I Confess: A Defence of Poetry

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Next Thursday is World Poetry Day. It is part of National Poetry Month. The League of Canadian Poets has invited us all to join the celebration at readings in provincial and territorial legislatures and in Ottawa. I’d like to contribute, though not in verse, by saying something on the necessity of poetry in times like these.

When I was in my first year of university, in 1960, novelist Morley Callaghan came in for an intimate “tea and talk” with students. He was one of Canada’s few full-time fiction writers and an internationally published one.

I was feeling infatuated by my first encounters with the worlds of academics and scholarship. And so I asked how he dared write novels on subjects such as racism. I said that he had done no studies of it, had no degree in it, while others had credentials and expertise. He responded generously but a bit vaguely, as if he figured I would eventually figure it out myself.

Morley Callaghan wasn’t a poet, but in this respect he can stand in for one. Poetry is the ultimate realm of non-expert insight. A line of poetry doesn’t have credentials; it simply states its truth. The only judge is the reader; the only basis for judgment, the line; the sole criterion, whether the words ring true.

This holds for poetry about love or the Spanish Civil War or that bent paper clip sitting jauntily on the desk by the keyboard. In this way, poets are the supreme anti-experts, the antipodes not just of profs but of pundits. We listen to profs and pundits because of their expertise, which pre-establishes the “importance” of anything they say. But only what a poet says can establish whether s/he is worth listening to. It’s a pretty primitive practice, but let me show how it can work.

Almost immediately after September 11, an old poem, September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden began circulating on the Internet and in publications. It was as if anyone who had ever read it reached for it on the shelf. Although it was written sixty years before, not published until years later, and the poet himself died in 1973, there is hardly a line that does not groan under significance about September 11.

It pains me to select a few but consider just: “I and the public know/ What all schoolchildren learn,/ Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.” Auden had a specific event in mind, the harsh peace terms after the First World War that led to the next war. But the line resonates. It was only recently that I noticed he used the same term, evil, that George W. Bush and others have used so often.

George Bush, however, uses the word in a vague, metaphysical way that has no definition and excludes going anywhere. Once he has said it, no discussion is possible, and you’re either with us or with the evil ones.

Auden’s use remains in the human realm: It’s about evil as perceived by one side, then the other, and the interaction that unfolds. You can discuss it and try to break the cycle. And he does this without letting either side off the moral hook for their “evil.” Beyond its own context, the phrase can apply to almost any area of human life, including the chain of child sexual abuse.

It’s odd how the poet leaves you with a practical sense of possible future action while the politician offers Armageddon and a hopeful glance heavenward. (“The windiest militant trash/ Important Persons shout.”)

I want to confess, in a mode apt to Poetry Month, that I have felt some unease writing since September 11. I’m okay with subjects such as the Mideast, where I have lived and which I’ve followed all my life. The same goes for the U.S. But further afield, writing on Islam or Afghanistan, I’m hardly at home.

Yet those, too, are crucial, and all of us, not just experts, have a stake and a right to form opinions. In fact, the problem with relying on experts is they often take their own particular expertise rather than everyone’s common humanity as the basis for analysis. The result is advice based on our differentness from “those people” and, in the current case, the inevitability of a “clash” between them and us.

Using one’s sense of what human nature is like, what human beings react to and what they are capable of is not a bad counterapproach. I’ve been encouraged in this view by Edward Said, certainly a scholar of Islam and the Arab world, who writes that, even when discussing alien or hostile cultures, “most knowledge about human society is, I think, finally accessible to common sense — that is, the sense that grows out of the common human experience.”

I hope this doesn’t read as an invitation to pontificate in ignorance. Radio shock jocks tell it like it is, too. You have to be able to make some distinctions. Having information and expertise available doesn’t hurt either.

In the end, though, what counts is the use of that common human sense. Shelley, in A Defence of Poetry, called poets the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” There are times, like now, when they could hardly do worse than the acknowledged ones.

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