THE BROKENNESS OF THE WORLD, AND POETRY: A LETTER
[At the end of 2021, Tablet Magazine republished an article by its
editor, Alana Newhouse, that had appeared at the beginning of the
year, entitled "Everything in Broken (and How to Fix It)," which can
here. The article began with the story of the author's
long-frustrated efforts to get an accurate diagnosis and adequate
treatment for a child injured at birth. When she voiced her
frustration to the doctor – Norman Doidge – who eventually helped
her figure it out, he responded, "the American medical system is
profoundly broken." And not only the medical system, he went on to
note: "How come so much of the journalism I read seems like
garbage?” And so on. Eventually, Newhouse defines the quality of a
cultural landscape in which everything seems broken as flatness.
That struck a chord, because flatness is something I have
also inveighed against in my own field of poetry (for instance in
the essay "Volta," written around the turn of the century, which can
here. I thought I saw a chance to draw attention to the role
that poetry, or its absence, has played in the general entropy, and
the following letter was the result.
This letter – "of
course" – received no answer. Another aspect of the brokenness of
the culture is that people who have managed to gain some kind of
public forum for their thoughts seldom appear interested in hearing
from their listeners. Under the article appeared the email address
email@example.com. If anyone agrees with what I have
said here, they might just drop a note to that address. Perhaps a
few notes to that effect would get their attention.]
Dear Alana Newhouse,
Taking the email address at the bottom of your article
"Everything is Broken (and How to Fix It)" as an invitation, I am
writing you a response which is also a proposal for an article.
To introduce myself: I am a poet. It is as a poet that I have
observed this era, in which, as Yeats put it some time ago, "things
fall apart, the center cannot hold." The thesis of my article will
be that the dead center of this hurricane is the absence of poetry,
whose job has always been to try and hold things together. Back in
1985 Joseph Epstein published an article called "Who Killed Poetry,"
which named the problem but didn't get to the heart of the matter.
I will try to do so.. I know that such an article will be a hard
sell, but hope you will stay with me long enough at least to
You began your article with a story, so I will do the same.
I have known since childhood that I wanted to be a poet, and already
as a child had intimations that this road was not going to be a
smooth one. While we were still in elementary school, my younger
brother brought home from the supermarket a record with a story
about a little duck who didn't want to do anything except write some
poh-wuh-try. Needless to say, by the end of the record the hapless
anatid was cured of this annoying personal habit. Lodging my first
cultural protest I prevailed on our mother to discard the record,
though now I think I should have preserved it as documentation.
I persisted in writing poh-wuh-try, and at fourteen showed some of
my efforts to my English teacher. She and another English teacher
agreed that I had talent and predicted that by the age of twenty I
would be able to publish a volume of poems. (They were way off; I
started self-publishing in my thirties, but my first and only book
with a "real" publisher, at the age of 42, was a chapbook of poems
translated into Hebrew by Simon Halkin o.b.m., one of the elder
statesmen of Hebrew literature.) They recommended that I read Emily
Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Louis
Untermeyer's anthology, and I did so. But as I read through the
anthology, I noticed something that gave me a sinking feeling. The
later entries in the anthology, the ones who started publishing
after World War II, didn't appeal to me. They were very clever, of
course, but some quality was missing. Or if you prefer, some
quality was present -- dryness, or as you would say "flatness."
From reading these recent poets, I sensed that would not be able to
make my way as a poet, because I could never write that sort of
stuff. In one way this was beneficial; believing I could only be a
reader, I read intensely throughout my college years, and believe
that my work is stronger because of it. I learned foreign languages
hoping to find in French, Russian and German poetry the quality that
had vanished from English poetry, but there too it looked to me as
if the same kind of dryness had set in. Moreover, I was deeply put
off by the atmosphere of the literary departments.
Two things characterized that atmosphere. First, there was a craven
fear of being taken in -- of liking something that wasn't "good." I
learned quickly that if you liked Millay you had better keep quiet
about it. (I love her, and hope that some of my sonnets continue
her.) Second, it was not cool to have an ethical response to a
literary work -- to object, for instance, to having to read a novel
about a nasty young man who pushes an old man off a train as an "acte
gratuite" -- or as they might say on the street, just for kicks.
Even an emotional response was slightly frowned on. Outrageousness
was mistaken for courage, while emotional courage was absent.
From a sense of stiflement I became drawn to the counterculture and
spent the middle of the '60's in Berkeley. In that atmosphere a lot
of people were writing poetry without thought of publication, just
to keep track of what was going on in and around them. Poetry was a
very big part of what tried to happen in the '60's, most prominently
in the lyrics of the songs that were sung, but equally as part of a
vital social conversation, which continued on into the '70's. At
the end of the 70's I put together a private anthology, which I call
"My Albigensians" for the mystical heresy suppressed by the Catholic
church in the 12th century. I don't suppose I can ever publish it,
as all of the writers have gone out of range.
