Poetry & Prose

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                                                             ART & POLITICS

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I’ve always been interested in the junction between art - especially poetry but also prose, art and music and politics. It is one thing to act, another to reflect upon action in a piece of art, naturally. Art and politics are two different things. Making art, making politics. The questioning - which was first really between an artistic life style and a political one, began for me back in 1962 after I got out of Oberlin College. I had majored in English Literature and intended to be a poet but was also hungry for experience and had joined the Peace Corps. I was training at Georgetown to go to Ethiopia, but sort of "chickened out", deciding to go home and live with my parents a few years and write- which I did, before moving into Baltimore on my own and joining the civil rights movement. I felt torn between the life styles, but realized I could not make a living creating art, and did not want to make a living teaching art. Part of my personality wanted to go out and change the world and another part wanted to sit back and contemplate and create beauty. The second life style wasn’t really feasible. So I went into teaching to make a living, but soon abandoned that for a more "activist" life style, taking various part time jobs, at the Johns Hopkins Library or with the Welfare Department in order to make money while devoting most of my time to the civil rights movement as a volunteer. I also realized that an activist life gave me more to write about than teaching, or mooching off my parents.

Editors who are snooty and don't want the more personal might want to start here and cut the above paragraph

Before I poured blood on draft files (this with Father Phil Berrigan in Baltimore in 1967) I sat around and simply wrote, but it seemed boring, less useful. The blood pouring was important political action and helped end the war in Vietnam. My life style was influencing my poetry, and I became interested in "political" art. I realized there was poetry that was less and poetry that was more political, for example, the poetry of Diane DiPrima- "Revolutionary letters", or the prose in the novel by Marge Piercy- Dance the Eagle to Sleep , both of which works concerned the times in which I was living and the actions I was beginning to take!.

Could prophetic or political poetry have the higher value than purely beautiful poetry about emotions and other more traditional concerns of poetry? The poet, Robert Lowell wrote: "Art does not make peace. That is not its business. Art is peace." Interesting statement coming from Lowell, who had taken a political stance as a conscientious objector during World War II. Lowell's poetry is in the self-expression, confessional mode; it does not offer much politically, except in an indirect way (for example the poem " " (in which he is describing the passive, uncommitted milieu of late twentieth century America contrasted to the civil war era), especially not next to the poetry of a Victor Serge (more known as a revolutionary) or the playwright and communist, Berthold Brecht.

I sometimes thought that committed, activist, apostolic art and writing was more and more important in our time, the most important texts of our time those which solve, change and console, not those which divert. But this did not mean that writing itself is suspect. True, the act of writing is only commentary, it is not action. But it doesn’t pretend to be action. Revolutionary action changes the world directly and is more valuable than writing, so the political writer, the writer who refers to revolutionary action, might appear to be more useful than other writers. But how is the writer looking at the action- from what stand point? (from the left or the right, for example) And many writers or artists do nothing "in the marketplace" to better the world, nor do they refer to such action. Cezanne paints a mountain, Wallace Stevens writes about "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"- neither one of them describes socialism, even though they are great artists!

The poet, W. H. Auden in The Dyer's Hand, states: "The artist, the man who makes, is less important to mankind, for good or evil, than the apostle, the man with a message. Without a religion, a philosophy, a code of behavior, call it what you will, men cannot live at all...they have to believe something...however much the arts may mean to us, it is possible to imagine our lives without them. There are a few writers, however, like Blake and D. H. Lawrence who are both artists and apostles..." Auden is talking about religious writers here- what does he have to say about political writers? He himself was on the left; and his poems are certainly more political than Eliot’s, or Yeat’s. They refer to happenings of the twentieth century and comment on them directly. Eliot and Yeats write about more interior matters- referring to mythology.

With Auden in mind, should we urge future writers to try and better the world in their non writing life as well as in their works? It is they, along with others, who will do it. It is up to us to change the world! But that would not mean that poetry that is political is better; let’s face it, poetry along with art and music is usually only a reflection of its age, it doesn’t change it- despite Shelley’s statement that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world"..

