Why not do something important?!

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?

(…)

– Bertolt Brecht, To those Born Later

*

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:

Poetry never stood a chance
of standing outside history.

We move but our words stand
become responsibly
for more than we intended

and this is verbal privilege

 

Adrienne Rich, North American Time

14 comments on “Why not do something important?!

  1. Sigrun, what a wonderfully written and insightful post. You’ve shared something that I have felt many times myself. In fact, there was a period of time where I couldn’t – or wouldn’t let myself – write out of a feeling of guilt that it was somehow selfish. Finally, I realized that other areas of my life were suffering as a result of my self-sacrifice. I learned from this to never underestimate the power of happiness. Writing makes me feel fulfilled and empowered, and so I must do it.
    Going to tweet this excellent post!

    • Thank you!
      In a way I think it’s a rather banal question, and I really can’t understand why I can’t come to terms with myself and accept that writing is what I do.

  2. Sigrun,
    Thank you for pointing out that there are always higher and better places to explore through writing and creativity. The endless capacity you mention reinvigorates writers to always reach for that next higher rung on the ladder of their artistic expression. We at times falsely perceive that the climb is over for us because the top of the ladder has been reached by the “greats” already. Thank you for showing that the ascent up the ladder of art and creativity is never-ending.
    Jerry

  3. What we have, what we are arises within our experience. If we endeavour to respond as honestly as the instrument that is ours allows, we are even better than artists, we are adult human beings, rare things to be sure.

  4. Hi Sigrun, I don’t think it’s a banal question – in fact an entire issue of “Fiction International” literary journal was dedicated to a similar question: what is the role of the artist in wartime, for example. See the thought-provoking question posed by my mentor, editor Harold Jaffe, here: http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~fictintl/story_42_question.html
    In his call for submissions for the issue, Jaffe asks: “With wars in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and potential US (and other “First World”) involvement in Pakistan, Iran, Georgia, South America and elsewhere; with the tragic effects of global warming every day more evident; with the national economy in collapse mode; to what extent should Hannah Arendt’s “inner emigration” admonition apply to writers and artists in 2008?”

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