We have in this country a great freedom. We have the freedom to say what we think. What I am wondering, though, is why so few of us say what we think. I wonder how many of us know what we think. Particularly the bumper crop of writers this country has produced in the last two decades.
I’ve written in the last month to a congressional committee, for COSMEP,* hoping to widen, gradually, the legislative provisions for small presses. I said: “There are . . . more good writers actively seeking publication right now than ever before in American history.” I could have said: “in the history of the world.”
Thousands of Americans — articulate, able to speak, able to describe what ails them and what ails the country.
Anna Akhmatova describes standing in line in a prison yard during the Stalin period, numb with dread and fear, waiting to see her son, and a woman near her realizing she was a poet, asking: “Can you describe this?”
And Anna Akhmatova nodded. She not only could (and isn’t that perhaps a writer’s central task: to describe the most important human experiences, to grapple, in some sense, with his or her age?). She did. And she was willing to suffer for having done so.
How many of this bumper crop of writers — who swing words by the tail, who know what’s been said before and what hasn’t, who can sculpt a paragraph, melt it down, and re-cast it — are willing to suffer for having spoken in a culture where freedom of speech is, theoretically, not even the issue?
I think about it a lot. I think about three poets whom I believe have tried to touch the nation’s illness, describe it, name it, heal it: Norm Moser, Gene Fowler and Amon Liner. Norm wrote in his “Dirge for Denver and for Jimmy”:
Yes, I mourn the destruction of even one soul the closed signs on so many windows the silent suburbs the crewcut minds the destruction of the animals and the land the erection of building after building ever onrushing traffic mounting garbage-heaps & stored nerve-gas & the unprecedented paucity of feeling . . . p. 56, JumpSongs 1973
Gene described the culture by describing its most extreme place, prison, and what happens to men there; how they are turned into man-things and must wear a red heart on their foreheads.
Amon’s poem about a psychopath — a mode of being we are all a little too familiar with — describes a man terrified of “the friendly vocabularies walking toward me.”
They have all gone largely unacknowledged. It has made Gene bitter. He periodically tells me he has given up being a poet. Nobody, past a few, listened anyway.
Norm, who was here in Chapel Hill, in 1974 and 1975, thought North Carolina would welcome him back (he grew up here). He offended a lot of people, including me. He can’t see why still, and I’ve stopped trying to explain it to him, but it remains true, for all his orneriness, that he has seen something that few others have apparently seen, and spoken about it.
Amon died this past summer, leaving a lot of poetry, which I have committed myself to see into print. His longest poem is an epic Faustwitz, about a doctor in Auschwitz. The first page has a juxtaposition about as unsettling as any I’ve read. We are at Auschwitz, and somebody is singing: “Santy and me/ under the Christmas tree.”
Amon’s work also was largely neglected during his lifetime. He wasn’t bitter, as far as I know. He counted on eventual acknowledgement.
These are my sore thumb poets. Their lives and their truth, and the fact that no one has yet listened much, stick out for me like sore thumbs.
Those being most taken up, paraded, funded, published in large circulation magazines do not write this kind of truth out of this kind of freedom to speak. And I suppose they are more approachable, “nicer.” My three sore thumbs are hard, even for me, whom they consider a friend. They all have a gadfly effect on me, in different ways.
I go back to Pound’s insistence on the method of comparison. Read the first lines of Robert Lowell’s poem on the cover of a recent issue of American Poetry Review (Vol 5 No. 5, 1976):
I fish until the clouds turn blue weary of self-torture, ready to paint lilacs or confuse a thousand leaves as landscapists must.
and these excerpts from my sore-thumb poets, none of whom has ever been published by APR, even as “discovered poets”:
We have made hawks that fly where no hawks have flown We have made hard sky and look out at the rain We have made warm hides from no animal yet slain . . . We have forgotten the shape & cry of our bellies. We have forgotten the dances of our faces the songs of our own voices. Fires, Fowler, pp. 43-43, 1976 What do we owe this life, anyway, unless it be: to go on the trail go on the trail as far as you can, the lightest load possible. A Shaman’s Song Book, Moser, p. 28
And this from Amon’s Chrome Grass, p. 6, 1976, describing a contemporary hero:
His every step skirts reality; his tender mode of discourse is silence. In the gold leaf foliage and the dark green bocage, he stares at his lady-love reclining amid the separated tank-treads . . . He fiddles with his bayonet, as he waits for her mercy or for the dead to come to life. Motionless, pursued with indifference, he walks forward into the sunlight. As if he owned it.