                                                                   Pro Political Art

Certain prose writers have given us blueprints, plans of action, analyses that lead irrefutably to plans of action which we could use to try and better ourselves- more the prose writers than any poets.

One is proudest of those texts that change history for the better. The books that divert, ranging from Zane Grey's Under the Tonto Rim to Swann's Way by Proust, to most books of poetry we keep; we might even enjoy having them for a read in the cell where the state throws us. But this awful century needs political, activist prose writers (like Trotsky) who will better the world with their writing. And so did all the other centuries. We rank the political writers the best. The Rilkes and other explorers of the soul come second. But we’re’re not going to exclude artists because they aren’t political or don’t lay the groundwork for the politicos.

The text/blueprint that will allow us to create justice finally in the world has yet to be written, although the Bible succeeds admirably here and there (like the Sermon on the Mount)! Exciting prospect, eh?

For art that reveals truthful conditions and tells how to fight injustice (I don't mean boring political art, heroic posters and the like, or poems in honor of the chairman), we must point to poems written under fire, like Wilfred Owen's, Ralph Chaplin's or Paul Celan's (and even Celan, the author of "Todesfuge", was accused of not being political enough!) (It is true that his poem, the "Todesfuge", possibly the greatest poem to come out of World War II, is not so much a call to action.) (Had C been more political, perhaps he would not have committed suicide?). But the sort of poems that are in Carol Forche’s anthology entitled Against Forgetting, these are political poems.

After Auschwitz and the death camps, all art, poetry included, must change, is an idea attributable to the philosopher Adorno. Adorno is hard to read, and yet his idea sticks. But remember that Adorno "finally recanted his famous dictum" about not writing poetry after Auschwitz...'Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream, hence it may have been wrong to say that no poem could have been written after Auschwitz.'" this from Felstiner's biography of Paul Celan, pg. 232. Festiner goes on to say: "Celan's verse had exercised that right for some time".

We cannot achieve perfection through art, but only through action (and even then we will never achieve either self nor societal perfection!) But, we should not stand idly by observing a reactionary world and reactionary people. If we do not create a better world , then you can be sure the world will go on without us. Species and acres of rain forest are disappearing at an alarming rate. It appears that time is getting late. All art will disappear if we don't change the world for the better! Right now we are destroying the world. We can at least bear witness in our art, says the political artist.

Poetry has too long had a reputation as passive, as navel gazing, as uncommitted. Sometimes it seems that w e have enough writers of the apolitical sort, the sort that south western prose writer, Ed Abbey described as "a gutless pack of invertebrates...a fawning groveling writhing genteel array of courtiers (male coutesans)- gutless temporizing trimming poetical-rhapsodical fence straddling castrated gelded neutered craven equivocating tepid vapid insipid timorous timid high-minded low-bellied spineless cool hip crafty cowardly moral jellyfish you are! Bananna slugs of literature! A living slime-mold on our intellectual life!"

Artists who seem oblivious to politics can be so annoying. One wonders if the great American poet, Wallace Stevens, is being a little tongue in cheek with the following interchange- one wishes he was. An interviewer asks him, "Do you take your stand with any political or politico-economic party or creed?" Do you get the impression that S’s answer is going to be a winner? Stevens replies: "I am afraid that I don’t". Cute.

It’s that kind of attitude that some times makes me want to dispense w art- I guess like Plato or the Taliban (the Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan).

Changing the world takes considerably more effort than writing. There are so many obstacles! You could be shot!!

Can’t a work of art be solely appreciative? An attempt to recreate the beauty we see around us- to create, as the Navaho say "beauty around us, beauty before, beauty behind"?

Music says not a word and yet it can sometimes console, authorize and confer meaning; maybe that makes you want to fight poverty or violence, the conditions that take meaning away. O, I know there are the patriotic anthems and the "Internationale" for example, or "Onwards Christian Soldiers". But doesn't the pure music count for something? In defense of unpolitical/apolitical art, it does show us what we can do at our best, what to strive for!

