“There is secret sympathy between Destruction and Power, between Monarchy and War; and the long experience of all the history of all recorded time teaches us with what success they have played into each other’s hands. War is a kind of superstition; the pageantry of arms and badges corrupts the imagination of men. How far more appropriate would be the symbols of an inconsolable grief—muffled drums, and melancholy music, and arms reversed, and the livery of sorrow rather than of blood. When men mourn at funerals for what do they mourn in comparison to the calamities which they hasten with every circumstance of festivity to suffer and to inflict!” (Percy Bysshe Shelley, from “A Philosophical View of Reform”)

Daily, it seems, we are being called to task by the country we live in. We are asked to understand or to continue comfortably with a trust of something beyond our understanding. We are at odds not only with our government but with the actuality of our country and its role in the world. We are asked to be self-righteous about our country (its momentum, progress, and greatness) or we are asked to be self-righteous about our descent. In our public discourse we encounter wild abstractions presented with absolute certainty and the technical minutia of complex and enormous systems of power, and as citizens we are expected to come to an understanding of a reasonable presence in our particular time. But we are faced with the unreasonable. We have gathered our talents and our knowledge with the sense that they are the useful tools to make our way in the world and have found them far more than undervalued, we have found them embraced for the qualities that keep them neutralized. We are faced with constant deception and called on to challenge this with only a certainty that is beyond our own honesty. Our disbelief is so great that we must suspend it or crumble. But surrounded by action we are called to action, and left to tend to the regrets of our inability. Even to say we is an enormous leap of its own, but over and over a sense appears that not only is there a “we” but that it is the very notion that we build our optimism on. The idea then is that this “we” is organic and malleable, and the hope is that this “we” might grow beyond even humanity, to the world and all its inhabitants. But for me, today, the “we” is poets trying to live morally in a brutal and desperate country.

"The great secret of morals is love, or a going out of our own nature and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting on the cause… Poetry strengthens that faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.” (Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry”)

Originally Published: February 20th, 2006

Joshua Beckman was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and attended Hampshire College. An editor at Wave Books, he is the author of Things Are Happening (1998), winner of the APR/Honickman First Book Award, Something I Expected to Be Different (2001), Your Time Has Come (2001), Shake (2006), and Take It...