In search of the lyrical 'I'
“Youth really is an intriguing period in one’s life. If one adds writerly ambitions to the difficulties of youth, one must possess an exceptionally strong constitution in order to cope. Its components should include: persistence, diligence, wide reading, curiosity, observation, distance toward oneself, sensitivity to others, a critical mind, a sense of humor, and an abiding conviction that the world deserves a) to keep existing, and b) better luck than it’s had thus far. The efforts you’ve sent signal only the desire to write and none of the other virtues described above. You have your work cut out for you.”
Wislawa Szymborska, “How to (and how not to) write poetry” http://poetrydispatch.wordpress.com/2007/10/24/wislawa-szymborska-how-to-and-how-not-to-write-poetry/
It is often disputed that poetry has any impact or social relevance. Yet one needs just to be reminded of what happened after Goethe had published his novel 'The suffrage of the young Werther'. Many youth who had read this story ended up like the main hero in the story, a poet. They saw like wise no way out of their own dilemmas and committed suicide.
The story by Goethe entails or illustrates what kind of dilemma and if it remains unresolved can drive a young person into such despair that ending of one's life seems to be the only possible option? It is difficult to generalize this to all kinds of suicidal motives but the story suggests that a poet may exist but in reality of society he has really no chance of an existence. In the story the poet loves a wonderful woman but she does not stay with him. After her mother dies, she not only takes over the role of mother for her siblings, but marries herself a man of practical qualification and thus considered to be useful in society. Relevance has fore mostly to do with knowing how to earn money and therfore with knowing not only how to exist in society but how to sustain a family. Such realism borders always on what goes, what not. Poets may address better than anyone else the emotions beyond those borders, but usually they cannot exist in society. Hence they despair and end up if they commit suicide like Hölderlin who spend the second half of his life in a tower.
Today this aspect of existence may not play such a huge role as many more people no longer know how to earn their money even after they have studied medicine. There is as well a system in place to help those who are 'unemployed' to gain a chance at retraining their skills while being supported, financially speaking, in order to get by. Still, there is in especially Northern Societies a stigma attached for not getting a job is considered to be still more of a personal failure rather than the fault of the system.
But aside from such a plausible explanation, there exists still another negativity which limits the conviction in poetry. It is connected with the claim that poetry cannot change anything and thus is conceived to be done only for its own sake. That resembles the dispute about the arts for art's sake alone. That image is reinforced by poetry being very subjective, inward orientated and often itself a reflection of human despair. A thought can go out to someone like Cavafy who knew when to say good-bye to Alexandria even before others had noticed the changes, and more so the neglect of that historical city in times to come. Predictability of future developments is a strength of poetry under such circumstances when seeing means literally speaking out the simple truth. It does matter, however, to observe what is going on in the streets. To see alone how women are treated compared to the meat at the main market, it can become a gruesome task to describe such a reality and still not forgot the human touch.
Whether or not poetry affects human relationships is difficult to say. It may be but an expression of what opportunities have been lost or even been betrayed when it comes to love. Carlos Fuentes certainly related love to the very act of betrayal but then life went on under very different circumstances. What matters is the kind of wisdom making itself felt and therefore how life twitters and slidders about. Certainly some real differences count. For instance, Spyros Mercouris would claim men fall in love through their eyes while women listen and only if that what the man says makes sense, then they would open up. If that is an expression of practical wisdom, then let it be so. No one is asked to abide by that even though everyone would agree at times love can confuse and drive a young man's mind completely crazy. Unthinkable is, however, poetry without such deeper feelings and throughs which do stirr the emotions and evoke all kinds of compassions for your fellow men and women, children and elderlies. As this is the society known best by living and learning in the street transformed into wonderous universities which allow the imagination to conjure up new thoughts while entering all kinds of adventures.
Women would add the caution that love is never only innocent and moreover subject to rules as power seeks to control and to punishment those women and men who dare to disobey. That includes even the 'command to love' about which Adorno would advise in Minima Moralia that the only way to break that command would be to love.
There is, however, still more to be said about love. Women would caution about any kind of wisdom being advocated by men. For they know about men who know how to speak in such a way that they can deceive a woman as if a wise man when in reality he turns out to be quite another person. Often that mistake of entering a love relationship with such a man is made due to a seeming common idea serving as bridge. It can be even the sharing of political beliefs. Only later they wake up to realize they find themselves in hell but then forces silence them. Many women go unheard when they cry silently even though they should get out of such a secret jail along which goes a treatment that conflicts with any demand to have one's human dignity be respected and preserved by marriage and by all other social relationships.
