The Power of Poetry in Dark Times
Saturday, 22 July 2017 18:32

The Power of Poetry in Dark Times

Published in Cultural Theory

Sandy Grant proposes that in times like these, it is poets who speak the most serious words of them all. Her article is followed by a poem by Chris Norris.

‘Tell us that line again, the thing about the dark times’. So begins the most recent of many ‘dark times’ poems written since Bertolt Brecht uttered the words. His poem ‘To Those Born Later’ was written from exile during the early years of the Third Reich. And he used the metaphor ‘dark times’ to evoke a problem about speaking when obscuring language abounds. It is a language that conceals, and by which people acquiesce in injustice. And it need not be by lies, but also by the mundane ways of talking used in everyday life. ‘Dark times’ subsequently became a recurring metaphor. But what does a poet do by using it?

This latest use of the phrase comes from Marilyn Hacker in ‘Ghazal: The Dark Times’, but a month ago. She begins as though recounting a familiar tale, repeating the now customary recourse to such speech at times like these. But nothing about the poem comes off as reassuring. Indeed there is a bitter ennui to it. Perhaps you can hear it in her recognition of some stolid, time-worn figures of speech:

The traditional fears, the habitual tropes of exclusion

Like ominous menhirs, close into their ring about the dark times

Like ‘menhirs’, which are standing-stones, the idiom of the past returns to the fore.  But it is almost as though the words ‘dark times’ might be impotent, become exhausted in their iteration down the years.

This alone is worthy of notice, for poets are those alert to the complacent use of words. What then of these ones? For even the most pithy of phrases can become platitudes, bandied about until dull and spoken heedlessly. ‘Dark times’ could be one such, a worn-out metaphor. So can these words, ‘dark times’, still do something amid the obscuring language of our day?

The question invites us to consider what kind of speech acts poems accomplish. This is to propose that poetic speech is ‘performative’, that the poet utters words by which she does something. And it is to take on the philosopher J.L. Austin. In How to Do Things with Words he notoriously claimed that poetry cannot be ‘serious.’ There is a somewhat weak species of reply to him, which holds that actually some poetry can be serious. Such an approach tries to make poetic speech conform to Austin’s picture of how users of ordinary speech achieve that mundane way of doing things with words.

But this kind of response to Austin rather eviscerates the provocation of poetry, and belies its special way with words. So is it possible to say something more audacious? I think so. Perhaps in times like these we can see that poetry is where the action is, and this by the making of extraordinary speech acts. For if poets do something with words, they do so in some special way. They use extraordinary speech. About that Austin was right. But he erred in thinking that the special nature of poetic speech means that it cannot accomplish speech acts.

Brecht’s poem is a cracking example. For in saying ‘Truly, I live in dark times’, Brecht is doing something. But what is it? What does he do? The very first word, ‘truly’, emphatically marks the commitment to attempt serious speaking. And it is immediately followed by a metaphorical assertion, ‘I live in dark times.’ And Brecht does not merely back up that assertion, but raises the stakes of making it. If you can excuse for a moment my own rather dull prose, I will explain my view that he is both asserting, and questioning whether he can assert.

What I take Brecht to be doing is this: he sees that what speech there is, is darkening, and refuses to repeat it, but worries that speaking otherwise cannot be heard. So he tells us that he declines the old shibboleths, those uttered in order to lay claim to virtue despite the suffering of others. ‘I would gladly be wise’, he says, living a life of indifferent virtue. But this he cannot do. ‘I cannot heed this’, he says. He is asserting that he lives amid obscuring language, and that he- at least- will not acquiesce in it.

But this is not all that his words do. In virtue of its title, ‘To Those Born Later’, Brecht addresses us, and others in posterity. He says that in his time to speak as he does is folly, and so he must speak to those yet unborn. The subsequent ‘dark times’ poems make these kind of metaphorical assertions about the obscurity of everyday speech, and question whether they can be heard as doing so. And, as I have mentioned, they do this by an extraordinary way with words. These poems call attention to their constituent speech acts, using words by which their speakers do something and ask us to attend to it. To put it bluntly, there is both asserting and questioning whether one can assert anything.

