I have this ongoing monolog with myself. It’s a variation over the same question: why study & write about art – why not do something important with your (my…?) life? The question got very loud a few weeks ago when visiting Dachau, but it murmurs on – also in more trivial settings.
Truly, I live in dark times!
The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet had
The terrible news.
What kind of times are they, when
A talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?
The dark times are far from over, says Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux in The Poet’s Companion: “It seems we have always lived in dark times; from beginning of human history …”
And here my question about focusing on art in difficult times gets company, A & L examines the challenge beautifully:
Writing a poem in such times may feel a little like fiddling while Rome burns. Yet we’re poets. Writing is what we do in the world – or part of it anyway – and as ephemeral as it might sometimes seem, the making of poems is a necessary act, one that allies itself with hope rather than despair.
Language is a power that is used in many ways. Advertising exploits language to convince us we are buying not only a product but a bit of class, or sexiness, or sophistication. Politicians hire speechwriters to play on our sense of patriotism, our fears, our compassion …
Poems, on the other hand, use language to tell the truth – …
As artists, poets and writers we are witnesses – we see what happened, and through our imagination; what never did, because art also bears witness to the endless human capacity for creative invention.
The poetry of witness, says Carolyn Forché, reclaims the social from the political and in so doing defends the individual against illegitimate forms of coercion.
Here is Adrienne Rich: