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Poetry In Times Like These
by Victor Infante
 More of this Feature
• “Gunfighter Nation,” a poem by Victor Infante
 
 Join the Discussion
• The Debt of Our Art: Poets’ Duty
“...thinking about the purpose of poetry in time of war and crisis... who is your audience?”
   --Poetry Guide
 
 Related Articles
• Poems After the Attack, our contemporaneous anthology
• Old poems worth remembering in dark days
• An open letter to any would-be terrorists from Naomi Shihab Nye
 
 Elsewhere on the Web
• “Sometimes only a poet can find words equal to the moment” by Dana Gioia in San Francisco Magazine online
• “Turning to poetry” from the San Francisco Chronicle (plus a large number of reader-submitted poems written after September 11
• “The eerily intimate power of poetry to console” from The New York Times (free registration required to read articles)
• “How can art help us now?” from The Boston Globe
• “Poetry soothes the soul in these painful days” by Mary Schmich in The Chicago Tribune
• “Measuring Words’ Worth” from The Los Angeles Times
• Responses to the tragedy: Poems Found & a collaborative crisis poem at People’s Poetry Gathering site
 

Only the fifth day after the crisis began, and already it seemed inevitable that the swirling madness of war was at our doorstep. It was Sunday, and while many Americans hied themselves to church to find solace, I found myself, unsurprisingly, at a poetry reading -- the Java Hut in Worcester, to be precise. The previously scheduled slam was preempted, and instead, the open mike was extended to allow people a chance to vent their feelings.

It was, to say the least, a traumatic experience. There was some excellent poetry, to be certain, but emotions were running high, and the pain -- both silent and vocal -- was palpable. For my part, I was not exempt from this. I dredged out my poem, “Gunfighter Nation,” an exploration of the martial impulse, and of how the end result of any war, no matter how well reasoned, is death and scarred earth.

I began crying somewhere around the third section. The whole night, I restrained an urge to lash out, to smash a table, to screw someone inappropriately. It’s amazing to discover what surfaces from your subconscious at times like these. Amazing, and sickening.

But poetry has been a recurring theme these days, hasn’t it? At that reading, on NPR, here at About Poetry & on the Internet, I have seen repeated references to the modernists, to Yeats, Auden and Eliot. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold...” You know the rest. These voices have never seemed more relevant to me, more alive, than they have they have these past few days.

The reading’s host, Tony Brown, asked me if I had any ideas as to why we were returning to these poets at this time, and I remembered something I had read recently, although I’d be hard pressed to recall who said it. What I remember is that the author believed that a poem was a message to the future, and that what was happening now was what they were trying to warn us against. “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

That poem (W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming”) was published in 1921... Evidently, we -- that’s a collective all of us -- didn’t listen, but perhaps that, too, is beside the point. At times like this, I’m reminded that in some cultures, the words for “poet” and “prophet” are identical, and that in many so-called primitive cultures, the role of poet and priest both belong to the shaman.

And as has been repeated in many texts lately, the shaman lives outside the tribe, and the tribe will come to the shaman when they are in need... as we now come to Yeats and his peers. In their texts, they’ve left us a portrait of human beauty and misery, of tragedy and unfolding evil that once again falls across the landscape like soot-stained snow.

This then, poets, is our mission: to speak, as they did, to the human truths of the matter. Our role here is not to embrace one cause or another, but rather, to stare the unfolding atrocities dead in the eye, and record their currents, to say what’s truly going on: hate, fear, love, pain.

This is the debt of our art, to warn the future of what we see now. Maybe this time someone will listen.

Victor Infante

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