Poetry seems an apt way to pose that quandary, for poetic speech is a way of using words that draws attention to itself as such. And it is precisely in this manner that the poet undertakes a commitment to the use of serious speech. This may be seen in Ingeborg Bachmann’s poem ‘Keine Delikatessen’ (No Delicacies). In this, her last poem, Bachmann declares her refusal to use beautiful adornment, to ‘dress a metaphor with an almond blossom’, or ‘crucify syntax on a trick of light’. Instead we are shown a struggle within speaking, as she stretches out across the page words ordinarily left unspoken:

‘hunger

                                    disgrace

                                                                        tears

and

                                                                                                            darkness’

The eyes must rove all the way across the page before they can reach that last word, ‘darkness.’ It is a long, long way down, there right at the edge of the speaking. And the depth of the metaphor, ‘darkness’, does not preclude the force of the utterance, its power to both assert and to question whether one can assert. Instead, it heightens it. It stands out against the obscure speech that she is contending with. It calls for attention, and in a remarkable way. So the poet does something differently, something rather extraordinary, when she speaks in metaphors and references ‘dark times.’ She is struggling to break out of her immersion in the extant practices of speaking.

But the use of metaphoric utterances also invites hearers to see that they too are participants in the work done by words. This feature of what is done by ‘dark times’ poems is crucial. For the poet is trying to speak in a way that can be heard as serious by others. The special usages of poetic speech have some special power to ask hearers to recognise themselves as the addressees of these speech acts. For hearers are involved with the poet in the possibility of achieving serious speech. So yes, what is done in speech acts is done in an extraordinary way. But, contra Austin, this does not provide that no speech act is accomplished through poetry.

If the poet speaking of ‘dark times’ does something extraordinary, she also something strikingly serious. Suppose that our mundane acts of speaking foreclose attention to what we are doing in our use of words, that they obscure to us the very form of talk that we are using as we go about our everyday life. This would be a carelessness in talking, as to how one is talking. Suppose that it routinely happens in ordinary speech, although we don’t see that we are doing it. A good example would be parroting speech, in which a person merely repeats what is said, rather than making assertions that are genuinely their own. Glaring examples might be parroting political or advertising slogans. But suppose that we see parroting more generally in everyday speech.

The obscuring character of parroting comes from how it merely apes speech acts of assertion. What you do in asserting something is to put yourself behind what you say, to sort of personally guarantee its truth and ask the hearer to accept what you say on the basis of your say-so. In parroting however, you don’t do that. You just repeat what is being said.  Speaking thus would involve an indifference as to one’s proper role as backer of one’s assertions. They would be uttered because they are what is said, and not because one believes them. Suppose then that as indifferent utterances, others don’t hear them as genuinely our own, or believe them on that basis. But nevertheless they repeat them, for after all they are what is said, what ‘everybody’ in one’s group is saying. So you get utterances that look like assertions, but do assert. Instead, they merely parrot. In fine, our everyday talk would be an irresponsible way of using words.

Such a way of speaking would not be ‘serious’ in Austin’s sense of that word, but spoken anyway, and as a matter of course. In claiming that it is poetic speech that is not serious, Austin said that performatives, utterances that constitute acts, are ‘hollow or void’ if introduced in a poem. But what if it is ordinary speech that is ‘hollow or void’, and poetry that is deadly serious? Perhaps it is in everyday living that we find speech like that deemed non-serious by Austin. And perhaps it is the poets who are the serious ones.

And perhaps it takes poems, with their extraordinary ways of speaking that call attention to themselves as speech acts, to confront us with this? For poets can expose these hollow ways of using language. Consider Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘Poem’, from The Speed of Darkness. There is the opening assertion about one’s own times. This is followed by the evocation of an irresponsible way of speaking, which the poet wishes to oppose:

I lived in the first century of world wars

Most mornings I would be more or less insane,

The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,

The news would pour out of various devices

Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen…

And here comes the appeal to absent addressees again:

Slowly I would get to pen and paper,

Make my poems for others unseen and unborn…

Rukeyser juxtaposes her use of speech to the ‘careless’ words that issue from the authorized ‘devices’. But she also writes of her struggle to grasp her immersion in the extant practices of speaking.

..We would try by

any means

To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,

To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

In that last line, a personal struggle is evoked by ‘these wars’. And it is one, it seems, that is germane to the world wars amid which she lives.

By the kind of speech acts that they venture these poems do not inform, report or describe. They assert, and they question. ‘I am trying to say this… can you hear me?’ They involve struggles to speak other than irresponsibly. And they evince a quest to be heard, for a speech act does not succeed absent uptake from its hearers. The hearers must attend to the speech act, actively taking notice of it. And they must comprehend it as the kind of speech act that it is. They needn’t agree with what is being said. But they must attend to it, and grasp what the speaker is trying to do: to assert, and to question whether such an act is even possible now.

