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Journal, Day Five
A month or so back the intensively peer-reviewed, internationally respected British medical journal The Lancet suggested that an additional 650,000 people have died in Iraq due to the prosecution of the second Gulf War. And who knows how many more deaths there have been since then? It is such a terrible figure, such an unthinkable number that simply saying the number out loud should be enough for something, anything, somehow to happen. Yet nothing happens.
Worse, knowing of this, and of the magnitude of this mass-murder, I’ve just been blathering on about poetry all this week and I haven’t mentioned daily life and its hurt and its horror. The air is heavy with smoke, and when you get up close no doubt you can see the fear and anger and hurt in people’s eyes. But from the comfort of my home in Manchester, watching the news, those same people, those victims or insurgents, those terrorists or peasants, those people so like you and me, so unlike you and me, can look like any anonymous victims: they populate the news bulletins, but they do not occupy nearly enough of my thoughts.
Such a terrible tragedy . . . but tragedy, of course, this is not. This is bloody power politics: power and its politics writing itself in the real world in real blood. And yet, all this week, I’ve been blathering on about poetry and I haven’t mentioned this slaughter.
I’m chary of underscoring the pedagogical moment within literature, but poetry does teach us attention to language. This is a skill we might want sometimes to transfer to the political realm. The UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, George Bush Jr.’s poodle he is sometimes called (such imagery!), attempted his own cruel poetry, we might instead call them lies, over a “sexed-up” dossier (such a neologism!) concerning the reasons for the invasion of Iraq. He continues to dissemble over those reasons and the mess that his liberal imperialism has caused in that benighted country. What a mess, now, in Mesopotamia.
After Auschwitz, Theodor Adorno, who pondered many things and yet seems to have been reduced to this misunderstood soundbite, pondered whether lyric poetry should not be written after the outrage. Well, we should ask today, can it be enjoyed—it is certainly being written—in the face of illegal wars? Of course it can. On Monday I misquoted Brecht’s “Motto.” Here it is in John Willet’s translation:
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.
But I want to say more and less than this. I don’t want to advocate some return to didactic, politically-inspired poeticising: I’m not entirely opposed to it, actually, but politics often makes for very bad poetry. And nor do I want to advocate some kind of empty, feel-good verse. I want us to realize that poetry is already itself, embodying as it does language’s reflection on itself as and in language, intimately political, intrinsically philosophical. It is unable to be other than this because its very otherness is this.
Poetry should not be read for its edifying effects. In the face of death—and we live and we write each day in the face of that limit even if, for me, that limit isn’t daily instantiating itself around me, isn’t stealing my children, despoiling my home, destroying my sanity—we attempt meaning by living. And we live in language. And at its best, poetry is language at its best. It doesn’t teach us about life, it trials, it translates and it embodies our lives. We no more need to be taught how to read poetry than we need to be taught how to live. But a good life is hard to find. Like a good poem. Like a good reader.