Yet even if the quest of a mad poet who tries to change society is deemed as impossible, it is still important to put feelings into words by bringing poetry into the life within society. The poetic dimension does exist. More important, the very link between poetry and philosophy suggests how the personal I can exist in relationship to the identity in need to be taken on if to be recognized by society. While it seems still impossible to exist by poetry alone, the very loss of the human touch when venturing too far into contrived realities underlines the need not to forget the existence of poetry.
But where to start with poetry? If Adorno advised to write everything down what one does not understand, then the poetic sense for that would be close to following line:
I whisper to myself a few words which I do not understand.
Using words which one does not understand as of yet, that is like slipping into shoes larger than ones own feet. Children love to slip into the shoes of their parents, put on a large hat and a big coat just to imitate what it would mean to be an adult. By way of such simulation to imagine what it would be like the role and the difference between child and adult becomes more concrete.
The crucial meaning behind the learning to use certain words is that it matters how things are designated. If language is not arbitrary, then it matters how something is signified. Naturally it is not words alone since they are really understood within the context of an entire sentence (Tugendhat), but then one should not exclude as well words like water who can be symbols for the need expressed by a child for something liquid when saying only 'water, water' but without reflecting how to make sure society and mankind retains access to clean and therefore drinkable water. Piaget underlines the difference between words as symbols to express needs and expressing needs within the context of reflection as to the conditions in need to be met before these needs can be fulfilled.
Transferred to symbols nations use, it may be an expression of a need to be recognized without reflecting however the conditions under which mutual recognition is made possible i.e. free from being overrun by another power seeking to expand and to annex other territories. Yet at the poetic level the key to use of words is to listen how words come up within oneself and which becomes a form by which certain feelings and thoughts can be expressed. And here one crucial difference counts. While integration into society follows a logic of coercion inherent in the term system so that things can be done only in a certain way if they are to function, poets counter this logic and seek a freedom of expression otherwise very hard to express, never mind to realize.
One of these aspirations may be to keep up the ethical longing of man for a true society while the pragmatic realists may have given up that dream since a long time. Interestingly enough Habermas does refer to those who have not betrayed as of yet this ethical vision which has surely inspired many poets, artists and thinkers to continue searching for a realization thereof. And if that is not possible, then to retain at least the tension between vision (norm) and reality.
When referring to the 1960's, it was a lyrical time. Bob Dylan stands for that, also Simon and Garfunkel. In Germany someone like Biermann became a famous protest singer but of a different quality given German Expressionism as a tradition of both expression and public denouncement of the 'lie' as a political means to keep people in line with the needs of governance.
So what about some of these lyrics? There is Dylan's song about the hurricane but also songs like 'boots are made for walking over you' or else that refrain 'down by the river', if not the one about the American pie keep reminding lyrics in life relate to both good and bad experiences. There is remorse in the air. And often life means walking alone down that strip of highway. It is about a traveller within one's own country and resonates with the songs of the Blacks 'we shall overcome'. In many cases, the lyrics touched upon the experiences made when at war or by coming into clash with police, equal the law and the authorities. What besets the European is the dominance of American songs even though the Beatles and others in England made sure it would not just stand that way. However, it is still lyrics song in English and that begs the question if there exist differences if the song is composed in another language?
One could interpret all of these songs as having to do first of all with protest but not just against society but against a life made apparently meaningless due to death not just of the saleman, but of the soldier in Viet Nam. It lead to the critical questioning of Patriotism understood then as of having no longer this readiness to die for a cause? That was the beginning of the war resister or of the resistance against war. However there was already in First World War a young man who wrote into his diary just before dying in the trenches 'I could have prevented this war'. He meant that he could have made the choice of not joining the war like so many others did back then in 1914. They marched happily into war as if a welcomed adventure or a good distraction from a boring job at the desk. At least, this is how Thomas Mann in 'Magic Mountain' described it. Rather than questioning war to ensure peace was maintained by peaceful means, war was glorified as being a worthy cause to die for the nation.
Still, the most disappointing decision around that time was the one made by the Social Democrats in Germany. That party was till then the beacon of internationalism and many had hoped the revolution would break out in Germany, not in Russia. But once they ended up voting for the credits making possible the going to war, it meant they had turned their back on solidarity with the others. They did so in order not to be accused to be traitors of their country. Patriotism came into being as a prime need to be satisfied before any other political consideration.
Interestingly enough Adorno made the observation that many soldiers serving in First World War quoted Rilke or rather copied his poems when writing from the front home to their girlfriends. Rilke's poems was an odd mix of Romanticism and awe for technology. It suited best those times for during the war one key discovery was that technology would bring about more power over people (Bertrand Russell). At the same time the loss of human feelings in this accelerated age of industrialisation meant people could not really express themselves. Hence the soldiers used the poems like a political representative to express for them what they felt. It was using the poems like the flag to indicate where they stood with regards to the nation.
