How does a poet who aims to make his or her expressions timeless react to a contemporary tragedy steeped in politics such as the disaster in the Gulf?
— Dr. Sunshine
It’s always tricky when poetry, current events, and politics intersect, but it happens all the time. Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote “An Elegy to Dispel Gloom” after the assassinations of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. “New York American Spell” is Thomas Sleigh’s reaction to 9/11. I believe these poems achieve a sense of timelessness, but more on how to do that in a moment.
It can seem that timelessness is achieved in part by avoiding politics and current events: Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Billy Collins, the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. But how do we really know that “The Road Not Taken” was not Frost’s response to a contemporary tragedy? How do we know that “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun In The House” was not Collin’s response to a political defeat? We don’t, no matter how well versed we are in a poet’s habits and aspirations, no matter how skilled we are at literary analysis. Even Szymborska, whose work is repeatedly praised for being accessible, timeless, and nonpolitical, admits that we cannot divorce ourselves from our political persuasions:
Children of Our Age
We are children of our age,
it’s a political age.
All day long, all through the night,
all affairs–yours, ours, theirs–
are political affairs.
Whether you like it or not,
your genes have a political past,
your skin, a political cast,
your eyes, a political slant.
Whatever you say reverberates,
whatever you don’t say speaks for itself.
So either way you’re talking politics.
Even when you take to the woods,
you’re taking political steps
on political grounds.
Apolitical poems are also political,
and above us shines a moon
no longer purely lunar.
To be or not to be, that is the question.
And though it troubles the digestion
it’s a question, as always, of politics.
To acquire a political meaning
you don’t even have to be human.
Raw material will do,
or protein feed, or crude oil,
or a conference table whose shape
was quarreled over for months;
Should we arbitrate life and death
at a round table or a square one?
Meanwhile, people perished,
and the fields ran wild
just as in times immemorial
and less political.
(translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh)
Szymborska seems to be telling poets how to respond to contemporary tragedies steeped in politics. Take a step back and focus on what’s important: chaos and loss. To achieve a timeless quality, do not attach blame in your poem, even if, in your mind, the tragedy has a very clear culprit. Focus on the tragedy itself in concrete, objective terms. I don’t mean to imply that this will be easy, Dr. S. I commend your task, and you have all my best wishes for a timeless poem. • 7 July 2010