The Kenyon Review Credos
In his first State of the Union address, just months after 9/11, George W. Bush, as rhetoric requires, repeated, impassioned, a number of terms. With each repetition, he began redefining those terms for an American public. Free and its variants (freedom, freed, etc.) appears in this speech twenty-one times. Terror et al., thirty-seven times. Democracy, zero. Al Qaeda, surprisingly, only once.
I appears thirty-three times, my thirteen. We appears eighty-eight times, our seventy-nine. (APPLAUSE) appears seventy-seven times in the transcript. “They were as wrong as they are evil,” Bush intoned, which got him one of his seventy-seven (APPLAUSE)s.
Language, of course, is constantly being redefined, not just by demagogues, but by people who employ it. Language is we realized. Each word has passed mouth by mouth over the centuries, changed by intonation and accent, changed by wit and utility. Those before us decided that a certain thing—an amaranth, a colander—needs naming. Naming, as Emerson argues, is a poet’s undertaking. It is not happenstance that the poet’s job is the job of language itself—to reach beyond the impossible chasm of two minds, of multiple times, and make known the inner things. And language, like the other democratic things—freedom of assembly, habeas corpus—is among first casualties of war. The maiming and obliteration of language preempts and attempts to excuse the maiming and obliteration of bodies. Poets, as the caretakers of language, if by no other contested purpose of poetry—to humanize, to emote, to demand a “total reaction” as Muriel Rukeyser puts it—are called upon to respond, to defend their medium.
When I am asked to describe my poetry on airplane flights, at dinner parties, I describe it first as “political.” Then, “documentary.” And these two things seem to, for some, preclude aesthetic rigor. But I am with Forough Farokhzad, who said, loosely translated, in an interview in the middle of the twentieth century: “what do I care of if no poem in Farsi has yet used the word ‘explode.’ Every direction I look, I see things are exploding.” And, certainly, confronting “explode” in a poem is different from “explode” in a text message, from “explode” on the news. Similarly, to place a quote from Bush’s State of the Union address in a Washington Post article has a different effect than to place the same words in a poem. In part because we expect of poems emotion, compulsion without coercion. We expect music, so we perk our ears for it; a poem can change how we hear the most mundane, deceptive texts. Placing different languages in proximity removes them from their prescribed roles, jostling them into new possibilities. And the caretakers of language, the poets, their role, the caretaking of language, is to keep it from calcifying.
I am interested in a lyric record of history informed and inflected by a variety of languages—sympathy cards, depositions, grocery lists, stock quotes—each with their own music, their own relationship to power, to death. Inserting the languages of the powerful and the meek into poems reveals their formal qualities, so that the architecture of taken-for-granted language reveals itself. The State exerts (or at least attempts) authority over us in many ways, including its use of language: passive construction, missing subjects, riotous chiasmus, etc. A combination of rhetorical flourish, euphemism, and passivity provide the State with the means to justify, formally, warfare. Today, the President of the Free World can have a kill list, can proclaim he is really good at killing, and there is hardly a shudder here. This is because our here is so small, because we are not hearing what is below the dead language. In a poem, our relationship to these languages change.
It can take sixteen seconds for a Hellfire missile with its trigger pulled in Las Vegas to reach Mazar-e-Sharif. This is both much and little, both closer and more distant than we have ever been in warfare. This is the trajectory of both weapons development and State language—to drive greater and greater distance between bodies that can be closed with greater ease and damage.
A poem is similarly much and little, distant and close, but where one tries to increase the distance between bodies, the other tries to close. Where weapons try to limit the possibilities of speech and thereby the possibilities of desire, of recognition, poetry exists in speech. Where one has no song, the other is only.
I want a poetry of proximity, not just by theme or figure, not just by metonymy or metaphor, but by physical proximity, a proximity by frame. This means allowing into the lyric the multiplicity of languages we are subjected to and create today. The ways in which we measure or create arguments of proximity are the ways in which we enlarge and complicate the I, the here, the we into ones that reach where our (APPLAUSE) does not, out where we have yet to hear.
More about The Kenyon Review Credos
In the early 1950s John Crowe Ransom, founding editor of The Kenyon Review, invited some of the most celebrated public intellectuals of the day, among them Northrop Frye, William Empson, and Leslie Fielder, to offer their personal credos on their professional philosophies and aspirations. (These essays, still fascinating, will be reprised on the KR website throughout 2014.) In marking The Kenyon Review’s 75th anniversary, sixteen poets, essayists, and fiction writers, authors who have published in our pages on our website from early in their careers, will present their own contemporary credos. Four will appear in the print journal and twelve in KROnline. —D.H.L.