Huffpost Books
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Carol Muske-Dukes Headshot

Obama + Shelley Get it Right: Poets ARE the Unacknowledged Legislators of the World! (An OMNIBUS Book Review)

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

The varieties of knowledge we gain from poetry usually go unremarked, yet from poems we learn about human behavior, politics, family life, education, the occult, cosmology, the physical sciences, technology, gardening, animals, geography, each of the arts and all religions -- not to mention love and death. This information is often sidelined because Poetry (when it works) miraculously reveals to us how knowledge transforms into insight. We glimpse the imagination at work and we marvel. All categories of experience are subsumed by Poetry and poetry's own experience elevates consciousness, opening into empathy. That's the ideal reading, of course -- poems imitate the alchemical: limbic fires yielding pure gold -- or dross -- depending on the poet's skill, the reader's attention.

Few grasp the extent of Poetry's relevance to everything in our lives -- including politics. Few grasp how important it is to read non-stop and omnivorously, to see that the time-traveling conversation of literature means that Sappho or the late T'ang Dynasty poets or Derek Walcott have as much to say to us as the internet, TV, newspapers, social media. In fact, Poetry has a whole lot more to say than the news and generally lots more than Facebook; it is "news that stays news" and it ups the ante of human perception. It's taken me a long long time to understand what Percy Bysshe Shelley meant when he said, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" -- but at last I think I do.

A recent Vanity Fair article, addressing a new biography of President Obama, focuses on Obama's youthful love affairs -- a passage is quoted from a letter by young Barack to a girlfriend/confidante. The letter is written in that familiar self-amazed graduate student prose style ("to catch a glimpse of what I speak"), pompous yet searching -- he philosophizes on politics in the poetry and poetics of T.S. Eliot:

Read his essay on "Tradition," as well as "Four Quartets," when he's less concerned with depicting moribund Europe, to catch a sense of what I speak. Remember how I said there's a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism - Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it's due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. (Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini)... A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times.

To me this passage, despite its seminar-break style, is illuminating, not just as a snapshot of a young, remarkably agile mind trying to posit a self within a culture -- but (in my opinion) a world-view that radiates into the future, our present -- into Obama's brand of centrist presidential politics. In his analysis of Eliot's species of "conservatism" (which he notes did not topple into extremism, into public fascism like Pound's -- though Eliot was predictably anti-Semitic, as has been much-discussed), Obama aligns himself neither with "ecstatic" liberal thought or the far right -- with poetry as the acknowledged "legislator," the Source.

Yes, we've figured out that he's a moderate -- but I believe that the passage reveals more than the musings of an ambivalist, a middle-marcher, off to law school. "Fatalism" is Eliot's observation/theory that "life feeds on itself," there is no way to halt the turn of the mandala -- so conservatism is the only reasonable response to death. Here is Eliot, from "East Coker:"

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.../The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters/the generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,/distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,/Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark.

From Shelley's rad-poet conjectures and Eliot's morturarial primpings, I'd like to turn to six new books of poems, keeping in mind the two views: Shelley's proactive stance vs. Eliot's "dark" ("In my beginning is my end") predetermined conservatism, where liberal "progressive good" is offset by Death itself. I'd like to consider what poems teach us, beyond the dead-ends of the pure didactic and the immolations of the ecstatic imagination -- perhaps a protean nod to the Art of the Possible?

My friend Professor Ann Pelligrini reminds me that Plato's exiling of poets from the Republic was an acknowledgement of poetry's power to move people, to alter the way we see and are. Plato feared poetry's illusory "imitation" of real life, he feared the "magic" of poetry, its capacity for persuasion. His extreme reaction handily makes Shelley's point -- the poetical imagination is a protean force. It creates metaphors -- linking unlike things, spinning analogies, spinning insights -- re-making the world.

I'm hardly saying that poets should be lawmakers or legislate morality -- nor was Shelley. I doubt we'd want Poetry running for office or lobbying in Washington -- although it would be interesting to read the resulting poems! Again, Ann Pellegrini suggests that Poetry might be a "resource for imagining and engaging in civic life... Part of why poetry and the other arts are so valuable is that they can open spaces of imagination counter to the way things are or must be."

She continues: "We need un-reality principles, and poetry is one such vehicle for that dare." "Un-reality" -- now there's a platform to run on! But those "open spaces' outside of convention are where poets live and think. A poet's life swerves toward inspiration, toward what makes us more human.


