Tonight No Poetry Will Serve
August 11, 2016
Rabin Mondal, Untitled / via The Hindu
Theodor Adorno’s statement that poetry is “barbaric” and impossible to write after Auschwitz, expresses a devastating sentiment. It signifies an end to the world as we know it. He seems to be asking, how can life move on, and how can one view the world the same way after witnessing something so horrific? Adorno’s statement stems from a feeling of utter helplessness, stripped of all conviction and hope. His anguish continues to be expressed by artists, in various ways, in their writings. Wilfred Owen’s moving war poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth” expresses a similar sentiment in his opening rhetorical lines “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” The sound of the funeral bells no longer holds any meaning or significance. Just like Adorno, Owen asks: What is even left of humanity and the world?
And yet the world moves on. Just as we continue to witness endless instances of violence, injustice, and oppression, so does poetry and art continue to move and sustain us. Perhaps Adorno’s powerful expression was not entirely correct, although his sentiment is justified.
The renowned Palestinian poet Mourid al-Barghouti spoke about poetry as a form of resistance. He explained that its aesthetic perfection defies suffering and oppression; it refuses to be ugly, inferior and what the oppressor sees you as, he said. This is a thoughtful and poignant assertion of the power and value of poetry. But what happens when language fails us? When language itself becomes a tool for violence, or its access is denied in the form of gagging and censorship?
In Adrienne Rich’s poem “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve”, language fails to offer any consolation and on the contrary, partakes in the violence. The poem begins with a scene of tranquillity, reflection and romance, depicted through the imagery of the moon, and the lover, “spread/sleep-fallen, naked in [her] dark hair”. The lover is asleep, “but not oblivious” of those living on the periphery of society, and perhaps not having as beauteous a night. The scene is transformed into one full of violence, as the poet depicts the suffering of the “unslept unsleeping/ elsewhere” through a chilling assault of words, dissolving the atmosphere of intimacy entirely. “Verb force-feeds noun” and “noun is choking”. Here, language painfully turns its back on humanity, and not only fails to be a source of comfort and hope, but also inflicts pain and suffering. The poem, as well as the title, suggests that poetry cannot dispel violence and mitigate the suffering of others. In Rich’s own words, acts of violence and oppression “nullify language itself”. At the same time, Rich also seems to be questioning the role of the poet. These questions are especially potent now, as we live in times that hinder the free use of the imagination, as well as rational and critical thinking of any kind.
Czeslaw Milosz also doubts the role of the artist/writer, as expressed in his Nobel Lecture. His doubts are steeped in anguish, much like Adorno, both having witnessed the Holocaust. In his Nobel Lecture, Milosz states that “all art proves nothing compared to action”. “He confesses that, as someone ‘who wrote a certain number of poems out of the contradiction engendered by an earth polluted by the crime of the genocide’, as a painful historical witness, he ‘would have preferred to have been able to resolve the contradiction while leaving the poems unwritten.'"1 Like Rich, Milosz suggests that language does not have the potential to undo or rectify these contradictions, and that it is through the right action – one that brings the writer away from the pen – that any substantial change can be brought about. Milosz’s comparison of art and action, however, might be an unfair one; art and writing are liberating through their affirmation of life in the face of conflict and suffering.
The “art of witness” is all too important as it defies the forces that seek to destroy. It also defies memory which is elusive and insists on omission. Milosz in fact refers to the artist as witness in the very same lecture. He says that ‘“To see” means not only to have before one’s eyes. It may also mean to preserve in memory’, and it is the role of the writer to preserve ‘every event, every date’, ‘as an eternal reminder of human depravity and human greatness’. “To see” is perhaps as crucial an act as writing. It also suggests an awareness and sensitivity towards the world. While Milosz’s views are specific to the writer, Rich too suggests the importance of awareness in her poem. The lovers, though cocooned in a world of their own, are not indifferent to the sufferings of the “unslept unsleeping/ elsewhere”. Their awareness bridges the two disparate worlds, and attempts at making the suffering of others their own. It is through awareness that one can also hope to be forced out of complicity into the kind of “action” that Milosz talks about.
Owen too was not completely bereft of hope. He once again poses a rhetorical question in the opening lines to the sestet of his poem. He asks, “What candles may be held to speed them all?” Unlike the first stanza of the poem, Owen allows some room for hope. This is done through the sheer beauty of the lines that follow, with imagery that is extremely poignant, delicate and tender:
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds.
The depth of feeling embedded in these lines, reflected also in “the holy glimmers of goodbyes”, is an assertion of life and hope that continues to stay alive.
It is perhaps through “patient minds”, alongside right action – by creating art or through Milosz’s idea of action – that one can continue to hope for a better world.
1Jussawalla, Adil. “Being There: Aspects of an Indian Crisis”. Ed. Jerry Pinto. Maps for a Mortal Moon: Essays and Entertainments. New Delhi: Aleph Books Co, 2014. Print.
Ilina Acharya is part of the editorial collective of the Indian Writers Forum.
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