“In times like these to have you listen at all, it’s necessary to talk about trees.”
By Maria Popova
“The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love — by knowing … that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him,” James Baldwin wrote in his superb meditation on Shakespeare, language as a tool of love, and the poet’s role in a divided society, adding: “It is said that [Shakespeare’s] time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it.”
To ask ourselves what kind of time we live in is to consider the sources of our sorrow and unease, to confront the brokenness, but also to discover the cracks through which the light gets in. It is the poet’s task — “poet” in that expansive Baldwinian sense of wakeful artist in any medium — to do the asking, so that we may contemplate an answer and find a little more ease, perhaps even the promise of spaciousness and light, in the act of contemplation.
At the end of the 1930s, as terror was engulfing Europe, the exiled German poet Bertolt Brecht posed this question chillingly in a poem titled “To Those Who Follow in Our Wake”:
What times are these, in which
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!
In this recording from PBS’s Poetry Everywhere project, Rich reads her rousing masterpiece as her sonorous words reach across time and space to speak, as all great art does, directly and intimately to our time:
WHAT KIND OF TIMES ARE THESE
There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light —
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.
“Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire.”
By Maria Popova
One summer evening not long ago, on a rainy Brooklyn rooftop, a friend — a brilliant friend who studies the cosmos and writes uncommonly poetic novels — stunned me with an improbable, deceptively simple yet enormous question: “What does poetry do?”
But although poetry certainly does that, that’s certainly not all poetry does, so I’ve been puzzling over the question ever since.
The answer, or at least an answer, arrived as answers often do — in a flash of half-dream, half-memory as I was drifting into sleep one unsuspecting night. I suddenly recalled something I had read long ago, so long ago that it slumbered encoded in the deepest recesses of my unconscious mind — a passage from What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (public library) by Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012), one of the greatest poets and most wakeful minds of the past century.
Exactly thirty years after John F. Kennedy proclaimed in what remains one of the most powerful speeches ever given that “when power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” Rich examines “the long, erotic, unended wrestling of poetry and politics” and writes:
To look in a poem for immediate political function is as mistaken as to try to declare immediately what a particular protest demonstration or a picket line has “accomplished.”
I want a kind of poetry that doesn’t bother either to praise or curse at parties or leaders, even systems, but that reveals how we are — inwardly as well as outwardly — under conditions of great imbalance and abuse of material power. How are our private negotiations and sensibilities swayed and bruised, how do we make love — in the most intimate and in the largest sense — how (in every sense) do we feel? How do we try to make sense?
Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire.
I have never believed that poetry is an escape from history, and I do not think it is more, or less, necessary than food, shelter, health, education, decent working conditions. It is as necessary.
Where every public decision has to be justified in the scales of corporate profits, poetry unsettles these apparently self-evident propositions — not through ideology, but by its very presence and ways of being, its embodiment of states of longing and desire.
We see despair when social arrogance and indifference exist in the same person with the willingness to live at devastating levels of superficiality and self-trivialization… Despair, when not the response to absolute physical and moral defeat, is, like war, the failure of imagination.
It hardly matters if the poet has fled into expatriation, emigrated inwardly, looked toward Europe or Asia for models, written stubbornly of the terrible labor conditions underpinning wealth, written from the microcosm of the private existence, written as convict or aristocrat, as lover or misanthrope: all our work has suffered from the destabilizing national fantasy, the rupture of imagination implicit in our history.
But turn it around and say it on the other side: in a history of spiritual rupture, a social compact built on fantasy and collective secrets, poetry becomes more necessary than ever: it keeps the underground aquifers flowing; it is the liquid voice that can wear through stone.
Poets newly arriving here — by boat or plane or bus, on foot or hidden in the trunks of cars, from Cambodia, from Haiti, from Central America, from Russia, from Africa, from Pakistan, from Bosnia-Herzegovina, from wherever people, uprooted, flee to the land of the free, the goldene medina, the tragic promised land — they too will have to learn all this.
No one who loves life or poetry could envy the conditions faced by any of the Eastern Europeans or Black South Africans (for a few examples in this century) whose writings were actions taken in the face of solitary confinement, torture, exile, at the very least proscription from publishing or reading aloud their work except in secret. To envy their circumstances would be to envy their gifts, their courage, their stubborn belief in the power of the word and that such a belief was shared (even punitively). And it would mean wanting to substitute their specific emergencies for ours, as if poets lacked predicament — and challenge — here in the United States.