Why are these poems not yet heard? Why, when our aching, contemporary distress is described here — not the distancing from it in Lowell’s poem (“weary of self-torture”) but the active articulation (“We have forgotten/ the shape and cry of our bellies” and “His every step/ skirts reality”) as well as the possible cure (“to go on the trail as far as you can/ the lightest load possible”).
We hear a lot of other poets in our schools, poets on television, poets invited to the Presidential Inauguration, poets receiving fellowships and teaching jobs; we begin to know, as a society, that poetry is a weapon we can all pick up. Words are ours to use.
But why don’t we use poems for what they’re intended. If we have the weapons to change our lives, perhaps to change our culture’s fate, and do not use those weapons, I can only think of two reasons.
One, we are ignorant. We don’t yet realize our danger. We don’t yet see our enemy’s face. The malaise and the disease are too much part of us already to hold out, like a sore thumb, and see.
Two, we are afraid. If we say what we think, if we write what we feel, we may not get a grant. We may offend someone at the state arts council. We may not be able to say it well enough. We may be written off as “political” or “not that good.”
There’s one simple solution. It cures all. It’s the hardest, of course. Listen to the heart. Ah, Judy, now you are trite. What is the equivalent, in our contemporary language of heart? Listen to your own perception. The psychologists have taught us well: “This is my perception.”
Heart is trite. And perception is blurred because it’s part of a contemporary psychological lingo which means: “I think this, but I won’t get angry at you if you don’t think it, too.”
Now we are indeed stuck, or are we? My perception is: Santy and me/ underneath the Christmas tree. My perception is that it isn’t only in prison that human beings are letting themselves be made into man-things with a red heart on their foreheads.
My perception is: you don’t have to do the next thing that doesn’t make sense to you. My challenge is: don’t do it. I think we all have, at however buried a depth, the knowledge of who we are and what we feel. So I say, why not use the poets to climb out? And poets, why not climb out via your poems? The inner man knows. Let him do all the talking.
Rollo May (according to Edmund Fuller’s review of his book, The Courage to Create, in The Wall Street Journal a couple years ago) came to a rather radical (though ancient) conclusion, that “Dogmatists of all kinds — scientific, economic, moral, as well as political — are threatened by the creative freedom of the artist. . . . We cannot escape our anxiety over the fact that the artists together with creative persons of all sorts, are the possible destroyers of our nicely ordered systems.”
What do we have to lose? We are the generation most generously funded to create in the history of the world. Even the Greeks, who awarded their playwrights prizes and esteem, only fed and housed at state expense their athletes, never their poets. Though Socrates, boldly, when on trial for his life, proposed that they do that for him instead of killing him.
Look around you. The arts are alive as never before. People are writing, weaving, dancing, playing music, quilting, painting.
In mentioning the different ways that different societies have tried and do try to control their artists, May said: “Capitalism tries to take over the artist by buying him.”
I, too, believe that the existence of so much grant money is a possible threat; it’s also a possible blessing.
It depends on how we see it, how we take it. If the money is affecting us, it is in a more subtle way than is easy to sum up. We might need to step back and see a larger picture. In 1968, we lost Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. In 1968, federal funding for the arts began. And in 1969, according to an article in a Washington magazine, President Nixon told Nancy Hanks, who has since been the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, “Get money to the young artists.”
How many young artists have been affected by the existence of funding for the arts, even if they didn’t get funding? Have their energies flowed differently? Has their attention been differently focused?
There were poets raising hell in the late 60’s. Poets leading protests against the Vietnam War. Poets being carried off the Senate floor (Muriel Rukheyser) because the war was not to be tolerated. Poets outraged and risking their lives. Much of the original energy of small, independent poetry magazines forming the in late 1960’s and early 1970’s was related to the energy of protest, of doing something definitive, active, and real to effect change.
