Sunday, November 20, 2011

"American! Why do you not honor your poets?"

I found the title for this entry in Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids. It was a question addressed to her by a caretaker of a Parisian cemetery where Smith had gone to pay her respects to Jim Morrison.

I was reminded of this question this morning as I read in the New York Times Robert Haas' account of being beaten by baton wielding police while attending the Occupy Berkley protest.  This former U.S. Poet Laureate had gone to the demonstration with his wife to observe and to plead with the police for the safety of the students. Such intentions earned him bruised ribs and the consideration of what he refers to as contingencies, things that don't necessarily have to be so.

And I wonder what would it take for us as a nation to honor our poets? Where might we go as a people who respected the vocation of vision not tied directly to a bottom line? How might a polis be that could embrace the tension of disonance? What might it mean to encourage the production of poetry in our children, in our workers, our politicians, our elderly? 

Such questions, I realize, are dismissed as naive. Life is serious requiring hard-headed men making pragmatic decisions. Even so, I found the fullest answer to why we don't honor our poets in Saul Bellow's novel Humboldt's Gift:

 The country is proud of its dead poets. It takes terrific satisfaction in the poets' testimony that the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering. And to be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing. The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these martyrs. Orpheus moved stones and trees. But a poet can't perform a hysterectomy or send a vehicle out of the solar system. So poets are loved, but loved because they just can't make it here. They exist to light up the enormity of the awful tangle and justify the cynicism of those who say, "If I were not such a corrupt, unfeeling bastard, creep, thief, and vulture, I couldn't get through this either."

So what little honor we allow poets, if honor it may be called, is to damn them with self-justification, it is to pity them.  As should be obvious in the illustration of Haas' experience at Berkley, pity is a brutal emotion employed to maintain the disadvantage of the pitied. 

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