All that changed after Second World War when Adorno said 'no more poetry was possible after Auschwitz'. And Paul Celan's poems were interpreted by Gadamer as someone who would with his messages tucked away in a bottle cast into the open sea to be out to destroy the German language. And it was Hochgesang who wrote the poems about the men who had been buried by history so as not to realize when the war was over. It left poetry in dire straights. Only with time some trust could be regained to let a few words slip into the mind as if the ears were listening to voices hardly audible due to the strong wind:
Or is it an accident when the wind
sweeps us off the ledge and lets us fly into the blue sky?
A teacher attempting to teach poetry of not Goethe and Schiller, but those who had made up like Elytis in Greece a part of the Surrealist movement, he would ask the calls if they had noticed how alone in those two lines written above that the 'I' went to a 'we' as if understanding is more than drawing circles in the sand and listening at school to what the teacher tells you about history. And here the wind sweeps the the collective 'we' off its feet and lets the collective fly without fear to come too close to the sun and then fall to crash and to die like Icarus did.
Often at school when reading a young man's poem the question was asked why such a young poet would year for an early death? The answer was always the same despite numerous variations. It seems at the zenith of life, with still many years ahead, there is a wish in the youth to die right now so not to experience hardships and disappointments still to come. For the poem expresses a yearning to die young in order to remain in memory as a person being a happy and living in still a healthy body and mind. Shadows of the future would imply that unity could not be kept up as one grows older. At that time, there was no inkling as of yet of the saying growing older is earning the Right to stay young.
Especially youth engaged in political actions and protest seems to dismiss poetry. Why is this? It seems that the social irrelevance of poetry relates to what is perceived as being necessary to change society. When faced by police during demonstrations, the absence of poetry is all too evident. That may have to do with harsh reality once confronted drives out any thought for poems. There is no time to read them, never mind take the time to consider what the emotions wish to say. Rather the noise and the fear due to high risks in a dangerous situation seem to overscream whatever feelings could tell only in a whisper.
Misha Horenstein reaccounted his days at school. He was afraid that the other boys would find out that he was playing the violin. One day he had to take the instrument with him to school in order to go directly after school to his lessons. The boys playing football and from then on he was an object of mockery, and once he was even beaten up. It lead him to abandon playing the violin.
Likewise poetry and poets are often associated in the hard world of the school yards with girls, with something femine, with being weakling. Taught not to show emotions by their parents, they indulge in all kinds of games giving names to the others. There are often hurtful as mean. The way these images are conjured and projected reminds of probing the meaning of life while being conscious of death. No wonder when attention is given in class when the English teacher cites a poem about a young poet who died early. Life is short, the brevity of life itself also an expression that hardly out of the childhood ages, society pushes one towards adulthood. The term 'adolescence' as that critical and crucial phase in-between is not used by chance. For literally parents can flip out when the daughter not only comes home late, but with boys clad completely in black. That means projections are not handled well or else the imagination of the father gets out of control. Usually it has to do with sexual phantasies but not only. For to safeguard a child in a world full of traps is never easy.
There is another way of making poetry become relevant. Already Adorno had referred to the 'imaginary witness'. And poems give testimony as to what can and does exist. Even the very absence of poetry indicates something is amiss.
There is, for example, the poetess Carolyn Forche who has coined the famous phrase of 'poetry as witness'. Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1950, and being a poet, teacher and activist, Carolyn Forché has witnessed, thought about, and put into poetry some of the most devastating events of twentieth-century world history. According to Joyce Carol Oates in the New York Times Book Review, Forché's ability is best expressed by linking the "political" with the "personal". Crucial is this aspect especially for youth which engages itself in such actions and organizations in which very quickly an identity transformation can take place. This is already the case when the means are no longer justifiable but nevertheless used to articulate the protest in a more forcefull way. It can begin with smashing shop windows but in escalating situations can easily be taken further until it costs even human lives.
Forché describes in her anthology, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993), the difficulties of politically-engaged poetry:
"We are accustomed to rather easy categories: we distinguish between 'personal' and 'political' poems...The distinction...gives the political realm too much and too little scope; at the same time, it renders the personal too important and not important enough. If we give up the dimension of the personal, we risk relinquishing one of the most powerful sites of resistance. The celebration of the personal, however, can indicate a myopia, an inability to see how larger structures of the economy and the state circumscribe, if not determine, the fragile realm of the individual."
As this is a call for a new poetry to invest in the "social," it means listening to poets who had written under extreme conditions, including war, exile, and imprisonment.