Beethoven thought music might change the world. Boy, that's going to be a slow change. And Oscar Wilde: "It is through art and through art only that we can realize our perfection; through art and art only that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence". To which I respond, this brings to mind the sarcastic saying: "And the farmer took another load away", meaning he took another load of manure, of sh t away!

About to be gassed, death camp prisoners spontaneously broke into song in the face of their oppressors. They wanted to go out singing!! With no weapons, no way to change the situation, they turned to art. Shouldn't we claim their creation as the noblest of poems? since it was in the face of death? But as it happens their song was the Czech national anthem. Is that a noble work of art? If one collected the firing squad speeches of the condemned some would be outstanding, others not. The poem the rebel shouts at his/her executioners may be dull and cliche ridden on the page but it certainly was not at the time it was uttered.

In 2002, I listen to the great folk singer and actor, Theodore Bikel on a radio talk show. They talk of the Israel/Palestine situation. Bikel, quotes the old Yiddish saying, "you must laugh through the tears". I find myself thinking- what about RESIST? What about resisting through the tears? You’re going to laugh- that’s a given. But human beings WILL NOT FIGHT BACK. They will sit there and take it- lump after lump, atrocity heaped upon atrocity. Resistance is not taught, anger is not encouraged. Just turn the other cheek? But even that is too ideological for many- it takes too much effort. Baudelaire, really, says it best- ennui¼it is ennui- who cares, that finally rules in the end. But I had the thought, art is like laughter some times- it’s relief, regardless of how political or meaningful it is.


Matisse's described his art as "a good armchair in which one rests from physical fatigue." Think of Matisse near the end of his life as he followed his hero Gauguin's footsteps to Tahiti and its perfect light (apparently he did'nt get much work done). Perhaps the memory of that light informs Matisse's later work, his memory of intense blue and white, a line of white where the surf crashes. Matisse removes the excessive, he strives for the utmost sincerity and simplicity; he tries new media, he wishes to paint with scissors, he turns to stained glass, he paints kites. Is Matisse a great artist because he IS completely unpolitical or despite being apolitical?

The tortured inmate may dream about Matisse's freedom to create as well as he or she dreams of freedom or revenge. Is’nt that which s/he fights for, not just shelter or enough to eat or representative government? He or she fights for the images and the imagination, the "palm at the end of the mind", the palms in the psalms, the noblest prow of the noblest ship, the space in which to create. I would fight for a favorite like Gauguin (in spite of his reactionary life style, escaping to Tahiti (and G thought of himself as a leftist)). I love apolitical poets like Wallace Stevens or Emily Dickinson, I love philosophical poets like Rumi and Omar Khayyam.

If I were a great artist I would donate my works to the revolutionaries; they have earned them. In the 1950's, in Cuba, the great painter Wifredo Lam worked with other artists to create a"mural". These works shouldn't belong only to the rich or to museums in rich countries. The revolutionaries would, no doubt, turn them over to the people. They have fought for and established the schools which will enable the people to appreciate them. At least, in my fantasies they have.

Some artists who were politically inept and even regressive still created great art. The composer Wagner is a good example in music. I maintain his work will never be of the greatest, and as inspired as his music may be that it is marred by his political mindset. I know it isn't easy to point out how, but Wagner's operas are, to my thinking, interminably spun out; he needed a good editor in the music and I believe in a literary sense as well. But does this long windedness have anything to do with politics? "Parsifal" for example is a wretched story in some regards, with its underlying endorsement of racial purity. And "Meistersinger's" fabulous ending is diminished by its praise of pure German art. But the music in these two of W's operas is rarely boring! The words make it a little less ecstatic to sing. The create nagging thoughts in the back of one's mind. But one tends to forget the words as one is swept along by/in the music.

You have another German artist, Brecht, who like Wagner was apparently a shit as a person, yet goes out of his way to create politically helpful art. Somewhere, Brecht has probably written scathingly of Wagner. It turns out that Brecht did not give credit to several women who co-authored his famous works, at least that is the point one biographer makes. How politically correct was that? He was a shit who created interesting, more political art. Peter Weiss is another example of a political playwright.

