Jan/Feb 2021  •   Reviews & Interviews

Lacking What Is Found

Discussion by Peter Amos

When the sun blinks over the low-rises, I take my nine-month-old son out for his morning walk. Queens is quiet: grocers stock sidewalk stalls, dogs squat at curbs on the ends of their leashes, and bakers walk to empty counters with platters full of pastry.

I do this each morning at the same time because he needs it, because he's tired and the next nap is a long way off. He needs it, so we go out into the neighborhood and watch public works put out traffic cones and watch trains pass on the rails.

I try to glance back through my notebooks before we leave. They're filled with passages, copied by hand from my reading, and I look for something from the same date in past years. If I find nothing, I pull a book from the shelf and pick a stanza. Either way, I leave the apartment with something to recite quietly, something to think through, something with space enough between the words for breathing.

I do so, in large part, because I need the breath. I do so for my own sanity. I have to know where the world is at the end of the day, but I don't have to know every twist and turn that the collective consciousness took to get it there.

I also do so because other ways of understanding the world are inadequate to the times. Though our problems are older than anyone living, the way we talk about them has changed. We've surrendered the vocabulary of shared humanity; we've abandoned even the pretense of empathy. Decency is worthless for its own sake, and comfort is neither end nor useful means, but columnists and anchors who lament the death of decency are infuriating not because they've misdiagnosed the problem, but because they've diagnosed it correctly and remain mystifyingly ignorant of the damage.

Decency means little, but language itself is important. Decency is only a warm blanket, but speaking as though others aren't human is the first step toward forgetting that they are, in fact, human. Our politics has become a forum to debate the dignity of our neighbors: a shooting gallery with love, death, grief, and empathy hung up on the wall.

And these are all the providence of stories, of novels, and of poetry. Good journalism is valuable, but I go to my notebooks because the news can no longer speak to the issues at the heart of our politics. For a long time, I had the luxury of thinking otherwise, but our politics strip institutions of their compassion, people of their dignity, and communities of their willingness to live together. I go to my notebooks because our collective condition begs questions, not answers.

This coming Spring, if I continue this trip through my notebooks, I'll return to the William Carlos Williams in which I immersed myself during the early weeks of the pandemic. I'll unearth the words in which I took comfort while the city around me was dying and sirens passed each other on the dark street outside. In May, I'll look back in my notebooks and come to "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" and the following:

Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
despised poems.
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

Our problems are old, so I'm writing in late October. Our problems are old, so I hope to put down the pen before I know any more than I know already. What I write is true, and will still be true when I see the words in print, but it may feel more or less so in the intervening weeks. The world will be the same world, though we may observe it from another angle, and so I'm writing here, now, from the middle.

When I read "Asphodel" in May, I thought of myself. Men die miserably every day for the impoverishment of their hearts, the weakness of their minds, the corruption of their souls. In that way, while the walk is for my son, the verses I recite under my breath are for me. They keep me above water.

But men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there, and the world now makes me wonder if the man who lacks in poetry is even the one who does the dying.

Is it the dying man who lacks in poetry or the man who kills him?

Is it the dying man who lacks in poetry or the man who watches and does nothing?

Hannah Arendt compares arguing with the lies of the powerful to arguing with a murderer who claims that the person before him is dead, in that the murderer has the power to make his lie into the truth. In her formulation, there is no argument to be had. The only valid response is to save the person whose life is in danger.

She is obviously and timelessly correct.

But I don't propose arguing with the murderer. I don't propose talking rather than acting. I don't propose confronting claims about immigrants with statistics that show them to be lies and then patting ourselves on the back. I only propose that, while we save a person, we embrace their personhood and complexity; that we hear their stories and tell our own.

Poetry and stories, language and music, are a way forward; not a substitute, but rather a context for action. It's harder to burn a beautiful world. We don't systematically oppress people whom we see as full and complex. The first step toward destroying anything is to imagine and describe it as worthless, to make it dangerous, or to strip it of its vitality. We rationalize our evils and obscure their costs. The language of reverence and of empathy, at the very least, makes plain what we're willing to destroy. Stories light the dark corners of the human condition. Poetry refuses obfuscation, imbues the world with richness, and illuminates the humanity of those to whom we so readily deny it.

Our problems are old. We have a lot to do, and we have a hundred places to start, but one such place is at the foundation. Language is that foundation, and it is crumbling.


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