Wednesday, September 15, 2010
We want bread and roses, not trees.
Bertolt Brecht once wrote that there are times when it can be almost a crime to write of trees. I happen to think that the statement is valid as he meant it. There are situations which cannot honorably be met by art, and surely no one need fiddle precisely at the moment that the house next door is burning. If one goes on to imagine a direct call for help, then surely to refuse it would be a kind of treason to one’s neighbors. Or so I think. But the bad fiddling could hardly help, and similarly the question can only be whether one intends, at a given time, to write poetry or not.
There is no crisis in which political poets and orators may not speak of trees, though it is more common for them, in this symbolic usage, to speak of “flowers.” “We want bread and roses”: “Let a thousand flowers bloom” on the left: on the right, the photograph once famous in Germany of Handsome Adolph sniffing the rose. Flowers stand for simple and undefined human happiness and are frequently mentioned in all political circles. The actually forbidden word Brecht, of course, could not write. It would be something like aesthetic. But the definition of the good life is necessarily an aesthetic definition, and the mere fact of democracy has not formulated it, nor, if it is achieved, will the mere fact of an extension of democracy, though I do not mean of course that restriction would do better. Suffering can be recognized; to argue its definition is an evasion, a contemptible thing. But the good life, the thing wanted for its elf, the aesthetic, will be defined outside of anybody’s politics, or defined wrongly. William Stafford ends a poem titled “Vocation” (he is speaking of the poet’s vocation) with the line: “Your job is to find what the world is trying to be.” And though it may be presumptuous in a man elected to nothing at all, the poet does undertake just about that, certainly nothing less, and the younger poets’ judgment of society is, in the words of Robert Duncan, “I mean, of course, that happiness itself is a forest in which we are bewildered, turn wild, or dwell like Robin Hood, outlawed and at home.”
It is possible that a world without art is simply and flatly uninhabitable, and the poet’s business is not to use verse as an advanced form of rhetoric, nor to seek to give to political statements the aura of eternal truth. It should not really be the ambition even of the most well-meaning of political and semipolitical gatherings to do so, and to use verse for the purpose, as everyone perfectly well knows, is merely excruciating. Therefore the poet, speaking as a poet, declares his political nonavailability as clearly as the classic pronouncement: “If nominated I will run: if elected I will hide” (I quote from memory). Surely what we need is a “redemption of the will”—the phrase from a not-yet-produced young playwright whose work I have read—and indeed we will not last very long if we do not get it. But what we must have now, the political thing we must have, is a peace. And a peace is made by a peace treaty. And we have seen peace treaties before; we know what they are. [...]
And where is the poet who will write that she opened her front door, having sent the children to school, and felt the fresh authentic air in her face and wanted—that?
-- "The Mind’s Own Place," George Oppen, ca.1963
(via Wood's Lot)