It was also in Berkeley, as a graduate student in German, that I
encountered the most significant exception to the reign of flatness
in post-World War II poetry -- Paul Celan. Of course, his
work is ultramodern in form and very ingenious, and this kept him in
with the academics and the literary sophisticates. But emotional
depth is what his poetry is about. Perhaps only a Holocaust survivor
writing in German could have been granted that exemption. The
insight that "everything is broken" came to me already in 1970, with
the news of his suicide. Since then I have been trying to figure
out ways to fix everything.
At this point I have no choice but to inflict a poem on you -- my
"signature" poem, written in 1975, after I'd had some time to mull
over the message of Celan's work and fate, with the help of some
other Jewish sources I'd been introduced to along the way.
We gather here to see
faces from which we need not hide our face,
to hear the sound of honest speech, to share
what dreams have etched upon the sleeping brain,
what the still voice has said, when heavy hours
plunged us to regions of the mind and life
not mentioned in the marketplace: to find
and match the threads of common destinies,
designs grimed over by our thoughtless life—
A sanctuary for the common mind
we seek. Not to compete, but to compare
what we have seen and learned, and to look back
from here upon that world where tangled minds
create the problems they attempt to solve
by doubting one another, doubting love,
the wise imagination, and the word.
For, looking back from here upon that world,
perhaps ways will appear to us, which when
we only struggled in it, did not take
counsel of kindred minds, lay undiscovered;
perhaps, reflecting on the Babeled speech
of various disciplines that make careers,
we shall find out some speech by which to address
ach sector of the world’s fragmented truth
and bring news of the whole to every part.
We say the mind, once whole, can mend the world.
To mend the mind, that is the task we set.
How many years? How many lives? We do not know;
but each shall bring a thread.
I have a fantasy of people meeting in small groups and opening the
meeting with this poem; perhaps it would help them to get started.
The cultural moment in which poetry was part of a vital exchange
between people came to an end with the '70's, around the time when I
decided to convert and move to Israel. After that the shrinking of
poetry's place in what passed for social dialogue proceeded apace.
This of course has occurred in Israel as well as elsewhere. Sadly,
I got to Israel a couple of decades late. Poetry had played a vital
role in the Jewish state, inspiring its builders and defenders,
until the end of 50's. The death knell of the kind of poetry that
played this role was sounded by a meanspirited essay published in
1959 by Natan Zach, the local enforcer of flatness, ridiculing the
poems of Natan Alterman who had been perhaps the leading poetic
voice of the struggle for independence. Alterman's work is rhymed
and metrical and not afraid of pathos. Overnight, that style became
"impossible." A few years later hatchet jobs were also done on the
singer-songwriter Naomi Shemer, whose work still expresses and
strengthens the love of Israelis for their land, but can't be
continued. This downgrading of poetry has gone hand in hand with
the advent of "post-Zionism" -- the loss of spirit, the sapping of
the will to defend and survive, which is presently an existential
threat to the Jewish state. (Zach, not coincidentally, was a
leftist who badmouthed Israel abroad.)
I left Israel in 1990 and spent the next twenty-three years back in
the States. One evening in the mid-1990's I walked into one of the
independent bookstores that were still struggling to survive and saw
that the atrium, where I'd often participated in poetry readings
attended only by the poets and their significant others, was
thronged, with people spilling over into the other rooms. And the
audience were all young and well dressed (in those days people still
dressed well for work), the best and the brightest. I craned my
neck to see what had drawn this crowd. In the front of the room
stood a scrawny, shabbily-dressed woman talking in a loud flat voice
about her recently published book on -- depression.
So that's the sad story. Now the question: what caused this to
happen? What is the root, or what are the roots, of the problem?
And what if anything can be done to fix it?
A large part of the answer, which Epstein mentions but to which he
gives too little weight, is the invention of the electronic media,
which took entertainment out of the people's hands. There's a
poignant scene in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
where Stephen comes home to learn from his siblings that the
family is going to be evicted again. After this has been briefly
discussed, someone begins to sing "Oft in the Stilly Night."
One by one the others took up the air until a full choir of voices
was singing. They would sing so for hours, melody after melody, glee
after glee, till thelast pale light died down on the horizon, till
the first dark nightclouds came forth and night fell.
He waited for some moments, listening, before he too took up the air
with them. He was listening with pain of spirit to the overtone of
weariness behind their frail fresh innocent voices.
[...] And he remembered that Newman had heard this note also in
the broken lines of Virgil ''giving utterance, like the voice of
Nature herself, to that pain and weariness yet hope of better things
which has been the experience of her children in every time.''
The position of poetry was founded on this popular habit of
singing. This was in the first decade of the twentieth century; a
few years later, someone would have turned on the radio, which would
have supplied them with smart, ready-made hit tunes. The beginning
of flatness. The medium is the message, and the message of
electronic media is flatness.
The loss of the popular audience was disastrous for poetry. The
popular audience, the audience of readers who do not aspire to be
poets themselves, has always been the arbiter of poetic quality.
