On Making the Public Personal in Poetry

A few weeks ago at the University of Missouri, I had the opportunity to go and listen to Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian poet, playwright and Nobel Laureate. In fact, I got to see him speak twice: first at a question and answer session attended by a small group of writers in the Corner Playhouse, and later at a public lecture entitled “The Politics of Art.” Although the lecture was superlative, it was his responses in the Q&A session that I think will live with me the longest. There he answered questions about what there was to be learned from the differences in ritual and fundamentalism; how to treat of subjects tragic and huge; how art can try to do what forgiveness cannot; and how to treat of public tragedies in a way that makes them personal. Soyinka’s answer to this last question, as I heard it, had to do with finding the quintessential humanity of a situation, and it is this consideration that I can’t stop thinking about.

Even as a poet who believes that the full spectrum of human experience is art’s province, no matter what the actual artist has demonstrably, “authentically” experienced, I’m often troubled by the attempts to represent public suffering and catastrophe, current or historical. Or, more properly, I’m troubled by the fact that such attempts most often fall short of doing justice to human suffering, and instead reduce those concerns to mere reportage or, worse, political sloganeering. So I’m always cheered by finding or being given poems that reveal a quintessentially human aspect. As luck would have it, I had recently been rereading the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, who as a teenager fought with the Polish underground against the Nazis and was later, as it says on the dust jacket of his book, Mr. Cogito, “a spiritual leader of the anticommunist movement.” His work has been a standard-bearer for me when it comes to the questions of representing historical and contemporary suffering of human beings. After hearing Soyinka’s answer, I immediately thought of Herbert’s poem “Five Men,” which I quote here from Selected Poems, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott:

Five Men


They take them out in the morning
to the stone courtyard
and put them against the wall

five men
two of them very young
the others middle-aged

nothing more
can be said about them


when the platoon
level their guns
everything suddenly appears
in the garish light
of obviousness

the yellow wall
the cold blue
the black wire on the wall
instead of a horizon

that is the moment
when the five senses rebel
they would gladly escape
like rats from a sinking ship

before the bullet reaches its destination
the eye will perceive the light of the projectile
the ear record a steely rustle
the nostrils will be filled with biting smoke
a petal of blood will brush the palate
the touch will shrink and then slacken

now they lie on the ground
covered up to their eyes with the shadow
the platoon walks away
their buttons straps
and steel helmets
are more alive
than those lying beside the wall


I did not learn this today
I knew it before yesterday

so why have I been writing
unimportant poems on flowers

what did the five talk of
the night before the execution

of prophetic dreams
of an escapade in a brothel
of automobile parts
of a sea voyage
of how when he had spades
he ought not have opened
of how vodka is the best
after wine you get a headache
of girls
of fruit
of life

thus one can use in poetry
names of Greek shepherds
one can attempt to catch the colour of the morning sky
write of love
and also
once again
in dead earnest
offer to the betrayed world
a rose

The poem is remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which is its insistence on what cannot be said—even as it takes us through the description of being executed, it has already suggested that we can only imagine it as an empathetic moment in the poem which is quickly replaced by the stark realization of the executioners’ uniforms. Yet, to me, the great lesson here, and one answer to the problem of how to convey the public events as a personal concern, is that our empathy, such as it is, can lead us in our imagination to hear a conversation between the doomed prisoners that rebuffs, if only for a little while, that doom, a conversation that is filled with the awareness of life. It is this awareness that leads us to make poems, and these poems that address “the betrayed world.” In the process of making such poems and offering them, we ultimately find what Wole Soyinka referred to as the common humanity which is endangered by such public events of suffering and tragedy. Imagination gives us that which we cannot otherwise know, and it is the empathy that arises in response to the forms imagination takes—whether an inspired response to a random question or a precisely realized work of art—that make the world and its population personal to us.

Poetry and Power

It’s something like a universal truth that in times of governmental repression and institutionalized violence poetry becomes an enemy of the state. Consider Anna Akhmatova’s situation in Stalinist Russia: after being identified as a “bourgeois element,” her poetry was banned from publication for fifteen years (1925-1940). Wole Soyinka, the great African poet and activist, was driven from his native Nigeria during the Abacha dictatorship for his honest criticism of “the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it.” Even in the United States, a country that prides itself on protecting the freedom of speech, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was banned for “obscenity” during the militant and sexually prudish Eisenhower era (apparently Ike’s crew-cut crew at customs didn’t care for Allen’s admission that he and his friends had “let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy”). The list could go on indefinitely, but the pattern is always the same: oppressive governments move to silence the voice of poetry.

But why should this be the case? Why are those who desire absolute power so terrified of an art that, in Auden’s famous phrase, makes nothing happen?

A more contemporary example may shed light on the question. Consider the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic poet Jalallddin Rumi, whose work (though growing in popularity in the West) has fallen out of favor in contemporary Afghanistan. According to Professor Abdulah Rohen, “the advent of communism in Afghanistan brought poetry into disfavour because it was seen as backward-looking.” Later, when the Taliban rose to power, “they attempted to crush Sufism and outlawed all music.” Despite their ideological differences, what these two oppressive governments shared in common was a strong distaste for Rumi. Clearly, this Rumi is a nefarious character; he dares to make dangerous assertions like:

Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy,

absentminded. Someone sober

will worry about things going badly.

Let the lover be.

Rumi’s poetry, centrally concerned with the intimate relationship between the soul (as lover) and God (the beloved), is dangerous to all forms of institutionalized cruelty because its message is one of unity, love, understanding, and wonder. He speaks from the heart and strives, through poetry, to give voice to his desire for oneness (the loss of the grasping ego in divine love). But ideologues find it difficult to manipulate the “disgraceful, crazy, absentminded” lover, so Rumi – like Akhmatova, Soyinka, and Ginsberg – is declared an enemy of the state.

This is why fascists of all stripes fear poetry. Poetry is a direct expression of human desire; as such, it is diametrically opposed to the objectives of the repressive state. Therefore poetry, even at its most personal, is always already political. While totalitarian governments survive through misinformation, fear-mongering, and force, true poetry is an act of love: an expression of human desire which inspires love and compassion in others. The best poetry makes us “disgraceful, crazy, absentminded” – that is to say, drunk with the wonder of existence. And this means that even the simplest lyric of love is a political act. So long as power perpetuates itself through division and repression, poetry will oppose it by appealing to what we all have in common: mortality, longing, pain, compassion. To modify a statement by the Buddhist philosopher D.T. Suzuki, “Where power is, poetry is not. Where poetry is, power is not.”

In the context of an American poetry scene that is often troubled by the question, “Can poetry matter?” these meditations suggest an obvious answer: It already does.