by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
October 3, 2002
NO WAY OUT EXCEPT POETRY
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- In 1957, Jacques Brel wrote a song called "La Colombe." It was translated into English by Alasdair Clayre and recorded in the mid-'60s by Judy Collins. The chorus, sung in an angry, piercing, taunting voice, goes: "The dove has torn her wings so no more songs of love. We are not here to sing. We're here to kill the dove."
It seems that we have reached a time when the leaders of America, my beautiful, beloved country, are not only tearing the wings off doves, but barbecuing them in tangy sauce.
When realpolitik drives me to despair - what with secret sleeper cells of religious fanatics trying to wound us, and America on a rampage, brandishing nuclear weapons and arguing that it has the right to use them - I turn to poetry.
Some time ago, a young poet named Misha M., then in the sixth grade at the Putney Central School in Vermont, wrote a poem called "Except Poetry." In its entirety, it goes: "Trapped in the darkest closet/No way out except poetry/ Stuck on top of the tallest tree/No way down except poetry/Caged behind the biggest wall/No way through except poetry."
I can't tell you Misha's last name, but I've had the poem tacked to my wall for years, and I agree.
The poet I usually turn to is W. H. Auden. In "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," he wrote about the coming darkness of the Second World War in Europe: "In the nightmare of the dark/All the dogs of Europe bark/And the living nations wait/Each sequestered in its hate."
What countries can we now substitute for "Europe," when half the world hates us and the other half is resting uneasy, watching? When only that popinjay Tony Blair, perhaps out of some deep-buried guilt for England's disastrous empire, supports us?
Auden goes on: "Intellectual disgrace/Stares from every human face/And the seas of pity lie/Locked and frozen in each eye."
Pity locked and frozen in each eye, well, you only have to watch television opinion shows or the latest Ari Fleischer press conference to see that.
In fact, the only good news I can see right now is that the Republican right wing is trying to jigger the upcoming elections with shouts of war, ignoring an economy in tatters and a planet in deep distress, which means that it takes voters at least seriously enough to try and distract them. My fear was that after they stole the presidential election, they would permanently dismantle democracy and declare a "compassionate dictatorship" because "we are at war and it is un-American to want a different government."
In 1969, in "Moon Landing," Auden gently chided America: "It's natural the Boys should whoop it up for/so huge a phallic triumph, an adventure/it would not have occurred to women/to think worth while/made possible only/because we like huddling in gangs."
These days, we know that women aren't any so pure either; the name Condeleeza Rice comes to mind. But it is interesting to think in terms of both Islamic and Christian fundamentalism searching for "so huge a phallic triumph."
Auden's "The Average" reminds me of our current president. The subject of the poem, running from his failure to be a hero, is trapped in a desert: "The silence roared displeasure: looking down/He saw the shadow of an Average Man/Attempting the Exceptional, and ran."
I only wish he would run. We can't blame George W. Bush and his administration for the attacks of Sept. 11, but we can blame them for using those attacks, those deaths, all the heroism, and all our grieving, to try and remake the world in their own arrogant, imperialist image.
In one of the best poems to come out of Sept. 11, "When the Towers Fell," (Sept. 16, 2002 New Yorker) Galway Kinnell wrote: "in the twentieth-century history of violent death - black men in the South castrated and strung up from trees/soldiers advancing through mud at ninety thousand dead per mile/train upon train headed eastward made up of boxcars shoved full to the corners with Jews and Gypsies to be enslaved or gassed/state murder of twenty, thirty, forty million of its own/atomic blasts wiping cities off the earth, firebombings the same... mass graves/Seeing the towers vomit these black omens, that the last century dumped into this one, for us to dispose of, we know they are our futures."
Our futures! Instead of using our enormous wealth and power benevolently - trying to end hunger, cure AIDS, dig wells around the world, forgive debts, find alternative sources of energy, help heal the damaged environment - we are using it to try and impose unrestrained capitalism and born-again Christianity on the world. Fighting religious fanatics who want to recreate a Medieval caliphate in New York City is one thing; I'll take up arms to fight a burqa. But this is quite another. We teach our children not to be bullies. How do we teach our (un)elected president and our mostly spineless Congress and news media?
As Auden wrote in "Epitaph on a Tyrant," "When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter/And when he cried the little children died in the streets."
Should I apologize for the despair in which I am writing this piece, despair honestly earned by reading too many newspapers, books and magazines and watching too much television? Then I'll try to be optimistic. For Auden as well as for Misha M. and myself, language offers us grace.
This is from the Yeats poem again: "Follow, poet, follow right/To the bottom of the night/With your unconstraining voice/Still persuade us to rejoice/With the farming of a verse/Make a vineyard of the curse.../In the deserts of the heart/Let the healing fountain start/In the prison of his days/Teach the free man how to praise."
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.