The debate, frustration, and heartbreak over Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza has ripped through our nation and the world over in the past days. I’m no international relations guru, and an 800-word blog post doesn’t even begin to touch on the complexities of the issues at hand, so I’m not going to try to summarize or analyze the matter, for fear I would be speaking only in ill-informed generalities from afar.
Instead, in light of the dismay and death that I hope we are all paying attention to, no matter how painful, because of its importance—and it is important—I want to kick around a few thoughts on what place art has in this sphere of events, either as an action or a reaction to the destruction that has unfolded. Obviously, I don’t mean to shift focus away from the real conflict; I’m attending to the small matter of art’s response to a hurting world and what, if any, comfort it offers (even with its deficiencies and shortcomings).
This discussion’s starting points lay in the recent version of the perennial question “Does poetry matter?” Recent articles in the Atlantic and The New York Times have posed it again, and the Twitterverse’s galaxy of poets, critics, and readers has been trying to validate and confirm it with a resounding yes.
Natasha Trethewey, fresh off her two-year stint as U.S. Poet Laureate, left with her parting words that she has “faith in poetry’s ability…to save us.” Don Share, Poetry Magazine’s current editor, seemed to moderate the discussion while chiming in with his own pithy quips, as in “Does asking whether poetry matters matter?” And even the more realist/cynical voices joined in the discussion, among them Michael Robbins, who asked, “Does *everyone* respond to poetry as if all that matters is what it’s, like, about?” But the L.A. Review of Books got to the heart of it when it tweeted a week and a half ago that, “Asking poets if poetry matters is a bit like asking a bunch of religious figures if religion matters.” Sure, poets are prone to come to their craft’s defense when under attack; more crucially, however, is that tweet’s linking of poetry and religion, an association which, given the Israel-Gaza conflict, reveals poetry’s risk of triviality, its pin drop among the very real air strikes.
Taking a cue from Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” in which he famously says, “poetry makes nothing happen,” I’m left wondering and seriously considering whether poetry can effect real change or whether it ultimately falls—at least in times of grief and crisis—in a neighboring valley to social media’s increasingly ubiquitous slacktivism. Theodor Adorno’s declaration that, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” continues this debate with a chilling jolt of reality, of art’s failings, of suffering’s victories across time.
Blogger Brian Oard’s blog post offers a paraphrase of the Auschwitz passage, an interpretation that has proven useful in my attempt to wrestle over Adorno’s words: “To persist, after Auschwitz, in the production of monuments of the very culture that produced Auschwitz…is to participate by denial in the perpetuation of that barbaric culture and to participate in the process (reification) that renders fundamental criticism of that culture literally unthinkable.” It’s the aporia of the 20th century bleeding over into the present: the creation and place of art in a culture and world so harmed and undone. The choice to create cannot be taken lightly, for it is a choice to participate in a precarious tradition. In “A Photograph,” Czeslaw Milosz tells it powerfully, deafeningly:
You see how I try
To reach with words
What matters most
And how I fail.
Distraction and kitsch can make us play the fools in many, many ways, and though I won’t provide much solace here, I will say that, even in the face of failure, that this reaching—and even the mere trying to reach—peels away at why and how poetry matters, at least sometimes, at least for some people.
I leave you with the opening lines of Muriel Rukeyser’s “Elegy in Joy”; let it be a prayer:
Now green, now burning, I make a way for peace.
After the green and long beyond my lake,
among those fields of people, on these illuminated
hills, gold, burnt gold, spilled gold and shadowed blue,
the light of enormous flame, the flowing light of the sea,
where all the lights and nights are reconciled.
The sea at last, where all the waters lead.
And all the wars to this peace.
For the sea does not lie like the death you imagine;
this sea is the real sea, here it is.
Jacob Schepers (Calvin ’12) is the author of A Bundle of Careful Compromises (2014), a winner of the 2013 Outriders Poetry Project competition. His poetry has appeared in Verse, The Common, PANK, The Destroyer, and others. He lives in South Bend, IN, with his wife, Charis, and two sons, Liam and Oliver. He is both an MFA student and doctoral candidate in English at the University of Notre Dame.