I am a correspondent for PBS NewsHour. That title conjures a certain style, tone, use of language, and subject matter. Every morning, we gather in a conference room and toss around events, names of people, places. The starting point: What happened? Then: What is most “important,” most “compelling,” most “interesting”? Finally: How to tell it?
I spend most days working with my colleagues to produce news stories — talking to experts and sources, reading clips and documents, looking at tapes, following the latest wires, writing questions and scripts. At the appointed hour I speak into a camera, read the copy, conduct the interviews. I tell it — what happened. Wars, natural disasters, elections, economic downturns, politicians, generals, CEOs — the news and the newsmakers you expect to see and hear.
But there is more to tell: January 2011 — thirty men and women are crowded into a small, hot room in Carrefour, the sprawling, poor “suburb” of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Outside, an eerie landscape: enormous piles of rubble on every corner, gutted and wrecked houses (do people live in them?), pitted but now passable streets. It is a year since the earthquake that destroyed more than half the buildings in this area. Inside, a refuge, a celebration for lovers of words who have somehow made their way here from all over the area. They are poets, word struck and history stuck. (“In Haiti,” the writer Evelyne Trouillot had told me, “people refer to history like it’s yesterday.”) Garnel Innocent, one of the poets, says: “We’re just a bunch of crazy artists here. And we want to see what Haiti can become, then what Haiti will become.”
This is the Bibliothèque Justin Lhérisson, not much of a “library” as we think of it, more a small community center where every Saturday for the past ten years or so, the “crazy artists” have come to meet one another, read their works, and hold classes in writing and painting. Occasionally one of the island’s literary stars will come for a workshop. On this day there is much reciting, singing, shouting lines, sometimes back and forth, in Creole and French. I can make out references to the quake, cholera, hunger, death, but also to pleasure, fellowship, drinking, and love, love, love. A drummer joins in. The participants somehow know when to jump in, when to give way to the next one, and, finally, when to raise the volume as all recite at once, great piles of words and rhythm, louder and louder, faster and faster, and then done, as the poets of Justin Lhérisson dissolve into laughter, having performed their weekly homage to language, feeling, comradeship, no matter what has gone on outside. Coutecheve Lavoie Aupont, one of the organizers of the gathering, tells me: “We’re conscious of the image people say Haiti is projecting . . . It’s only through culture and literature that we can question our problems as a nation and as human beings.”
I was there as a reporter. What does it mean, to report? This is what we do every night on the news: Give an account of the day. But it’s a tricky thing, to be there when you are not of there, to give a true account when the time and the understanding are so limited. So, yes, we accumulate facts and observations and then give an account.
What happened that day in Carrefour? In one tiny corner of Haiti, men and women gathered together to tell their histories, their lives, their hopes and joys, anger and sorrows. Poetry happened.
I report on poetry. In an age of chattering 24-hour news, of the latest celebrity this or that, it is barely conceivable. But it also makes a kind of sense. Literature has long provided me with a connection, a way in. I have seen the world, traveled the world through poetry and learned much from it of the power and process of giving an account.
Another day, many years earlier, in a classroom in California a professor greeted his new students, turned his back, and wrote a line on the blackboard. He wheeled around and asked: “Who can tell me what this says?” There was silence. He gave a sad smile: “How can you call yourself educated if you don’t know ancient Greek?” Almost laughably old school, yes, but effective on at least one very impressionable young fellow. The professor — it was Norman O. Brown — went on to spin a tale of gods and men, of Daphne fleeing Apollo, from myth into literature. I was enthralled. I went on to study that literature and language. Decades later, the latter is mostly gone. But so much — a connection between past and present through words and ideas — has remained. What happened that day in California? A world opened up. Poetry happened — to me.
Poetry, in fact, came first for me, a first accounting of what it means to be alive in this world. Journalism came later. Homer told of war, loss, and return in a tale that lasts and speaks to us because it is in some way true to our own experience, opens our imaginations to the lives of others, and is so thrillingly told.
Now the earthgrew stained with bright blood as men fell in deathclose to one another: Trojans, allies,and Danáäns, too, for they, too, bled,although far fewer died — each one rememberingto shield his neighbor from the fatal stroke.So all fought on, a line of living flame.— Translated by Robert Fitzgerald
The Iliad is specific in detail (like the news) and yet somehow universal and timeless. It is not “reporting” as we think of it in our nightly broadcast. Describing the war in Syria, I will not look into a camera and tell of a “line of living flame.” Yet ancient epic poetry still offers, perhaps, the most vivid account of war we have.
Walt Whitman — a journalist! — wrote the news of his day for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and other publications and then wrote the news in verse of a place that had not previously existed — his America — for those who have wandered in it ever since. I was one of the wanderers (I like to think I still am), crisscrossing the continent, seeking, finding, losing, lost with Whitman: “But where is what I started for, so long ago? / And why is it yet unfound?”
Through the years, many other poets reached me with their accounts of external events and interior lives. And it continues to this day. Recently I read Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a modern-day version of the Iliad, a “report” from the Trojan plain that is as fresh as my morning newspaper:
The first to die was protesilausA focused man who hurried to darkness.