Jorie Graham could easily stand as the living contemporary embodiment of Shelley's unorthodox claim, in her new book, Place (Ecco Press - Harper Collins) and in the body of her work. As the poet-critic James Longenbach noted in the New York Times: "For thirty years, Jorie Graham has engaged the whole human contraption -- intellectual, global, domestic, apocalyptic, rather than the narrow emotional slice of it reserved for most poets. She thinks of the poet not as a recorder of experience but as a constructor of experience... someone who addresses the most urgent philosophical and 'political' issues of the time simply by writing poems." Post-modern, post-structuralist, philosophical and beyond -- towards a stance of "simply writing poems," Graham asks us to witness the discovery of the world in words, witness her implacable belief that in words we create human experience.

So the title of her new book, Place, immediately seems ironic. Where do we locate ourselves in these urgent poems, many of the titles geographically specific ("Cagnes Sur Mer," "Mother & Child," "The Road at the Edge of the Field," "The Sure Place," "Earth," "Message from Armagh Cathedral, 2011") -- when Graham encounters space, or physical address, as existing simultaneously between inner and outer landscapes? These ravishing poems tell us that where we live exists in both memory and imagination -- that there is no place beyond what we attach to experience.

The tension between the interior and the exterior here is epitomized by Graham's obsessive search for language attached to accountability. Facing Eliot's annihilating "dark," she is not so much unfazed as re-fathoming. "In the world-famous night which is already flinging away bits of dark..." Eliot's dark, his reduction of history, holds little threat for Graham.

We finally arrive at this fierce address: "Out of the vast network/of blooded things/ a huge breath-held, candle-lit, whistling, planet-wide, still blood flowing/howling-silent, sentence-driven, last-bridge-pulled-up-behind city of the human, the expense/column of place in place humming.../To have a body." It should be noted that the above passage is uncharacteristic of Graham's usual "pace" -- the velocity with which the above litany hits the page is accelerated beyond her usual meditative stately gait. This sped-up rhythm itself becomes a place for the mind to position itself.

We see to "have a body" is to posit place and we begin to understand that to posit "place" is also an urgent argument for human survival. In a future undefined and ominous, our children, our trepidations, are one -- as the earth dies.

I believe that this is Jorie Graham's best book. It combines all that she has learned moving through various incarnations -- sailing past the Enlightenment, turning to High Modernism, then to "L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E" theory and out again into her own transgressive aesthetic, which is what Stevens calls "the poem of the act of the mind". To isolate each perspective here -- mother and child, torturer and victim, traders in stocks and war, the blooded suffering, the rendering of seconds that tick and triumph, as flowers bloom, a bird sings - is the rhetorical style that is an achieved presence, what we used to call immortal -- when heaven, as a place, as a point of comparison, still existed.

David St. John is known for his languorous, lush language -- his poems have for years evoked Mallarme in their dreamy symbolist gestures -- and Mallarme still drops in on these new poems. However, in The Auroras (Harper Collins), St. John glides into a new style, nearer to a troubadour's plangent tensile delivery. In the spirit of Arnaut Daniel, the Provencal troubadour poet (whom Dante thought the greatest bard ever), St. John, fashions his songs as Il miglior fabbro -- the better creator. Like the troubadours, wandering poet-minstrels, singing the "news," singing in the dawn, each poem here is formed like blown glass, to shape the vessel of thought and emotion.

Aurora, Latin for "dawn," also calls up Wallace Stevens' The Auroras of Autumn ("the greatest French symbolist writing in English"). Many of these poems provide the sensation of coming awake (as a lover or a suicide, out of dream, out of memory) as a new day breaks.

These intensely lyrical poems seem not the least "legislative" -- yet St. John employs the "aurora" dawnsong stanza again and again to "cover" his passage into the underworld, into Eliot's "dark" oblivion -- into death, suicide, betrayal, addiction, the history of torture.

