Lea Carpenter at Big Think ruminates on alternative responses and needs attached to the “Ground Zero” Islamic center dispute. In “A Poet for the Mosque,” she writes,
Let them build it. Is this what the rationalists want us to say? Let them build it. These four words counter the one, more emotional one—never—echoing across anger from the other side. Whether eloquent or irrational (or both), as the case may be, all of these words have lost meaning in the media wail. Is there one voice that speaks to both sides, one leader we can all turn to for sanity? What about turning to a poet who wrote this: We must love one another, or die. [Emphasis added]
Just about any meaning is lost in the “media wail” of political punch and pander. The aim always in these public brawls is not to delve into the expansive depths of deeper human meaning, but to produce cheaper, less reflective meanings, to be used as forms of currency for funding the verbal war. The conflict over the Islamic center is profound and complexly human, made shallow and into a political bar-room brawl because it is happening on a front line of political warfare.
Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” like Adam Zagajewski‘s “Try To Praise The Mutilated World,” found new readers and was given new application in the period following 9/11. Amid the common scorn for poetry by those who do not read it and who prefer to live among the tools of the world’s utility, poetry touched upon a grief and a source of feeling and experience that politics regards like a stranger at the border, for whom it proposes policy. A difference between the two poems is that Zagajewski’s was written for no occasion, in response to no political event. It simply captured in poetical magic what politics can never address:
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
Poetical thinking cannot confront that enemy head on. Poets, contra Shelley, are hardly the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Maybe, better, they are its human explorers, as there are deep sea explorers and space explorers. Like the crew of the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, shrunk to microscopic size to enter a human body, poets travel unmapped arteries to buried centers of the human. Maybe, with work, over a thousand years, they can refire a synapse.
In contrast, to Zagajewski, Auden’s poem, as the title tells, was written in response to events, within weeks. It is a fascinating poem on several counts, one being that the historical malady it describes, like that of Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” can seem so present in other eras.
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
An instructive difference between the two poems is that while one might conceivably depart from the tenor and attitude of Zagajewki’s poem, one is unlikely to strenuously disagree with it, as some did with Auden – even, very soon, Auden. For this reason, I am never cheered when I hear of poets about to write on political themes – when they gather, for instance, to plan collections opposing a war or promoting some specific – like environmental – consciousness. I am unhappy not because of any political position, but because I know they are unlikely to produce good poetry. The poet’s only enemy is the didact. Auden ended
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
It is inspiring rhetoric. I, too, am moved. But politically, it is vague and disputatious beyond the poetry: whose “lie,” known how, of what “authority”? Is this an anarchist poem? For much of the rest of his life, Auden professed, convincingly, to hate the poem. He, among others, addressing the convergence of the political, the human, and the poetical, believed that the famous “We must love one another or die” should truly have been
We must love one another and die.
The weight of our lives in a conjunction. Poetry.
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