Not all, but a significant number of these young activists, have been funded. They have gone into the schools. I went. And I wasn’t thought safe at the time by one fairly well-known poet in the state. She said I was “too identified with prison poets.”
So she sent me to the grammar schools, and I helped children, who weren’t used to doing so, talk about their feelings. I helped them say what they thought. I helped them know that their own words for saying things were good, and that saying them was freeing. I also told them one of the poets in the state, one of their poets, who happened to be black, was in jail, and was innocent. Fifth and sixth graders. I felt they ought to know. And no one stopped me or raised a fuss. I noticed that the fifth and sixth grade black children had lost the easy, blooming confidence of the third and fourth grade black children. They had begun to sense their future, their danger. Age 10 and 11. That was when I began to dream of being a writer; began planning my life. I didn’t tell them.
We are only beginning to have articulated and in print the experience of being black in this country. Or, for that matter, the experience of being a woman in a culture whose power structure still rests on the superiority of male over female modes of being. And we are only beginning to feel the shaking of the foundation.
Is it possible that we are living in a period of major literary significance and haven’t grasped it? That we are worrying more about whether we will be recognized and/or funded than about whether we write what matters?
Sometimes it’s easier to write and/or die for a cause when the enemy shows an ugly face. The assassination of a major black leader was ugly. The killing of students and wounding of many more was ugly. Responding to that wrongness gave many young artists a clear sense of purpose.
Do we artists and writers of the 1970’s, who are good, by and large, at what we do, have anything equivalent to that sense of purpose — and risk? If we don’t, why don’t we?
Is it because we haven’t realized our power? Haven’t noticed our danger?
Do we still look at the authority at the top to tell us whether we are good or good enough? When it comes down to it, the authority at the National Endowment for the Arts rests in the hands of a woman who has a reputation for being very good at handling Congressmen. She has sent money flowing, according to the Washingtonian magazine, to as many congressional districts as possible. For whatever reason. Maybe just to insure that the Endowment was funded again and again. It was. Its budget consistently went up during those Nixon years, when many other federally funded projects were being cut.
The effect as far as I can tell, is two-fold. The access to funds is omnipresent. “Maybe we can get a grant” is a fairly familiar psychological state. There is a tremendous proliferation of things in print, partly because of the invention of offset printing, and partly because funding helped stabilize during critical years (1974-75) the emerging of small literary presses.
The power of the word is in our hands, and the freedom of the press is in our basements and garages. But are we using it? Are we subtly deferring still, out of old cultural habits, to an older authority model? Do we still wait for a body of experts to tell us whether our truth is good enough to be funded? Do we let bitterness turn us from our work when we aren’t funded? Do we expend unnecessary energy screaming at those who are funded? Fighting the next time around for our own? Or sulking?
The simplest response may be the wisest. One poet/editor — George Mattingly, I think — said: “Treat them (grants) like cultural foodstamps. Take them when you can get them.”
I fight, personally, very hard to help insure fairness in one major area of funding: small presses and magazines. But I try to remember: the money alone won’t do it. And if the existence of money, and therefore less financial anxiety, turns us from issues burning in our guts, then it’s time we let the money go to those who will become most inflated and pop eventually from their own excess of hot air.
Writers with words like ours — even with all the lingos, psychological and otherwise, which are around — yes, even in a culture traumatized by TV, could change a lot. I challenged myself. I challenge you. Write what matters, as well as possible, risking triteness, risking being labeled political, risking being under or overfunded, risking being imprisoned. The only weapon anyone really has against you is death. And that weapon, too, the older poets used to say, can be turned against an enemy.
Osip Mandelstam, who poked fun at Stalin in a poem not even published (it just existed and a rumor spread to the authorities) was arrested and suffered an imprisonment from which he found the courage to write. This was Osip Mandelstam’s perception. Sometimes, it is mine.
Mounds of human heads are wandering into the distance. I dwindle among them. Nobody sees me. But in books much loved, and in children’s games I Shall rise from the dead to say the sun is shining
*Committee of Small Magazine Editors and Publishers, of which Judy Hogan is national chairperson.