As Auden says, "Parnassus has many mansions". And Dylan Thomas, sarcastically says, "there's room on the mount". Think on the special case of William Blake. Blake, like Wallace Stevens, believed greatly in the imagination, the "mind's eye". Crabbe Robinson reports that "he was silent to the observation that his doctrine denied evil". Blake seems to say is that energy, good or evil be damned, is the great thing. In this, does Blake need to be corrected (C.S. Lewis)? Blake's poetry, like the Bible's and Jesus', his great teachers, is powerful. They lead to radical thinking and possibly action? Some of Blake’s poems, "Jerusalem", for example, are more political than others. Blake is one of those apostles mentioned by Auden.

Take the fascinating case of Vermeer, an artist about whom we know little. He created a world of perfect, photographic beauty and repose. Vermeers could be placed on the wall of the cells of political prisoners. Vermeer paints moments of meditative quiet, does that mean that he scorns the political? His paintings are the essence of peace, of acceptance of the moment and delight in the beauty of that moment and its artifacts. His art is not really political. As the great music of Bach is not, although some might point out that Bach was rather conservative in his views in some ways, although wasn’t Bach’s religion, Lutheranism, a protest against Catholicism?

Stephen Spender

Another writer who seriously explores political writing is Spender: in his book The Thirties and After is written, "The attempt here (by John Cornford) is to write a secular Communist poetry corresponding to religious metaphysical poetry. It is blurred because Marxism, in common with other analytic and scientific systems, cannot be taken outside its methods and terms, and interpreted imagistically, or converted into a mystique, without in the process losing its mechanical or scientific precision....The ideology- the vision- is materialist." Further along, S writes, "Marxism, because it regards history as malleable material to be manipulated by the creative will of the Marxist, is rich in the raw material of poetry. Marx concretized the language of economics." and further, "The reactionaries" (here he means Yeats, Eliot, Pound, and Lawrence) "wrote out of their tragic sense of modern life. The Cornfords and Bells lived and died the tragedy."


Ravel, yes even Ravel had some very interesting things to say about revolution. Rosenthal recalls: "Physically, personally, R hated revolution. I asked him once if he could tell me the difference between evolution and revolution...He said, ' Suppose that you are in a room studying....; after a few hours you feel that the atmosphere is a little stuffy and you need to change the air and you open the window. You let the fresh air enter the room, after a while you close the window, that's all. That's evolution. You are in a room and you feel that you need a change of air and you take a stone, put that through the window and break the window, Of course the fresh air enters, but after that you have to repair the window. That's revolution. I don't see myself the need to break a window; I know how to open it". Of course, R is talking about music here. It would be nice to have his thoughts on the Commune or Marx.

Rosenthal writes, "His views were, as we would say today (this was 1986!) leftish, that's to say he was totally opposed to all social inequality." But Ricardo Vines states, "As for the view that Ravel was very far to the left, the real essence of the man has always seemed to me to resist definition, and his complex, even contradictory character makes nonsense of attempts to classify it."


Trotsky was not only an accomplished literary critic, he was also an accomplished revolutionary. Now, there's a combo! His work Literature and Revolution deserves special study. Like many critics, he never uses one word or sentence when he can use three. Also, he adopts an arch and snide attitude too much of the time. Still, this work says more than any other I have come across on these issues of poetry and commitment. T writes, "The nightinggale of poetry, like that bird of wisdom, the owl, is heard only after the sun is set. The day is a time for action, but at twilight feeling and reason come to take account of what has been accomplished."

Or, "The poets, uncalled to the holy sacrifice proved themselves, as was to be expected, the most insignificant children of the earth...they had flown above social interests and passions, as if in the clouds..."

Or, "All the social illusions which mankind has raved about in religion, poetry, morals or philosophy served only the purpose of deceiving and blinding the oppressed. The Socialist Revolution tears the cover off "illusions", off "elevating"..."

