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Journal, Day Five

By Gillian Conoley

“The situation in Iraq is difficult, no question about it,” George Bush, Thursday, January 11, 2007.

Wallace Stevens, who did not gain recognition for his poetry until four of his poems appeared in a special 1914 wartime issue of Poetry, wrote his famous essay “The Noble Rider and the Sounds of Words” in 1942, just one year after the United States joined the Allies following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Stevens’s description of the reality around him, which he portrayed as coming down from the turn of the 19th century and into 1942, portentously describes our current moment 85 years later:

The Russians followed the Victorians, and the Germans, in their way, followed the Russians. The British Empire, directly or indirectly, was what was left and as to that one could not be sure whether it was a shield or a target. Reality then became violent and so remains. This much ought to be said to make it a little clearer that in speaking of the pressure of reality, I am thinking of life in a state of violence, not physically violent, as yet, for us in America, but physically violent for millions of our friends and for still more millions of our enemies and spiritually violent, it may be said, for everyone alive.

A possible poet must be a poet capable of resisting or evading the pressure of the reality of this last degree, with the knowledge that the degree of today may become a deadlier degree tomorrow. There is, however, no point to dramatizing the future in advance of the fact.

Perhaps we possible poets have reached a point where what Stevens called “the pressure of reality” so permeates existence that there isn’t even a question of resisting or evading it. It just is. A few pages further into the essay, one finds this, still as fresh as the morning news hitting our front doors, complete with ghoulish headlines:

No politician can command the imagination, directing it to do this or that. Stalin might grind his teeth the whole of a Russian winter and yet all the poets in the Soviets might remain silent the following spring. He might excite their imaginations by something he said or did. He would not command them. He is singularly free from that “cult of pomp,” which is the comic side of the European disaster; and that means as much as anything to us. The truth is that the social obligation so closely urged is a phase of the pressure of reality which a poet (in the absence of dramatic poets) is but to resist or evade today. Dante in Purgatory and Paradise was still the voice of the Middle Ages but not through fulfilling any social obligation. Since that is the role most frequently urged, if that role is eliminated, and if a possible poet is left facing life without any categorical exactions upon him, what then? What is his function? Certainly it is not to lead people out of the confusion in which they find themselves. Nor is it, I think, to comfort them while they follow their readers to and fro. I think that his function is to make his imagination theirs and that he fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people live their lives.

“I am recommending to (the president) a total increase in the two services of 92,000 soldiers and Marines over the next five years––65,000 soldiers and 27,000 Marines. The emphasis will be on increasing combat capability,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday.

And also yesterday, over 1,000 New Orleans citizens marched on City Hall seeking an end to the violence that has besieged their under-funded and under-policed city—with nine murders just since New Years’ Day. Referring to a situation in which most witnesses of crimes fear for their lives and so remain silent, many marchers’ signs and placards read, “Silence is Violence.”

Leading the march was the Hot 8 Brass Band, whose drummer Dinerral Shavers was shot and murdered in front of his family on December 28. The band carried a banner that read “March for Survival, Walk With Us,” and chanted “We Shall Overcome.”

Martin Luther King Day is Monday, may his spirit haunt the nation.

Thanks to everyone who sent in comments—

Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, January 12th, 2007 by Gillian Conoley.