Note: this was originally written for a reading at Left Hand Books in Boulder, in March 2003, after the US invasion of Iraq.
“I have something incomprehensible to say, like birdsong during war.”
— Odysseas Elytis
People are fond of asking “How relevant is poetry in times of war?” As if war were somehow so radically different from other times of crisis when we naturally turn to poetry. Or as if poetry could only exist in some rare, hothouse environment that dissipates on contact with the so-called “real world.” As if the first great poem of the West wasn’t The Iliad.
The fact remains, however: poetry is never relevant. It is never relevant because whatever is relevant can be quickly made irrelevant. Poetry has not persisted on the basis of its relevancy, but rather, because it aims at the impossible task of saying itself outside of utilitarian ideology. The task it performs, if it performs anything, is an essentially utopian one. It takes place in a “nowhere” – a space that contests ideological inscription – and thereby affirms a scale of values in which Eros will always supersede history. That is why the best argument, indeed the only argument, that poets can make on behalf of poetry and against injustice is to continue to write poems, to continue to find a way to utter Dasein, as Heidegger might put it, in the time of the world’s night. A lyric on birdsong is every bit as powerful as Akhmatova’s “Requiem.”
This is not to say that the overtly “political” poem of protest or witnessing is somehow no longer needed. On the contrary, such poems of denunciation belong to an ancient tradition of articulating a committed disavowal of power and its machinations. The protest poem is simply a more pointed example of what poetry in general does: it opens up the possibility for a discourse of resistance; it permits us to speak out against the tyrannical on behalf of the human.
To say that poetry is not useful in a time of war, or at any time for that matter, is to say that language itself has no use. It is to measure the earth with a very mean scale and to judge human beings with all the nicety of the slaughterhouse. No matter how deranged the condition we afflict on one another, poetry will always be capable of forming a response. Because the poem is not a passive artifact for entombing bourgeois sentiment, but a prosthetic device for extending the range of the human, enabling it to tap into and register a wider dimension of experience and feeling than we are capable of unaided.
When language is treated as nothing but a tool for point-to-point communication, then words become instruments of domination. But when language unfolds the complex constellation of relationships that joins each of us to something greater than ourselves, then poetry may act as an ethical force that expands the possibilities for what we can say –that grows the limits of the real.
What can we say in a time when the abuse of power has become the status quo? Never enough — we can never say enough. And that is why we are compelled to keep saying it. That is why we enter language with humility – so that the poem might say something dangerous, something unsettling, something radically other.