How does poetry that is highly figurative and delicate, manage the "story" of genocide? From the poem, "Human Fields:"

She was hiking along those

Clearings & fields

Where hundreds of bodies
Had been shoveled into shelves

Of earth & sockets or rock
Villages hacked entirely to pieces

& planted haphazardly in the ruts
& furrows & she made herself recall

These were now human fields
No longer given over to local crops

From which at times a stray
Stalk of mud-caked shinbone

Or some misguided white rake of
A hand might reach up

Out of its bed as if
A new order had been announced

As if some heaven of actual memory
Had begun to radiate at last beyond

The cold & actual sky

This is not a typical poem but it is a representative poem -- the architecture of The Auroras collapses the wall between life and death. In an extraordinary poem, "The Hungry Ghost" (the Buddhist "preta" or gaki, starving dead), the narrator finds a dying friend, an addict, whose heart is being devoured by a hungry ghost -- and "saves" the friend by substituting a bowl of ripe strawberries for the living beating heart.

The heart-strawberry link satisfies a certain St. John fin de siecle decadent symmetry, but the rescue of the dying addict propitiates more than gods or spirits, the negotiation with "the dark" succeeds, human will and imagination prevail. Thus the hungry ghost is more than a motif, it is an argument for remembering the dead within life and living within the moment -- as these breakthrough stirring poems honor each day's re-birth, the dawn.

Michael Ryan has always been a "conversational" poet and his readers have come to recognize his tone of address as both brash and tender, formal and wildly informal. A quote from the author on the jacket copy of This Morning (Houghton-Mifflin) his new book of poems reads: "The twin ancient powers of poetry are story and song, 'I like a lot of both.'" That statement offers a sense of his "voice" range -- from its evocation of the history of the art to the homey "here's what I like." Ryan employs the narrative as rhetorical device that sets up arguments -- often arguments with himself. His persona in his poems is that of a quizzical, thankful, anxious, casually eloquent man, a husband, a father, a family man. More than any of the other poets considered here, Ryan is concerned with what it means to "live up" to an ethical standard (as glimmers of a libertine-ish past occasionally taunt him) -- he wants to live a worthy life.

He mentions "song." The music in Ryan's poems is meticulously orchestrated and vibrant. In a characteristically hilarious yet questioning-existential poem called "The Daily News," Ryan moves from his epigraph, a quote from J.S. Mill, to a kind of syncopated jazz riff on the meaning of the "common feelings" and "common destiny of human beings" as he imagines turning into Wordsworth on a stroll:

Out walking in my nature-or-nurture,

culture or creature, we-are-all-fucked
funk, I wandered like great-browed Wordsworth
lonely as a cloud upon his daffodils

In Ryan's comical near-despairing universe, Flannery O'Connor is invoked as a kind of psychopomp guide into the mind of the owner of a "wackily painted California beach town clunker" -- maybe "half-Christ, half con-man." His "unwordsworthy contemplation of nature," of the crazily-painted car, leads him to the music of "retune and returne/and retune my attention" -- a reaffirmation of poetry by the poem's end, also reaffirming "our idolatrous, splintered common life."

Ryan's strict elegant formal structures cannily allow for a deceptive nonchalance - coupled with searching compassion. A "ravaged man" in a cancer clinic, whose face and body are being eaten away by melanoma, may be "communing with Buddha" but "probably not."

Probably the malignance

eating his being, minute by minute

has beaten him into its mute instrument
of pain and loneliness and fear.
There may be sweet freedom in the firmament
Not here.

The rhyming quatrains of this heartbreaking poem refresh the music and "retune attention" but there is no escaping the end, the inevitable, Eliot's dark. But bleakness, hopelessness and despair (a poem called "Dachau" notes that "humans can do anything to one another and go on living") are counter-balanced by poems of love and desire for the loving life to continue. ("I wouldn't mind being dead/if I could still be with you.")

What we learn from these poems is that powerful mantra, "retune, retune, retune" attention -- to keep imagining oneself more compassionate, more wise -- ("even as I read now about tortures in Iraq or Guatanamo"), more loving, more capable of grasping poetry's insights, more capable of loving the "idolatrous splintered common life" these superb poems define.

THE APHASIA CAFÉ (IF SF Press) by Dawn McGuire, who is a doctor, a neurologist, gives us a glimpse of a world where poetry has often offered inspiration (there have been and are many doctor poets -- Keats, Williams, Goldsmith, Holub, Campo). Since aphasia, like poetry, is created by language, McGuire's strength as a poet is in opening the space in this language "deficit" to let poetry "speak." In her introduction to the book, she tells us that her "experiments" are not confined to "frank" aphasia (loss of ability to express or understand language as a symbol system, resulting from brain injury or disease) but also to explore the "everyday aphasia we all share: the way we often can't say what we mean or mean what we say."

