to intangible memories. To paint them, because language as we know it, is not enough. Poetry is the pause. The gaze caught from the “other side.”

Derek Walcott’s “The Season of Phantasmal Peace,” creates the possibility of such a moment. It is the way in which people see one another without allegiances or preconceptions, at their deepest levels of humanity. Artist Laura Petrovich-Cheney shared this insight: “Over the years, I have learned so much about other people, history, and cultures by studying the arts, in particular—poetry. There is intensity in poetry. Perhaps it is the economy of words, the distilling of thoughts and emotions that makes reading poetry so incredibly powerful… I have been transported to new lands and strange times (H.P. Lovecraft). I have learned to love more deeply and more profoundly because of poetry (Yeats). My own religious convictions have been challenged by poetry (John Milton). Poetry helps me to think differently by having experienced someone’s creativity. In short, poetry has enriched my life because these creative people have shared their experiences with me. In a way, I have lived a thousand new lives by opening up my mind and heart to their words. Poets have compelled me to pause, think and reflect.” 

There is something about poetry that celebrates the present. Unlike a novel that spans centuries, the poem observes transience through touch. You look across dividing line. You are there.You are not yourself. You are someone else, as well as yourself. You are whole.

Works Cited

Celan, Paul. “All Souls.” Translated by Michael Hamburger. Poetry Foundation. Dec., 1971.

Forché, Carolyn. “The Colonel.” The Country Between Us. Copyright 1981 by Carolyn Forche. Poetry Foundation.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Fifth Book of Peace. Random House, Inc., 2003.

Machado, Antonio. “Traveler, your footprints.” Translated by Mary Berg and Dennis Maloney.There is No Road. White Pine Press, 2003.Poetry Foundation.

Milosz, Czeslaw. “Dedication.” The Collected Poems. The Ecco Press, 1988.

Walcott, Derek. “The Season of Phantasmal Peace.” Collected Poems. (1948-1984). Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1986.