In Defense of Poetry

Comments by Bernard Roy:

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, Simone Weill … 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-

Emily Dickinson