Rich recounts coming home from an errand to discover a pair of enormous beating wings lifting off from her deck — not a giant gull, as she reflexively surmised, nor even a raven, but a majestic Great Blue Heron. She writes:
I had never seen one from below or from so near: usually from a car window on a road above a small bay or inlet. I had not seen one many times at all. I was not sure. Poised there on the peak of the roof, it looked immense, fastidious, apparently calm. It turned a little; seemed to gaze as far into the blue air as the curve of the earth would allow; took a slow, ritualistic, provocative step or two. I could see the two wirelike plumes streaming from the back of its head.
I walked quietly into the garden toward the fence between the two houses, speaking to it in a low voice. I told it that I thanked it for having come; that I wanted it to be safe. I moved backward again a little to look at it better. Suddenly it was in air, had flapped out of sight.
This dreamlike encounter sent her on a spiraling inquiry into the cultural climate surrounding the magnificent bird — not just how a century of rapid so-called progress has impacted its ecology, but “what has been happening in our social fabric, our emotional and sensual life, during that century.” Pulling a guide to Pacific Coast wildlife from her bookcase, Rich found herself mesmerized by the names we’ve given species by some seemingly arbitrary agreement — names like Dire Whelk, Dusky Tegula, By-the-Wind Sailor, Crumb-of-Bread Sponge, and Ghost Shrimp.
I began to think about the names, beginning with the sound and image delivered in the name “Great Blue Heron,” as tokens of a time when naming was poetry, when connections between things and living beings, or living things and human beings, were instinctively apprehended. By “a time” I don’t mean any one historical or linguistic moment or period. I mean all the times when people have summoned language into the activity of plotting connections between, and marking distinctions among, the elements presented to our senses.
With an eye to the parallels between science, poetry, and politics, Rich reflects on how names can both dignify and objectify, grant power and take it away:
This impulse to enter, with other humans, through language, into the order and disorder of the world, is poetic at its root as surely as it is political at its root. Poetry and politics both have to do with description and with power. And so, of course, does science. We might hope to find the three activities — poetry, science, politics — triangulated, with extraordinary electrical exchanges moving from each to each and through our lives. Instead, over centuries, they have become separated — poetry from politics, poetic naming from scientific naming, an ostensibly “neutral” science from political questions, “rational” science from lyrical poetry…
The Great Blue Heron is not a symbol. Wandered inadvertently or purposefully inland, maybe drought-driven, to a backyard habitat, it is a bird, Ardea herodias, whose form, dimensions, and habits have been described by ornithologists, yet whose intangible ways of being and knowing remain beyond my — or anyone’s — reach. If I spoke to it, it was because I needed to acknowledge in words the rarity and signifying power of its appearance, not because I thought it had come to me. The tall, foot-poised creature had a life, a place of its own in the manifold, fragile system that is this coastline; a place of its own in the universe. Its place, and mine, I believe, are equal and interdependent. Neither of us — woman or bird — is a symbol, despite efforts to make us that.
With her characteristic mastery of nuance, Rich reframes her encounter. The Great Blue Heron is not a symbol and it isn’t an epiphany, either — it isn’t a means to her own artistic ends, nor a gift from the universe intended to serve her personal enlightenment. It is, rather, an agent in that attentive aliveness which makes poetry, makes art, makes life worth living. With her gift for strumming multiple cultural strings in one melodic stroke, Rich writes:
A Mohawk Indian friend says she began writing “after a motor trip through the Mohawk Valley, when a Bald Eagle flew in front of her car, sat in a tree, and instructed her to write.” Very little in my own heritage has suggested to me that a wild living creature might come to bring me a direct personal message. And I know too that a complex humor underlies my friend’s statement (I do not mean it is a joke). I am suspicious — first of all, in myself — of adopted mysticisms, of glib spirituality, above all of white people’s tendency to sniff and taste, uninvited, and in most cases to vampirize American Indian, or African, or Asian, or other “exotic” ways of understanding. I made no claim upon the heron as my personal instructor. But our trajectories crossed at a time when I was ready to begin something new, the nature of which I did not clearly see. And poetry, too, begins in this way: the crossing of trajectories of two (or more) elements that might not otherwise have known simultaneity. When this happens, a piece of the universe is revealed as if for the first time.
“The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence. Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence.”
By Maria Popova
“When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” John F. Kennedy proclaimed in his piercing eulogy to Robert Frost, contemplating the artist’s role in society and urging us to “never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” More than three decades later, another of humanity’s greatest poets and custodians of dignity explored this enduring relationship between art, power, and truth more closely and dimensionally than anyone before or since.