Perhaps it is this possibility, of reaching those who might notice and comprehend, of finding co-participants in serious speech, that arises amid such poems? Consider then ‘What Kind of Times Are These’, from Dark Fields of the Republic. In that poem Adrienne Rich asks ‘why do I tell you anything?’ And her only answer is ‘because you still listen’. But perhaps the conjunction, ‘because’, is a sort of summons to be attentive. In any case, to understand what it is that these poems do we can see them as efforts on the part of poets to speak responsibly. But beyond the speaker’s commitment we might also see them as a call to listen. In this sense they issue a request to participate in the accomplishment of serious speech.

Achieving serious speech in these times is raised as a possibility, but a fraught and risky one, in these poems. And the extraordinary character of poetic speech lends this a piquant urgency. For here the poets are those who plumb the prospects of serious speech. Contra Austin’s claim that in poetry we see only ‘the etiolations of language’, the effort to undertake serious speech acts is heightened in these poems. But they utter, and quite properly, something of a faltering appeal. The poets, like the rest of us, are mired in the difficulties of undertaking serious speech. So perhaps in times like these it is poets who speak the most serious words of them all.

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The Provocations of Philosophy: Bert Brecht’s message for the age of Trump

by Christopher Norris

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. This tutelage is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’- that is the motto of enlightenment. - Immanuel Kant, ‘An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?’

The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participate in political events. He doesn’t know that the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of shoes and of medicine, all depend on political decisions . . . . From his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupt flunky of the national and multinational companies - Bertolt Brecht

Before it happened you were in no doubt.
'Unthinkable' you said, and then,
Lest they suspect you'd not quite ruled it out,
'Just inconceivable', again.

'Again', I wrote, but let's not be too quick:
Those words 'think' and 'conceive' don't mean
The same thing, and we're apt to miss a trick
By suturing the gap between.

Of course you'll say it's just semantic stuff,
All this, and the last thing we need
When you've real-world catastrophes enough
For 'act, then think' to be your creed.

Yet ask yourself: which line's the one to take
When those wise-after-the-event
Types say: 'It's happened, so you'd better make
Think-room for how things really went'.

Well, you can either field it with a flat
Though feeble apologia: 'got
Things wrong that time, alas!', or try to bat
It back with a semantic shot.

Then you might say: yes, sure enough, 'conceive'
Trump president I can and must
Since it's a claim that's true, that I believe,
And that has duly earned my trust.

That's knowledge as it figures on the view
Proposed with sundry minor tweaks
From Plato down, though lately just a few
Have differed with the ancient Greek’s

Account of it. Still, you lot have no choice
But to conceive the man as now
Your sworn-in president despite the voice
Inside you that just won't allow

The thought. For thinking brings a sharpened sense
Of that rock-bottom line below
Which politics can't sink lest it dispense
With all the semblances that go

To keep the folk on board. That's why I say
You needn't feel the wise-guy's won
Or pipe down when the hindsight-seers play
Their cynic games by making fun

Of you for thinking it 'unthinkable' that such
A bunch of rogues and fools should come
To occupy high office. There's a much
More hopeful way than acting dumb

And that's to say that lots of things we thought
Or think could never happen did
Or do, which means reality falls short
Or fails to match our starting bid

By throwing up some Bullingdon buffoon
As Foreign Secretary, or fool
Like Donald Trump as fittest to fine-tune
The harmony of states. Then you'll

Do best to keep in mind the point that 'think'
And 'know' are words that come apart
Most truth-revealingly when any link
Between them's always apt to start

A thought-rebellion as it twists and snaps
Under the strain. If you apply
Yourself you’ll find out the truth-value gaps
That show up where the facts defy

All presentations that would have them square
With thought’s demand, or all the best
State-sponsored tricks and ruses to repair
Those tell-tale cracks. Then every test

For truth that's thinkable as well as borne
Out by appealing to some fact
Or other is the surest way to warn
The populace that what they've lacked

Thus far is means or motive to enquire
Why crooks and fools so often reach
High office. Then they'll see how things conspire
So often as if meant to teach

A crash-course in the need for you to steer
Not only by the guiding lights
Of factual truth but by what first comes clear
When knowledge of that sort unites

With thought's refusal ever to accept
A bad reality as all
There is of truth. It's by that lie we're kept
From seeing how far short they fall,

Those villains of this latter age whose sole
Distinction is to far surpass
All previous contenders for the role
Of most corrupt or else outclass

The Borgias and the Krays in every vice
That flesh is heir to. Still they tend
To fester worst, as Trump and Co. suffice
To show, most often through the blend

Of those twin motives, greed for power and lust
For all its cash-back benefits,
That make the turn to politics a must
For any billionaire whose fortune hits

A satisfaction-ceiling. Then he feels
A growing need to exercise
The kind of power that brooks no vain appeals
To business-law but just relies

On getting cronies into place who’ll fix
The rules through a Supreme Court that’s
Itself so packed with cronies (politics
And wealth checked out: all plutocrats)

That your incumbent Pres need entertain
No fear that rule of law might thwart
His family business in its plans to gain
More wealth with their confirmed support.

