I’ll be speaking at a private book club event next week. On what? The role of the reader. So many write and write and write about the process of writing, the burdens of the writer, the writer’s obligations to society, and so on and so on and so on. Who thinks about the reader? I do, sometimes. And I’m not alone. Here’s what Seamus Heaney, who died a last week (see posts here and here) had to say on the subject … well, he starts out on the right horse, but quickly falls off.
From Stepping Stones, a 500-page Q&A with Dennis O’Driscoll:
How do you respond to Joseph Brodsky‘s contention that ‘a reader who has a great experience of poetry is less likely to fall prey to demagoguery on the part of the politician’? There is also Yves Bonnefoy‘s somewhat similar view that ‘poetry is a cure for ideology’.
Joseph was right to contend that a person sensitized to language by poetry is less likely to sway in the mass-media breeze; and I agree with Bonnefoy if he means that successful poetry will launch itself beyond the pull of the contingent and get into its own self-sustaining linguistic and imaginative orbit. Take a poem like ‘Leda and the Swan’. It begins with what Bonnefoy might call ideology: Yeats starts thinking of the Russian Revolution, which represents the rule of the many, the arrival of power from below, from down to up, and that he opposes the rule of the few, the rule from above, from up to down, so the violent descent of Zeus upon Leda comes to mind as analogous to all this – but then, as Yeats himself has told us, bird and girl took over his imagining, and the poem, powerful and problematical as it is, took off. Thinking about rhymes becomes as important as thinking about revolution.
But poems can be political insofar as they discover the paradigmatic. Think of Cavafy. Cavafy’s cameos of the ambitions and victories and defeats among various tyrannies and dynasties and satrapies during the Hellenistic age have a wonderful, clarified political wisdom, but they’re free – or, if you prefer, cured – of ideology. It’s hard to talk about this without citing examples, probably because examples tell us that the only real answers to the general problem are specific poems in specific situations. Whitman‘s hospital poems during the American civil war. Poems by Auden and MacNeice in the 1930s – ‘Look, Stranger’, ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’. Derek Mahon‘s ‘Lives’.
How should we regard a question like Czeslaw Milosz‘s ‘What is poetry that does not save/Nations or people?’
It’s a cry wrung from him in extremis, de profundis, the cry of the responsible human. But it’s one he answers in different ways in his work – in the witness of poems like ‘Campo dei Fiori’ and ‘Song on Porcelain’, and in the obstinate espousal of beauty and order – the calligraphy, as he once called it – of poems like ‘The World’, or ‘Encounter’, or ‘Gift’. These latter ones, incidentally, could have as their motto Brodsky’s equally challenging declaration that ‘if art teaches anything, it’s that the human condition is private’.
Where do you stand between those two positions?
Betwixt and between them – which is, in effect, where Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky also stood. Joseph was out to save people when he suggested during his time as Poet Laureate of the United States that poetry should, like the Gideon Bible, be available in hotel rooms and should be distributed like handouts at supermarket checkouts. And Czeslaw writes about loving herring and strawberry jam as well as beauty and truth.