What journalist would not want to write a sentence as clean and clear as that? From early on, I have wanted that and more: to connect these often disconnected worlds of news and poetry, to make a place in the news for poetry.
To my continued amazement (and it must be said, with gratitude, in part through the support of the foundation that publishes this magazine) the search for this other “news,” these other “newsmakers,” has become part of my job description. My own private joke: I am the first and only “Senior Correspondent for Poetry” in nightly news.
At West Point, I watched cadets soon to deploy to Iraq analyze lines of Tu Fu (“Snow skurries / In the coiling wind”) and Wallace Stevens (“Nothing that is not there”) and read poetry of war — Owen, Komunyakaa, and, yes, Homer. When I asked a question about the link between reading poetry and becoming a military officer, the debate that followed shook me with its rawness and clarity about what was to come for these young people. One cadet said:
Poetry is directly related to our function as a military officer because, at the bottom level, we’re all here training to take lives. And that’s a concept that you really can’t approach without art, without some sort of deeper understanding of the human condition, which is exactly what poetry is.
A second responded:
That’s a clumsy way to say that. We’re not here to take lives and destroy things. Perhaps those are the tools of the Army and the military, but really we’re here to learn how to be leaders. And . . . poetry has a direct influence on how I think about leadership and how people view leadership.
Several years later, I wrote this:
Those backpacks on the benches
Caps on their hooks
A stand to attention
For the professor of poetry
Who prepares today’s lesson plan:
Death and honor at Thermopylae
Gettysburg and Hamburger Hill
And the names we announce:
Baghdad, Fallujah, Najaf
Kabul, Khost, Korengal
Will reciting a sonnet
Make me a better lieutenant?
This is what they ask
With Shelley, with Owen
Measuring war by meter
Command by rhyme
Killing by form
Victory by the time
It takes to read one’s way
From Troy to Kandahar
We’re here, the cadet says
To learn to take lives
And art serves (we all serve)
An arc of humanity in death
The ancient brutality of battle
Muck and muse, books and blood
The most powerful tool
A soldier has, the general writes
Is not his weapon but his mind
And art — let us decide —
Can call forth what is best
Even as men do their worst
— West Point
Discussions of the role of poetry in our society can feel irrelevant or abstract. Not in that West Point classroom. And not in a high-security Arizona prison where I watched the remarkable Richard Shelton lead a workshop for inmates. Most in the group — white, Latino, black, former gang members, skinheads — had never written before. One or two, including Andrew Jaicks, had years of writing under their belts and turned out accomplished work. (Jaicks jokingly put me in my place when I said, “It’s nice to meet a prisoner who knows so much about poetry.” He responded, “Well, it’s nice to meet a journalist who knows something about poetry.”) The critiques were gentle and respectful but direct. Another inmate, James Gastelum, told me: “This place isn’t very conducive to truth, you know? . . . There’s a lot of walls up. I know that Mr. Shelton, he’ll tell you like it is.”
Shelton himself later said to me: What the inmates get from poetry is an “attitude toward language, that if you can learn to use language honestly, then you can apply it to yourself honestly. And I think you can see yourself in a different light than you did before.” It’s an insight that has stayed with me. A lesson that applies whether one is in or out of prison.
There are many other stories and places. I recently witnessed children in a blighted Detroit neighborhood talk of W.S. Merwin’s line on words hiding “inside this pencil” and then pick up their own pencils to write. Títos Patríkios, a Greek poet who lived through German occupation and then imprisonment and torture in the Civil War that followed, spoke to me of the meaning of “austerity” — “an economic crisis always also creates other crises.” Israeli and Palestinian poets told of the human costs of decades of violence and hatred. It was Taha Muhammad Ali, in his trinket shop in Nazareth, who said there are “two kinds of language, one for the news, for the politicians . . . and one for poetry . . . and they are different, very different languages.” He did his best, though, to reach people of all kinds. Another remarkable man.
Indeed, along the way, in this country and abroad, I met many of our finest, most insightful poets and writers. I asked questions about language, words, and lives that we all share. I learned over and over that the news comes from many directions, in many forms, that there are many ways — including a work of art, a piece of music, lines of poetry — to describe “what happened.”
I confess I never liked Pound’s famous statement that poetry is “news that stays news.” Poetry is news, yes, sometimes the most profound news. But only some poetry — great poetry — will “stay news.” Most won’t. At the same time, some news will stay news. (“From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1:00 pm central standard time.”) Most, indeed, should and will not.
The world in its dark grace.I have tried to record it.— A Short History of My Life, by Charles Wright
Each of us must come to terms with what he sees and what he will say. On that trip to Haiti in 2011, the nation’s best-known poet, Frankétienne, surveying what he called a “dying country,” told me “words cannot save the world.” Look around you, see the destruction, the stupidity, the despair, and you have to believe he’s right. And yet, an account must be given: Frankétienne and the “crazy” poets of the Bibliothèque Justin Lhérisson continue to observe and write the news of the world. A journalist continues to report the news of the day.