Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Responsibility of Poets

There's a poll up at Read Write Poem, asking "what is your responsibility as a poet?"

I guess I don't understand why you'd even want to talk about it. It seems odd to me, to talk about the responsibility of poets. As so often, nowadays, I feel like I've missed some critical piece of the conversation to date.

Why introduce the notion of responsibility? If you have a responsibility to do something, you do it whether you like it or not. Did any single poet in the history of the world ever write a good poem that she didn't like writing? Do you really want to browbeat poets who want to write about the gleam of black tulips into writing odes to Senator Gordon Smith's voting record? It makes no sense to me. I find it difficult to believe we're talking about anything, frankly. Poets are going to write about whatever they're going to write about, no matter what we say they ought to do.

Lets keep responsibility in the sphere of being a human being, and not staple it to particular avocations. If you care about the poor -- as Jesus, for one, emphatically instructed you to -- it will be in your poetry somewhere. Or -- even better -- the roots of that caring, beyond day to day political squabbling, will be in your poetry.

I understand wanting to refute the people who say poetry is effete, idle self-indulgence. I understand resenting that, and wanting to say: no. This is important. This is the most important thing I can do. And I believe that in fact is true. There is nothing more important to a poet than writing poetry, and that's as it should be. But to me "responsibility" lumbers into this conversation like a bull elephant, drunk on fermented apples, wandering into a glassware shop. When the heart wants to sing, it must sing, and it will sing. What good can it do to say that it has a responsibility to sing?

My motto is H.D.'s , who wrote:

I go to the things I love
With no thought of duty or pity.

I don't think poetry has much influence on day to day politics, which is probably a good thing, because poets tend to be political imbeciles. A poet as wonderful, subtle, beautiful, and perceptive as Ezra Pound could be a sucker for Mussolini's drivel. There's no guarantee that poets will have any political sense, and in fact there's a strong prima facie case for expecting them to have none.

Here's what I think is the sum total of poets' responsibility: 1) to try to see clearly, 2) to love, and 3) to cultivate their gifts & do the best work they can. It's no different from other human beings' responsibility. If your eyes and your heart are open, your poetry will do the right thing. Don't pester it.

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