You’d think the Information Revolution would allow poetry to flourish. In many ways it certainly has. Increased access to text, spoken word and song has expanded the horizon of poetry beyond what most of us were taught about it.
Throughout the Covid lockdown, I’ve had the good fortune of isolating myself in a home with limited shelf space, but two massive tomes of what I consider, hands down, the most comprehensive English-language poetry anthology of the 20th century: Poems for the Millennium, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris. Nothing compares to it in terms of sheer breadth or visionary scope in exploring the possibilities of poetry and its potential as a force for liberation. On the first page of the introduction to the 800-page Volume One, Joris and Rothenberg make their intention clear: to trace the history of a single intuition – that poetry set free can free or open up the human mind. Or, in the negative terms formulated by William Blake, to undo the “poetry fetter’d” which “fetters the human race.”
Ambitious? Yes, absolutely. But inasmuch as any compendium of poetic sensibility can trace poetry as a source of deliverance, Poems for the Millennium not only succeeds, it opens new vistas which – already in the 1990s, when the anthology was compiled – intimate a radical transformation in how we process text.
Without going into specifics regarding the anthology’s choices (always rife with bones of contention), it’s enough to point out the emphasis on formal innovation that runs through so much of the poetry. Moreover, there was clearly a nomadic and multicultural approach to the selections. This should come as no surprise from two poets who have scoured the planet for previously neglected poetic surfaces that offer deep-dives into aspects of the human spirit often encrusted behind the formal inertia and sheer habit of tradition, which had grown over the arts like soap scum. Yet the sensibility is not merely rhizomatic, it is also mycorrhizal: a lateral drift that communicates symbiotically through the deep root systems of various literary traditions.
That being said, when considering the most significant poetry of the past 120 years, it’s impossible not to notice how literary poetry has become an exercise meant largely for other poets, a sort gnostic sect on the fringes of academia.
As an antidote, I try to explore a specific and admittedly limited aesthetic criterion: If you were locked in a prison cell and not allowed to have any books or reading material, which poems would you want to have ingrained in your memory?
This is a mental exercise analogous to a game I often play in art museums. Every time I walk into a room I ask myself: Which painting in this room do you like the most? And then: Which painting would you want to live with day-in day-out? Rarely do the two coincide. And that tells me something about the role of art in my life. What sets the mind free, rarely coincides with what, I find, offers a much deeper freedom – beyond the human mind.
Back to poetry. There is one poet who, for me, is an emblem of this aesthetic criterion: Vasyl Stus (a glaring, albeit understandable, absence from the anthology). The Ukrainian poet and dissident was born in 1938 and died in 1985. In the 1960s he was one of a group of poets and artists who took advantage of the post-Stalinist thaw in the USSR to advocate for Ukrainian language and culture. In 1972 he was arrested for anti-Soviet agitation and sent to the Gulag, where he spent much time in solitary confinement. He was released in 1977, worked in a gold mine, then in a foundry. In 1979 he joined the Helsinki Watch Group to monitor human rights. In 1980 he was arrested and sent to the Gulag again, where the hard labor effectively killed him. During his incarceration he wrote poetry secretly, by hand, crowded onto scant sheets of paper. The poems that survived were smuggled out of the USSR and published as a volume called Palimpsests.
I often wonder which poems were ingrained in Stus’s memory, which verses offered him deliverance from that physical imprisonment. Stus had also been the translator of Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Celan, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Federico Garcia Lorca, et. al., so I imagine he knew many of their verses by heart. I also wonder if there were any poems he knew that only seemed to increase the suffering of his captivity.
Granted, being locked down during the Covid pandemic is a privilege in comparison to what Stus had to endure. With a few deft taps on a screen or keyboard, I can summon a library of poetry unimaginable to him. Still, I regret not having more unassisted memory. We live in strange times and you can never tell what will happen.
In the meantime, I offer an example of a poem by Stus that I would like to live with, especially if my physical freedom were taken away from me. Though it promises no deliverance for the mind, it does more than merely console. It offers the glimpse of a freedom only given to those who have seen others try to excise it.
|I’d do it just like that too: set up the pyre
somewhere, so no wife, or sister, or friend—
or even souls could come around. Only darkness,
and that would no doubt disturb as well.
Let the fire burn. Let it burn.
Let time scour away, so I can be timeless
once again, when all willpower withers.
I’d sit by the fire just like that,
talking to myself face to face.
Let only what doesn’t migrate remain,
kneeling as it stands, like an idol.
Clearly this death, this pain, this dust,
this smoke, this heat, these fears, this silence,
crackling, these mystical shrieks—
enrage the rage, squeeze dusk into dusk.
From these tightly entwained nights
the braying half-heaven would glow,
be it gray horse or ghost. So stay
with the yokes’ bray—in death—on the path.
Отак би й я: розклав багаття десь,
(From Палімпсести, p. 117).
Photo: by Trond Isakson of the art project in the Halden Prison by Erik Møller Architects (2014; source).