| Shortly after September 11, a student confided
that her choice form of expression-poetry-seemed
hardly adequate a topic of discussion amid
so much pain and confusion. She was right;
neither one of us could find solace in topics
other than those related to the tragedy that
touched so many lives. But why not use rather
than mention poetry? We agreed that the reading
and writing of poetry could mitigate pain.
Unknowingly, we had just made an apology for
poetry. And it was as if Erato had heard our
rallying cry and wished to thank us, for a
few days after she sent Elfie to knock on
my door and bring me the good news of this
invitation to be here.
My response to the student had been inspired
by my own experiences. I could remember
of two instances where poetry helped me
overcome personal difficulties. In one instance
I wrote pages and pages of poetry; in the
other I heard and read one small poem that
helped me understand something I had never
experienced. I am embarrassed to talk about
the first instance; with the benefit of
hindsight, the poetry was not just occasionally
bad, it was mostly very bad.
I grew up in Paris in the fifties. The
war was behind-very far behind for a child-yet
eerily ubiquitous. The marble walls had
been patched, but the internal scars surfaced
as smothered sobs. All adults, everyday,
referred to a time of their life as pendant
la guerre. The child I was wanted to
know that war, but none would talk about
it. What was so unspeakable? One day, I
heard the adults talk about a poem. I somehow
sensed that the key to what I wanted to
know was in that poem. I don't remember
that moment when I, alone, first heard it,
but I do remember the feeling of frustration
at not being able to hear it again. I had
not understood its logos, but the
magic of the words had enchanted me, and
I then believed that if I could grasp its
meaning I would understand something I somehow
knew enough about that I curiously and perversely
wished to experience it.
It was years later that I heard the poem
again; it had been read by a famous singer
at a recital in Paris and had been recorded
live on an LP. I received the LP as a gift
from one of the adults of my childhood.
As I listened to it, the words were still
vibrant, but the meaning continued to elude
me. My life went on.
When I was a student of philosophy, after
I had learned the various uses of language,
I searched the philosophical canon for works
that would elegantly combine truth and sincerity.
My graduate program had no post-modern scholars;
so I was fairly safe. However, my teachers,
who still basked in the triumphalist sun
of the post-positivist turn, loved truths
but snubbed sincerity. I discreetly persevered
and found some sincere truths past fusillades
of imperative "becauses" and "ergos:"
the Jainists, the Cynics, Augustine, al
Ghazzali, (Descartes maybe), Pascal, Rousseau,
I fantasized a dialogue
on truth between Heidegger and Russell,
but never realized it.
Poetry had already said best what I wanted
to say. "Tell all the Truth but tell
it slant-" wrote Emily Dickinson. Yes!
Don't tell it straight for fear that it
will blind, but also tell it as it freely
comes from within you, whoever you are.
The truth cannot be repeated. It was about
then that I reread, Barbara, the
poem of my youth. Jacques Prévert
had written it. The overflowing and caducous
French sentimentality made me coil a bit,
but I could also hear past the maudlin clutter;
I heard the simple truth that wars destroy
more than cities and buildings and lead
soldiers. This was the logos that
had eluded me. This was all the experience
of war I needed.
Jon Tribble and Jacques Prévert
talk about the same thing. Jon gets his
inspiration from the Spider's Surah in the
poetic Koran (al ankabut). The surah is
a chilling reminder of the fragility of
imperial cities. That fragility ought to
foment intelligence and humility. An intelligent
city lives in the light of the sun; an indiscriminately
hubristic city gropes in the darkness of
the night. The caliph al Hakim cherished
that darkness: he destroyed Fustat so he
could build the Cairo of the Fatimid caliphate.
He is heir to a long tradition: Miletus,
Susa, Babylon, Heliopolis, Athens, Luo Yang,
Rome, Baghdad, Brest all are echoes of the
peal of hubris; all are history's examples
of unending quests for new cities of darkness.
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant-
Success in circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or everyman be blind-