The Reader who turns to poetry because it expresses something for
him or her, has no use for the kind of stuff poets write when they
are mainly trying to impress their peers. The reader is not
jealous, will not cut a poet down for writing better than he or she
does On the contrary.
Even as the world of poetry lost the umpire, the game ceased to have
rules. There was nothing to prevent literary politics from taking
the place of poetic judgment. This was facilitated by the loss of
rhyme and meter. It is relatively easy to tell whether a person can
write a decent sonnet or not, but it is often very difficult to rank
those who choose to celebrate themselves and sing themselves in free
verse. There are great poems written in free verse (Celan, again,
though actually he keeps up a pretty steady amphibrachic beat), but
with these grand exceptions, free verse is a recipe for flatness.
The tendency toward elitism in the literary world seems to have been
partly a "sour grapes" reaction to the loss of the popular audience;
it may also have been an upper-class backlash against the
aspirations of the working class. Jonathan Rose's book The
Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes chronicles the
attempts of nineteenth-century working-class people to educate
themselves, attempts that were overlooked or disparaged by writers
like T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster.
At the bottom of it all, though, is the spiritual change -- the
secularization -- that accompanied the scientific and industrial
revolution. The struggles of faith confronted with the geological
record and the origin of species were only the surface phenomena of
a compulsion to focus on the material world and what could be made
of it, on the mechanics of matter, on a process of analysis which
leaves nothing but particles and forces, makes it more and more
difficult even to see any thing in its integrity. (In Hebrew
the same word, davar, can mean either "word" or "thing.") Poetry,
which strives to create wholeness, was subjected to a spiritual acid
bath. The Romantics tried in a somewhat confused way to resist the
trend, and in their time poetry blazed up once more; but in the next
generation, Flaubert looked back to Romanticism with some nostalgia
but felt that the future belonged to prose.
The dissolution of things into particles and forces correlates with
the boundarylessness that has become so obvious an aspect of our
present-day culture. Again, poetry is the diametric opposite of this
trend. Poetry creates, within the boundaryless matrix of language,
something like an iron concretion in the sandstone, an utterance
that has a definite shape which resists dissolution. A form, like
the forms of living bodies, of marriage, religious observance, of
government. It took a couple of centuries to break down family,
community, religion, poetry, and finally the boundaries of human
physiology, but now our most "advanced" scientists are talking about
merging the human mind with the computer, which of course has no
boundaries at all. Which will probably lead to an approximation of
the state described by the book of Genesis as tohu vavohu. Or
as I gather one of the AI mavens has termed it, "gray goo."
So what are we going to do about it?
I think of an anecdote that struck me back in 1968, when I was just
starting to become acquainted with Judaism. I think it is somewhere
in Buber's Tales of the Hasidim, but when I go back to the
book I am unable to find it. Anyway, a son asks his father, "How do
we know we are not wandering in one of the worlds of illusion?" The
father answers, "We have the Torah, that's how we know." Somehow I
found that reply convincing. I thought: even if one says that the
Torah is something completely arbitrary, still it can be like a
first stick thrust into the sand, around which you start to build.
As, of course, the Oral Tradition has been building ever since. I
would argue for regarding poetry as another branch of that
Paual Celan did not style himself as a believer, yet it was the
contact with his work that made me feel that after all there is a
God. I think this is because the poems succeeded in reminding me
that there is something in us that ought to be inviolate. The tselem
elokim, the Divine image in which we are all made. For me the tselem
elokim has something to do with poetic form. (Rabbi Abraham
Isaac Kook, the founder of religious Zionism, somewhere says
something similar.) To start putting things back together, we
simply have to clear a mental space in which we say to hell with the
Big Bang, with the Cambrian, the Ordovician, and the Silurian, and
get in touch again with the tselem elokim and with the
formative impulse. A poetic faith is one that does not need
theological proofs, that does not have to win an argument with
science, that is inseparable from the act of rebuilding.
So from this perspective, the first recommendation for fixing things
would be: start reading poetry again. In English, I would say start
with the Shakespeare sonnets, and let them be your gold standard.
Approach anything recent with wariness. Read mostly poetry that has
rhyme and meter (but beware of the recent "formalist" revival, which
has sadly proved you can fill out the forms of traditional poetry
without overcoming the flat affect of postmodernism). This may
hurt, the way a frostbitten limb hurts when it starts to thaw out,
but persist. Memorize poems, recite them to anyone who will
listen. Write poems yourselves, but for heaven's sake don't
compete, don't submit them to literary magazines. (I run one at
present, but under protest.) Make them part of your conversation.
And do try out that idea of starting small group meetings with my
Real poetry is the opposite of flatness. Real poetry takes you to
the highest peaks and the deepest canyons, A real poem tells you
that something matters, something is worth stretching for. Try to
clear a space where you can hear it. (If you aren't keeping the
Sabbath, consider giving it a try.)
If you find these thoughts worth passing on to your readers, I shall