Updated: Jul 27
What is a useful role for a poet writing in times like these, amid the realities of what feels like permanent war, a soft never-quite recovering economy, tainted social and political and governmental structures, and widespread public and personal disaffection?
These are things we note implicitly or explicitly in our art as we engage the world. They don’t make our art, of course, but they are part of the environment in which we work. We include or exclude them, but one way or the other we engage them or are engaged by them. We have no choice. They are inescapable, the air we breathe, the life we live.
I should add that when I say “useful,” I mean the word in its broadest humanist sense, a meaning to be applied in public as well as private spheres. We know that art can accurately and importantly describe or challenge the world, or act as a parallel creation, that it can always remind us of our vast human possibilities and our definite responsibilities, can always call us to be more human. That is part of its virtue. Every time we create, all the possibilities are in front of us as we write, even as we erase—all the good, all the evil, all the choices between. It’s one reason why creating makes us better people. We see in those times life in its possibilities and promises and incredible beauty.
Beauty is one way in which art does this, calls up all these possibilities, makes them available. Aesthetic accuracy is another help in developing this essentiality. And here’s another word, though it may seem an odd one, for our list: effectiveness. Some things are beautiful and accurate but they do not move us; so we can say that they are not effective.
Anyway, without putting up an entire essay on the usefulness of art (it would be a very long essay), I’d like to suggest that one useful role for a poet might be to be an historian of the present.
This is an idea I’ve had for awhile, and I come to it by an odd route. I’ve been thinking about political poetry, or better said, politically involved poetry. Of the good poetry written with political or polemical intent, it seems to me that in general the strongest poems are those that take cognizance of the total life of their times, or at least the large share of it that affects the moment, and that thus operate beyond the instant event or judgment. Those poems capture the ambiguity and variety of complex considerations that are always a part of any human activity and thought. Nothing needs be consistent in this effort. In the real world we always operate with our contradictions intact.
So to say it more simply: Poems become more powerful and effective as they honestly confront the times, and even, as necessary, their authors. By including those difficulties and complexities, the authors become historians of the present. They write the history of today, of life as actually lived as we make our commitments. To be honest about it is to confront the messiness of the commitment process, and even the messiness that lingers after the commitment is made.
“Easter, 1916” by W.B. Yeats is a poem that does this kind of confrontation brilliantly. Robert Bly’s “Sleet Storm on the Merritt Parkway” is another. There are several by Rexroth that impress me in exactly this way. I don’t suggest that these are greater poems than others written by these poets, only that they bring a power and richness to the work and an effectiveness that their other poems lack, because of how they are involved in the world. (There are exceptions, and we should note them: a one-dimensional poem like “Counting Small Boned Bodie