Rich begins by considering the perilous interplay of the market and the mind in capitalist culture:
We have become a pyramidic society of the omnivorously acquisitive few, an insecure, dwindling middle class, and a multiplying number of ill-served, throwaway citizens and workers [resulting in] a kind of public breakdown, with symptoms along a spectrum from acute self-involvement to extreme anxiety to individual and group violence.
In the vocabulary kidnapped from liberatory politics, no word has been so pimped as freedom.
Capitalism presents itself as obedience to a law of nature, man’s “natural” and overwhelming predisposition toward activity that is competitive, aggressive, and acquisitive. Where capitalism invokes freedom, it means the freedom of capital. Where, in any mainstream public discourse, is this self-referential monologue put to the question?
Our past is seeded in our present and is trying to become our future.
These concerns engage me as a citizen, feeling daily in my relationships with my fellow citizens the effects of a system based in the accumulation of wealth — the value against which all other values must justify themselves. We all feel these effects, almost namelessly, as we go about our individual lives…
But these are also my concerns as a poet, as the practitioner of an ancient and severely tested art. In a society in such extreme pain, I think these are any writer’s, any artist’s, concerns: the unnamed harm to human relationships, the blockage of inquiry, the oblique contempt with which we are depicted to ourselves and to others, in prevailing image making; a malnourishment that extends from the body to the imagination itself. Capital vulgarizes and reduces complex relations to a banal iconography.
Lamenting that terms like “consumers” and “baby boomers” feed the dual demon of contempt and self-contempt — one reduces people to their acquisition of commodities and the other “infantilizes and demeans an entire generation” — Rich examines how this collapse of language into shallowness impacts the artist’s responsibility to tussle with human relationships, which she has long considered the raw material of our private truths. She writes:
Any artist faces the necessity to explore, by whatever means, human relationships — which may or may not be perceived as political. But there are also, and always, the changing questions of the medium itself, the craft and its demands.
The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes its way — certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized peoples generally, but ultimately for all who practice any art at its deeper levels. The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence. Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence, and the first question we might ask any poem is, What kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?
Although silence externally enforced, Rich notes, is a tool of oppression and censorship, silence willfully elected is a force of growth. She writes:
Silence … can be fertilizing, it can bathe the imagination, it can, as in great open spaces — I think of those plains stretching far below the Hopi mesas in Arizona — be the nimbus of a way of life, a condition of vision. Such living silences are more and more endangered throughout the world, by commerce and appropriation.
Echoing Wendell Berry’s conception of silence as a sanctuary where “one’s inner voices become audible [and], in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives,” Rich places the extinction of such fertilizing silence in its cultural context:
Even in conversation, here in North America, we who so eagerly unpack our most private concerns before strangers dread the imaginative space that silence might open between two people or within a group. Television, obviously, abhors such silence.
I am reminded here of a wonderful 19th-century guide to the art of conversation, which asserted that “the power of preserving silence is the very first requisite to all who wish to shine, or even please in discourse.” The writer, Rich argues, is one who honors the silence while creating a space for connection and conversation:
Whatever her or his social identity, the writer is, by the nature of the act of writing, someone who strives for communication and connection, someone who searches, through language, to keep alive the conversation with what Octavio Paz has called “the lost community.” Even if what’s written feels like a note thrust into a bottle to be thrown into the sea.
But the successful transmission of the bottle requires a benevolent sea, which brings us back to the political dimension of art as a technology of freedom. Rich captures the true measure of democracy:
The survival of a great diversity of books … depends on diverse interests having the means to make such books available.
It also means a nonelite but educated audience, a population who are literate, who read and talk to each other, who may be factory workers or bakers or bank tellers or paramedicals or plumbers or computer consultants or farmworkers, whose first language may be Croatian or Tagalog or Spanish or Vietnamese but who are given to critical thinking, who care about art, an intelligentsia beyond intellectual specialists.
If we are writers writing first of all from our own desire and need, if this is irresistible work for us, if in writing we experience certain kinds of power and freedom that may be unavailable to us in other ways — surely it would follow that we would want to make that kind of forming, shaping, naming, telling, accessible for anyone who can use it. It would seem only natural for writers to care passionately about literacy, public education, public libraries, public opportunities in all the arts. But more: if we care about the freedom of the word, about language as a liberatory current, if we care about the imagination, we will care about economic justice.
For the pull and suck of Capital’s project tend toward reducing, not expanding, overall human intelligence, wit, expressiveness, creative rebellion.
Writing and teaching are kinds of work, and the relative creative freedom of the writer or teacher depends on the conditions of human labor overall and everywhere.
For what are we, anyway, at our best, but one small, persistent cluster in a greater ferment of human activity — still and forever turning toward, tuned for, the possible, the unrealized and irrepressible design?