Or, "The pathos and poetry of the Revolution consist in the fact that a new revolutionary class becomes master of all these instruments of struggle, and in the name of a new ideal to enrich man and to form a new man, it carries on a struggle with the old world, falling and rising until its final victorious moment. The poetry of the Revolution is in the difficult struggle of the working-class, in its growth, in its persistence, in its defeats, in its repeated efforts, in the cruel expenditure of energy which pays for every conquered inch, in the growing will and intensity of the struggle, in the triumph of its victories, as well as in its calculated retreats, in its watchfulness, in its assaults, in the elemental flood of mass rebellion, in the exact computation of forces, and in the chess-like movements of strategy."

Or, most importantly for here T talks of the shape his art should take, " art in the future will follow the path of a growing fusion with life, that is, with production, with popular holidays and with the collective group life...how and where and through what gates?"

In his ;play "Trotsky in Exile", Peter Weiss has Trotsky say: "Art will join in the fight, yes. But the proletariat, it will need all its strength, to sieze power, to maintain it and use it. Culture will mean to start with hundreds of millions of people learning to read and write and do their sums. In a socialist society the proletariat will cease to be the proletariat. The revolution will put an end to class culture. What woill come is mass art, communial art, that is to say, classless art."

And Lenin: "Since the workers will want to study, to learn, to explore, to educate themselves, they will expect a lot from their artists. They will have no taste for empty magic" (I would add- they will have a taste for full magic -Eberhardt.) "Their art will be scientific and realistic."

Poke fun at Trotsky as one is tempted to do, he brings us to more education, it is education that will enable the masses to appreciate the rarer art and poetry, the Herrick or Blake or Dickinson. A worker has a sense of beauty and he or she appreciates art. Without education, however, he or she only appreciates a scene or object from nature or a painted screen door or a painting on velvet of dogs playing cards more than he appreciates a Brecht poem or a painting by Picasso.

                                                                                 In Sum

Indeed, as Auden says, all the great artistic achievements of the past could be swept away; we could live without them; some artistic movements have even proposed we junk past artifacts and start anew. But we are much the richer for the art of the past, it shows what we humans can do.

Hungry people do not rise up for beauty. We fight for bread and roses, but we must have bread, we can do without the roses.

Maybe the best thing we can say is that we want art to be more. We're glad to have pure art, so long as, to us, it is beautiful. It may be an abstract pattern. But we`d prefer it to be both beautiful and meaningful. We want it to sing and inspire and change the world. We want it all. Bread and roses!!

We might add to the great slogan: "If you want peace, work for justice" the following, "First justice, then peace and then beauty also," or, "Let's have justice AND peace AND beauty. Let's go for the whole hog. Bring the roses in too.

                                                           PRESENTATION VERSION

More Political Poetry, and Less

Start with a poem by Pablo Neruda: "The Celestial Poets". Neruda (1904-1973) was a Chilean poet who held several "consular appointments- to Burma, Ceylon and Spain. There he adopted leftist politics and a commitment to the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War. He later returned to Chile where he was elected a senator and became a member of the Communist Party. Salvador Allende appointed him ambassador to France in 1971- the year he won the Nobel Prize for literature."- from the book Against Forgetting, edited by the American poet, Carolyn Forche.

(read first Poem- "The Celestial Poets")

Neruda directly attacks poets who are "pale worms in the capitalist cheese", that is poets who "took flight". For example, the "Rilkeans" he refers to would be European poets who wrote in the manner of Rilke- a German poet (18 -19 ) who writes poems about mystical subjects such as seasonal change, angels, turning inward, generally aesthetic rather than realistic subjects. Although he doesn’t say what he thinks these Europhiles and Rilkeans should do, he implies that they have ignored anguish- perhaps poverty and suffering from war, I surmise. On my spectrum of more political poems to less, this ranks as a more political poem.

The great Communist poet, Berthold Brecht says of Horace’s maxim: "This sentence can only be valued as propaganda. Only fools would call (this kind of) dying an easy jump through the dark door."