Just think of this, then think how much it hurts,
That sense of a reality at odds
Not only with what counts as ‘just deserts’
Or once was deemed to please the gods

But with each latest thought-affront that tells
Us, in reflective mode, that there’s
More to reality than that which spells
Out what’s the case yet hardly bears

Such dwelling on. For if it once became
Your habit to keep well in mind
And each time thinkingly review what shame
Those home-truths of a factual kind

Had brought upon you citizens who let
The perpetrators bring it off,
That veritable coup d'état, and get
Themselves safely in place to scoff

At you poor suckers then the chances are
The thought would either drive you mad
With the injustice of it all or jar
On any remnant faith you had

In their ‘democracy’. Then you’d resolve
To pass from thought to act and strive
To square the two, although this might involve
No end of failures to arrive

At other life-goals that required no loss
Of those life-chances premised on
Your up-to-now unwillingness to cross
A certain line. So you’d have gone

Along with conscience and its sudden urge
To strive at last against the old
Conformist drive that recommends we merge
Our purposes with what we’re sold

As virtue by some gang of thieves installed
In the White House or other seats
Of power world-wide. Time, then, to do what’s called
Thought-crime by them and say it meets

The needs of truth and justice only if
Its counter-push against the pull
Of habit and self-interest’s not a tiff
In thought alone but takes the bull

Straight by the horns and vows to overturn
All those unthinkably bad states
Of factual circumstance. From which you learn
What kind of action best translates

Your outrage into something Marx would count
As truly setting out to change
The world, not spinning ideas that amount
To just one tick-box in the range

Of world-interpretations. These then serve
Most usefully to help deflect
More thought-brigades from working up the nerve
To think with practical effect,

Reject the given, emphasize the rift
Between plain fact and thought’s demand,
And so bring better times within the gift
Of you who seek to understand

More adequately how you’ve all been screwed
By those in power. It’s this that made
So many give up fighting and conclude
That there’s too high a price that’s paid,

By their sort mostly, when the facts confront
A counterfactual realm of hope
Renewed. Let’s grant, you’d better make a blunt
Assessment of how far its scope

For action’s always subject to the check
Of a shrewd reckoning that takes
Due stock of stubborn facts that might just wreck
Its long-term project. Where the stakes

Are highest is where commonsense insists
Most loudly, since with all the force
Of thought repressed, that only fabulists
Or crazed ideologues endorse

The notion that mere mindfulness might bring
A switch of some world-aspect as
It strikes the thinker, then new hopes that spring
In quick response, and then what has

The power of energizing thought and will
To act in their pursuit. So don't
Give up that word 'unthinkable', or drill
Yourself in fact-routines that won't,

Since close-patrolled, allow for thought's revolt
Against contingent evils. Keep
In mind how thinkers sometimes need a jolt
To wake them from the placid sleep

Of reason or of propositions framed
In forms that perfectly accord
With logic’s rule. Thus Aristotle named
Them ‘practical’, those smorgasbord-

Type syllogisms that were rightly classed
Among the licit kinds despite
Their purely formal defects since they passed,
In rational if not in tight-

Linked logical array, from certain facts
About the world to certain ways
In which to view and justify such acts
As follow when we reappraise

The case more thoughtfully. Again, this goes
To make my point: that facts which rank
Below what’s thinkable – concerning those,
Let’s say, who ultimately bank

On moneyed interest and on sheer extent
Of public ignorance to hide
Their guilt – are facts that amplify dissent,
Or should, until the rising tide

Of outrage brings the barrage to a head
Of pressure fit to blow the top
Clean off their lie-machine. If what I’ve said
Strikes you as misconceived, just stop

And think: what might it take to power the jump
Of thought that comes to find it down-
Right flat unthinkable, the fact of Trump
As president, or such a clown,

Crook, liar, narcissist, and imbecile
As placed to launch the nukes and wipe
Us all out should he some day wake and feel
That way inclined. If you’re the type

Who says ‘That’s how things are – just learn to live
With it’, then I’ve no further bone
To pick with you or argument to give,
Beyond what I’ve already shown,

As ample grounds for rising up against
This monster and his entourage
Of conspecifics. But if you’re incensed
To think of it, then let this charge

Your anger-levels up until the stress
Arrives at breaking-point and thus
Makes way for actions that alone express
Thoughts once too painful to discuss.