"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/....The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity," W.B. Yeats wrote in his poem "The Second Coming."
These words are so well-known, so much a part of the literary canon, that I often fail to pay attention when I hear them. Yet, after last month's earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant problems in Japan, Yeats' lines are a word-worm in my head.
We're still here, slouching not only toward Bethlehem but toward May Day, picnics, the end of school–the beginning of summer. Though these disasters are horrific, humanity, since the beginning of time, has endured unbearable trauma from the bubonic plague to the atomic bomb.
But, sitting at my keyboard this April during National Poetry Month, I can't help but wonder: what place does art have in the face of such (nearly) unspeakable, (and despite the all-too-vivid-video images) unimaginable disaster? Do we poets, playwrights, novelists, humorists and other creative and visual artists have a role to play in the wake of such intense suffering; should we (no small thing) just send our thoughts, prayers and donations to help the disaster victims; or do we have a dual role as both creative artists and citizens of the world? And if you're listening, gods of creation, why do disasters strike so many innocent people?
If I, you, or any of us, had the "right" answers to these questions–if the gods came down from Mount Olympus to give us the 411 on suffering--we would be rich and famous. We'd be drinking champagne, eating bonbons, writing this from our yacht as we waved a magic wand which would swiftly alleviate the trauma of the tsunami.
Though I can't offer ambrosia from the gods, I'll share a few of the motley thoughts on art and suffering that are swirling around like topsy-turvy dervishes in my head.
"Poetry makes nothing happen," W. H. Auden said. In many ways, Auden's dictum is true. We poets don't enact laws, cure diseases, become billionaires, simplify tax codes, model in New York or Paris fashion shows, or even often get a hot date on Saturday night (unless we're a James Franco clone). Yet, inexplicably (just as we're able to breathe without anyone seeing how our lungs are working) our voices have weight and our words have an emotive power. Last October, I spent two weeks at Vermont Studio Center, an artist community in Vermont. While I was there, I met a filmmaker from Haiti, who was making a film about the devastating impact of last year's earthquake on his country. One evening, he spoke to me after I had read some of my poems to the group. "I so appreciate poetry!" he told me, "It's like food. it keeps me going during what we're going through."
We'll always want to know why the lives of innocent people are destroyed or decimated by disasters while so often villainous folk get off unscathed; what or if there is any meaning to be found in suffering; and whether there is an afterlife. Though we'll never obtain this knowledge, poets, from the poet who wrote the biblical book of Job 2,500 years ago to contemporary poet Maxine Kumin have made magnificent and timeless art out of this profound search. Job, afflicted with boils all over his body and mourning the loss of his sons, curses the day he was born and demands that God explain his suffering. In "Sunday Phone Call," the speaker of Kumin's poem is surprised to get a telephone call from her dead father. "I may be dead but/ I'm not clairvoyant," he says when she wants to know when they'll meet again.
Many artists, especially poets, don't have a lot of dough. But let's give what we can to groups helping the victims of the disasters. Even more important, let's keep on keepin' on making art. Art, whether poetry, painting, drama, comedy–no matter the genre–feeds our emotions, dreams and spirits (through laughter, tears, and catharsis), and this type of nourishment is as essential as food for our bodies.
The disasters enveloping our world are grave. Art (including poetry) is a serious enterprise. But let's not get so serious or ensnared by the "po biz" that we become pretentious or disrespectful of our need for and the power of comedy. Recently, I participated in a poetry reading. The poets who read before me had the humor quotient and engagement of a C-Span panel on education reform. (No dis intended against C-Span or education reform.) "Please, act as if this is a classical music concert," intoned one of the poets in the ponderous tones of a narrator of a portentous PBS doc, "and hold your applause until the end."
Too often we poets act as if comedy is beneath us–as if smiling during a poetry reading is illegal or using humor in a poem is like accidentally (or even deliberately) putting a fly in our soup. We forget that the best poets from Shakespeare to Groucho (I dare you to find anyone more gifted with language) draw on both the comic and the tragic in their work. We become so full of ourselves – so desperate to prove that our work is "dark" – hat we have "gravitas"–that we forget that the best artists make great art out of not only the flesh in the rubble but the flies in our soup.
Let's create the best art we can from the broken center.