All but one of the poems had relevancy to the politics of the times in which they were written.The other poem provides good contrast! I will say a bit about the poets who wrote them and why I think they are of interest. Other than that I will shut up- unless there are questions.

1. "Dulce et Decorum Est". Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) from the Carolyn Forche book,

Against Forgetting "was an English officer "was wounded in France in World War I in the summer of 1917, after spending seven months at the front. He returned to service after rehabilitation and was killed on November 4th, 1918, exactly one week before the Armistice". He is buried, appropriately among his men, between two privates in a corner of a village cemetery at Ors. A soldier himself, Owens had earned the right to criticize!

I choose this poem because I believe it is moving, powerful in language and sentiment. It is one of the first realistic poems about war in English. It "strikes a new note", a modern note. It’s language has the measured cadence of the King James Bible. Owens makes his point forcefully. He uses rhymes and poetic language- e.g. "haunting flares" and "misty panes" but the picture of war is brutal.

Let me explain two things in this poem- "five nines" are types of artillery shells and "drowning in a green sea" refers to the deadly chlorine gas (a "weapon of mass destruction")

"Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of tired, outstripped five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – an ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime ...

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues –

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori

-Wilfred Owen 

"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori"

is Latin for

How sweet and proper it is to die for one’s country

Horace (65 to 8 BCE) 

I love the tone at the end where the poet addresses you, "My friend- one must capture just the fight tone of voice addressing "children ardent for some desparate glory". He is, of course, being sarcastic about the old enormous and vile lie from the Roman poet Horace’s odes, "How sweet and proper, etc. " (was this used by Roman officers to send legions into battle? Probably not known).

In his pacifist stance, Owen argues that the old Latin saying "Dulce et Decorum Est Owen writes from the context of World War I. He does not tell us if there might be any cause WORTH fighting and dying for. For him, World War I, in which war he did die- must not have been it. But he went back to the front to be with his men in a war of trenches and unrelenting slaughter unimaginable to previous generations. He doesn’t say which political side against war one should take!

2. "Death Fugue" ). Paul Celan, again from Forche, (1920-1970) was "conscripted to forced labor by the Romanian Fascists in 1942, was freed in 1944, then settled in Paris in 1948. He jumped from the Mirabeau Bridge in Paris and drowned himself in the Seine in 1970".

Marguerite is the German ideal woman from Goethe’s famous play "Faust" and Shulamith is her Jewish counterpart from the Bible’s "Song of Songs". The great modern German artist, Anselm Kiefer has done moving paintings on Celan’s poem- see Kiefer Catelogue Raisonne.

"Death Fugue (originally Death Tango)

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening

we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night

we drink and we drink

we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped

A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes

he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair


he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling

he whistles his hounds to come close

he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground

he orders us strike up and play for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at evening

we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening

we drink and we drink

A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes

he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair


your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air

there you won’t lie too cramped

He shouts jab this earth deeper you lot there you others sing up and play

he grabs for the rod in his belt he swings it his eyes are blue

jab your spades deeper you lot there you others play on for the dancing

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you at midday and morning we drink you at evening

we drink and we drink

a man lives in the house your goldenes haar* Marguerite

your aschenes haar** Shulamith he plays with his vipers

He shouts play death more sweetly Death is a master from Deutschland

he shouts scrape your strings darker you’ll rise then in smoke to the sky

You’ll have a grave then in the clouds there you won’t lie too cramped

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

We drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland

we drink you at evening and morning we drink and we drink

this Death is ein Meister aus*** Deutschland his eye it is blue

he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true

a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete

he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air

he plays with his vipers and daydreams

der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland

dein goldenes haar Margarete

dein aschenes haar Shulamith"

