THE CONSCIENCE OF A POET
by David B. Axelrod
Note: Click on this link to see a clock that ticks away to estimate the cost of the war in Iraq: http://costofwar.com/en/.
Consider that the cost of the Tomahawk missiles we fired at the start of the Iraq war alone (at aproximately $1,400,000 for the missles alone, not counting the cost of deploying them to the field of war) is about the same as the entire annual budget for the National Endowment for the Arts. In fact, the NEA’s entire budget for 2010 (167,500,000) represents only about one and a half cents per tax dollar. What should a poet make of all this?
Folks have asked me if I would participate in readings against the war in Iraq. I am not a particularly political person. I have always maintained that poetry is a “politics” of its own. I consider it my duty to observe and give voice to what truths I may see. Poetry comes from an ancient an honorable tradition: Seekers of Truth. We write our poems and in so doing, we try to encircle the truth.
Working folks Crazy People
People of Letters Holy People
Poets can, after all, be people from all walks of life. There are many good, hard-working, relatively un-trained people who write fine poetry. When I lived and performed my poems in Sicily, for instance, I was frequently approached by farmers and fisherman who asked to recite their poems. When they did so, they spoke with passion, reciting long lyric poems in praise of nature and their land–and all from memory! They were passionate poets! Other people may consciously reject higher education, or they may be self-trained. But theirs is every bit as valid a search. It may be a tragedy in life turns them inward and they find, perhaps just once in their life, that they have a poem to express.
Then, of course, there are those who have spent time in the universities and often those poets who earn their living as people of letters. B.A., M.A., M.F.A., Ph.D.! I myself have more letters after my last name than in it. We who are accredited may have a formal claim on “professing” to know the truth but there is no guarantee higher education will make a person a good poet, let alone a clearer seer of the truth.
Those who claim inspiration–pastors, priests, shaman, gurus, prophets–are often poets. Certainly, poetry has roots in prayer, incantation, mantras, spells. Words can have great power, can persuade and lead, can comfort and heal.
We ought also to mention those who may be judged as “crazy.” I use the word to suggest that there is a wide spectrum of people who may also be writing some very interesting poetry. One person’s prophet is another’s madman. Is it the voice of god one hears or a psychotic episode? I am not making fun of religion. Rather, I am saying that poets often see the world in ways others don’t, or don’t understand. True genius is often misunderstood. Then again, it was the court jester alone who might be allowed to speak the honest truth to the King at court. “Sire, you aren’t just naked, you are ugly!”
Which brings me to why I, for one, have been spending time in my poetry workshops talking about Iraq, Afghanistan–all the wars we keep fighting– and hoping to move us all a bit closer to the truth. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to see more clearly through poetry. If poets are truth seekers and sooth sayers, they should be given extra attention and time. Poets have a responsibility to their tradition to speak out at any time they see something that should be noticed! Times of war poets in particular should feel compelled to say the truth as they see it.
Of course, I sometimes remember the beautifully printed and bound book of poems I found in a used bookstore. Leather binding, gilded edges, fine etchings. I should say that, though it was from the 1860’s, the poetry still read easily and the narrative was clear. The only problem, the poet, Henry Timrod, was writing to further the cause of the Confederacy he loved so dearly. www.poetry-archive.com/t/timrod_henry.html That’s why we don’t find any of his poems in many anthologies since the South lost the Civil War.
For poets, the real cause is in rendering reality in the most engaging way. Poets aren’t just partisans, we aren’t just writing poems, we are from a tradition of poeple who teach the world to care.