This poet-doctor praises the poems and the strength of 2011 Nobel laureate for literature, Tomas Transtromer, and his wife, Monica -- describing how the poet turned to music to recover some of his "lost" abilities after he suffered a stroke in 1990. McGuire interrogates the word "stroke" itself for clues to its relevance to individual consciousness. She asks, "Is stroke the right word?" Then, "Stroke's right -- Struck down by a god." (Though it is clear that no "gods" are consulted in her clinic or on Grand Rounds -- she ways in a later poem, "I know so much. I wish I had some faith.")

These poems strike me as a brave cluster of "teachable moments" (that smarmy phrase!) more appropriately called by McGuire "experiments." For example, she links poetic music to clinical observation, in a poem called "Solitaire at the Aphasia Café." "The only time she seems to understand/a word is when he comes; but then/he sits around with music earphones in./She talks a streak and plays her hand/and plays her hand again -" Language and consciousness, in poetry and in neurological alteration, what we express and what becomes inexpressible but still insistent in us -- becomes the final acknowledgement of poetry's power.

Stephen Motika is a young poet, publisher and poetry advocate -- who offers a dreamily-radical perspective on poetry. The epigraph to his book, Western Practice (Alice James Books) is a quote from Lyn Hejinian, ending with: "That doesn't say it all, or even a greater part" -- and the reader feels this poet's attempt to restore what has been lost, (what language attempts to say) -- throughout these lovely disjunctive litany-poems, in L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E style. Altered and floating syntax reveal the coalescing of perspective, as if we were gazing at pointillist paintings: "early hours, resistant to time, an arrival, people out of rooms and gathered... to eat." Or "Wrapped in English, sleep exhumed and theory at map's edge, cast in ornament, artifice, my tongue an observer." (From "Tea Palinode - 18th & Sanchez.")

More than other poets, Motika's work swerves closest to Ann Pellegrini's "unreality principle" -- the world he has created has broken free of the grounding of syntax and we are in the realm of pure imaginative speculation.


Finally, we come to Dana Gioia's new book, Pity The Beautiful (Graywolf Press), and return to Eliot's conservatism -- and the inexorable move "into the dark." It is an easy transition to Pity from Eliot's gloomy roll call of citizens and artists swept away in the tide. The title (and title poem) are satiric pleas for compassion for those who have briefly shone in the bright gaze of the gods of good fortune -- once young and beautiful, once star-like, but now burnt out and irrelevant. The tricky cruel witness is mitigated finally by what seems a sly empathy -- in the knowledge that we all "come to dust."

The further knowledge gleaming in these stark and straightforward poems is a "fallen" awareness (as per Eliot). The narrator's voice in the poems is the voice of one "familiar with the night," its tone drawn from the dark bravado of bitterness and loss.

The darkness deepens. There are poems on the death of a child -- or the suffering of children. "So this is where the children come to die" ... unbearable witness to the little ones, "...bald and pale,/they lie in bright pajamas on their beds." The "speaker" of the poems has lost a child, "Now you'd be three,/ I said to myself/ seeing a child born/the same summer as you."

There are poems of reckoning and sometimes pretty regret, and lost love, love spurned, the "lunacy" of love, and a haunted tale -- a kind of contemporary "La Belle Dame sans Merci," where a ghost seems hair-raisingly real. There are translations from the Italian of Mario Luzi, and throughout a jauntiness, a whistling past the graveyard.

But the mask of jauntiness falls and reveals, again and again, a stricken slow-burning gaze ("How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?), so that even a beautiful carved "santo" ("The Angel with a Broken Wing") carved by Mendoza "for a country church," stands "like a dead thing nailed to a perch/a crippled saint against a painted sky."

Yes, pity the beautiful -- pity also the ordinary blameless tragedies, the cheerfully damned and the damned anyway: these are tough hard-won poems and they offer little comfort -- they are in the tradition of Eliot's conservatism, in the tradition of stoic restraint. I don't know that anyone has ever called Dana Gioia a poet of grief, but he is. Not self-pitying, but a tempered easeful grief, in plain style. This poet, having spent some time around bodies of law-makers, would find Shelley's claim for bards risible, undoubtedly -- so perhaps Obama's early reading of Eliot's "deep fatalism" still stands, counteracting the "unreality principle" that might allow the imagination a new kind of citizenry.

But one can still salute Shelley, and think on the knowledge poetry provides.