(A variation of this writing first came into the world as a talk given at Mapp’s Coffee House in Minneapolis on September 11th, 2005)
The Talmud instructs: Who saves one life saves the world.
When I decided to put this writing together I did so for many reasons, not the least of which has been my years of ongoing uneasiness regarding the representation of a silencing poetics that continues to dissuade any real challenge to systems of government designed to oppress people. Many poets rose and still rise to the antiwar occasion. Where there is now an inundation of antiwar and protest poetry, maybe even an inundation of anti-government poetry, there is not an inundation of a poetry that questions the Capitalist-American-Patriarchal-Paradigm, its particular structure, and the particular benefits arising from that structure which incorporates the competitive within the individualist, market-driven environment. How such a poetry is served within that environment and how it disserves, strained by hierarchy in a language of silence at worst and only marginal analysis at best, really needs to be brought into question.
A poetry that fails to come into consciousness about the forces that will oppose it as a counter-force is a poetry that will fail to assist in any profound and permanent social change for those suffering under the oppressive structures within such a paradigm that the poetic consciousness would hope to address. Only by changing these structures will the inhumanity involved in them ever be arrested; only through an evolution in thinking can there exist an evolution in being that would lead to processes lending themselves to the dismantling of non-egalitarian society.
Some time ago I came across the writing of Guy Debord, and in particular these lines from All the King's Men, where Debord says:
"The problem of language is at the heart of all struggles between the forces striving to abolish present alienation and those striving to maintain it; it is inseparable from the entire terrain of those struggles. We live within language as within polluted air…."
This is easy enough to consider, but it was the following statement that gave me pause:
"It is not a matter of putting poetry at the service of revolution, but rather of putting revolution at the service of poetry."
I had to think about this all summer. What it implies, I think, is the existence of a poetry that is conscious of humanity, conscious of human suffering yes; but it is also a poetry that is conscious of itself as apart from a kind of social structure and resistant to the failures of that structure. It is a poetry that is in place long before a time of revolution. It is not a poetry rising because a revolution has risen. It is poetry, as Adrienne Rich has said, that knows why revolution must come. It may be censored by a certain public but it will not self-censor in order to be public. It is a poetry that addresses not only effects but causes. It's a poetry that is as absolutely committed to change as those forces wanting to stop it are committed to preventing real change.
Poetry is language and carries with it all the force and power of language. Language is identity. Language is history. It's personal, and yes: it's political. It can discriminate. It can be sexist and racist. It can also be silent. Effective poets know the full power of language, the impact of words, their use, their double, triple, and quadruple possibilities. They also know language itself can be trapped in the Paradigm of Dominance. It can be excluded, discounted, forbidden. It can express associative implications of good and bad, good and evil, good and less good, the hierarchical ploy behind the structured sentence.
As I was keying this talk into Microsoft Word my computer automatically capitalized Word, Auschwitz, and Hiroshima; but not Wounded Knee. My computer is programmed as people are programmed to program it: in acceptance of certain nouns while discounting the proper nouns of historical Place and Name. It can exclude, discount, forbid. This is the problem of language at the heart of all struggle and striving forces. You will know you are in the presence of those forces when anyone tells you language is not political, or that poetry and politics are incompatibly separate practices, as has happened to me often enough over the 25 years I have, in the public arena, repeatedly brought attention to the intricate and intrinsic relationship between the forces of politic and language.
One need only consider Constitutional protection of free speech to understand the absolute power of language as a tool that can elicit change. If language were not so powerful there would be no need to protect it as an inalienable right of expression. Yet, in spite of this supposedly protected right, it's pretty easy to see, in perusing even a few opinion pages of local and national newspapers, how language holds its own sustained, and often self-imposed, captivity through a silencing, often historically and factually inaccurate, personal "opinion" one could better read as "politic." This "politic," even when reporting facts that are supposed to be free of the personal-political, is evidenced by, and obviously accounts for, the New York Times' May 26, 2004 Editorial in which the paper actually apologized for its egregious misreporting of facts leading up to the war against Iraq.
Reading so many letters to Editors, reading so many Opinions, even on the part of a mainstream, left-leaning leadership of writers and journalists, I find a barren language; a language seemingly able to gather itself up to oppose human rights abuses, yes, but even in opposition, it remains a language that almost never serves to provide independent assistance to a readership's ability to think critically about one's personal relationship to the absurd or the abused. We are rarely asked to think about things like exploitation and capitalist government or one's self as citizen of such government when we pick up the daily news. Truth is imperative and if we reject absolute truth we nevertheless accept absolute lies. What stands for truth then can be interpreted as a telling of lies we wish to believe in, lies that satisfy our pathos, our need, including economic, for the war adventure. A language against fictitious "truth," a language against the silence that would surround lies, such a language is more than relative, it's imperative to the clarity of critical thinking. Because language has absolute powers of persuasion it is incumbent upon those who use it to inform to do so in truthfulness, adopting Ghandi's use of the term Satyagraha: Firmness in Truth. Of course ignorance can interfere with one's ability to be truthful, and this is something bad governments have always relied heavily upon, even promoting it, creating and contributing to what Noam Chomsky calls "intentional ignorance."
I saw a Letter-to-the-Editor recently counteracting pro-Iraq-war sentiments intended to discredit Cindy Sheehan. I admit to having some trouble with her effort. It's good she has mobilized but she is failing, with many, to ask the deeper questions, the ones that would address America forcing its personal, selfish, and arrogant will upon many other nations. This isn't just a Bush problem. This is an American government problem, an American military problem, an American industry problem, and a problem, ultimately, of capitalism. Cindy Sheehan is not upset her son was a soldier in service to the non-egalitarian paradigm, she's upset he died in Iraq for the administered lies surrounding WMDs.
The Letter-to-the-Editor asserts Sheehan never implied Saddam wasn't a cruel dictator. The writer then says, "If that were the grounds for this war, then the United States would be justified in invading many other countries as well." From this little sentence is gleaned a world of (intentional?) ignorance about America's many, many little wars, coups, invasions, and "interventions," even against those who are not dictators; Haiti, for example, and Venezuela—Aristide and Chavez—even after 9/11, and right under our noses. So it can be seen that ignorance often helps in serving the status quo while preventing a deeper, more helpful truthfulness as it pretends to be on the legitimate side of justice and humanity.