-Paul Celan

I choose this poem because it powerfully expresses the subject of war as does the W. Owen poem. Owens says "In all my dream", but in "Todesfuge" the mood is even more oppressive, more like a nightmare. The images are odd- dream like- what is black milk? Why would we drink it? Isn’t a morning, a day break bright and shiny? What is a grave in the air? I thought a grave was in the ground. This grave is for ash which floats in the air out of death camp chimneys. But the poet uses these images, along with repetitive, drum beat/ pounding phrases and repetitions to make us experience a slow, nightmarish funeral tango- not a march- a tango like the orchestras that performed for death camp guards- come l’orchestre que perform pour les SS. In the first draft of the poem the choice of the word "Tango" in the title, rather than "March", we see the poet is a bit playful- il faut necessaire pour les Juifs de "jouer pour las danse"but only to heighten the nightmarish quality of his poem. The stars are, after all, all sparkling- they can be beautiful even though the smoke rising from the chimney at the Death Camp is the smoke and ash of hair and flesh that has been burnt! If the poem were unrelentingly horrible and realistic about the death camps, you wouldn’t want to hear about it.

At the Vanowsky Camp in Poland, an SS lieutenant ordered Jewish fiddlers to play a tango during marches, tortures and executions. Before liquidating the camp, the SS shot the entire orchestra.

Apparently Goebbels and Hitler preferred the tango form to Negro jazz.

Celan later changed the title to Death Fugue because of the many obsessive repetitions of words and phrses, like a fugue form in music repeats notes and musical phrases..

3. "The Poems of Our Climate". Wallace Steven (18 -19 ) wrote poetry in his spare

time. He was an insurance executive, a Vice President of the Hartford Insurance Company.

In this poem where Stevens says, "When afternoons return, he means the blue skies of spring. He repeats cold twice, to give you a cold feeling- the "o" sound and he is contrating it to "hot" at the end of the poem. He mentions "snowy scents" which means no scent- to suggest purity.

"The Poems of our Climate

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,

Pink and white carnations. The light

In the room more like a snowy air,

Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow

At the end of winter when afternoons return.

Pink and white carnations – one desires

So much more than that. The day itself

Is simplified: a bowl of white,

Cold, cold porcelain, low and round,

With nothing more than the carnations there.

Say even that this complete simplicity

Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed

The evilly compounded, vital I

And made it fresh in a world of white.

A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,

Still one would want more, one would need more,

More than a world of white and snowy scents.

There would still remain the never-resting mind,

So that one would want to escape, come back

To what had been so long composed.

The imperfect is our paradise.

Note that, in this bitterness, delight

Since the imperfect is so hot in us,

Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds."

I choose this poem because it stands alone as a beautiful painting, like a Matisse, Gauguin , Bonnard or Veuillard still life, carefully composed of delicate shades of white and gray, very restful and far removed, you might think, from the problems of everyday life. Stevens loved French artists- the imnpresssionists and post impressionists, and he was very much influenced by painting and it shows in this poem.

An interviewer once asked W. S. "Do you stand with any political-economic party or creed?" This is a question I would like to ask all my favorite poets. W.S. reply was what you might expect: "I am afraid that I don’t". W.S. was a Repuglican (which doesn’t make him as loathsome as the Republicans of today (2004)). Afterall, this poem states that humans desire more than such pure beauty. W.S. will never specify what the more is- but he insists that the mind is impatient- "never resting".

4. Encore "Toros" Jacques Brel

I am closing with the poem "Toros" by the Belgium born singer, song writer and actor, Jacques Brel. Brel’s poem is a good fit with the two other anti-war poems. By personifying a supposedly brutal animal, the bull, he pokes fun at humans who have, after all, made a lot more mischief and violence in the world than bulls have. Bulls don’t go out to kill men, it’s the other way around.

In the original version, Brel concentrates, like Wilfred Owen, on the horrors of World War One with references to the English and Verdun only. But in the translation by the American Eric Blau in the late 1960’s for the show "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris", Brel allowed Blau to include references to World War II and Viet Nam. Brel chose not to attend the opening of this musical in New York because of his opposition to the war in Vietnam- about which country the French knew a little. When once asked about his politics, Brel responded cryptically- "I am far to the left".    

dave need lyrics                                            



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