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The Arts, Politics, and Political Art

(Photo by Robin Holland)

This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with poet W.S. Merwin, who recently won the Pulitzer Prize.

During the taping of the interview, Merwin argued that political poetry rarely makes for good art. He explained:

“Because you start by knowing too much. You have your mind made up, and you know that you’re right. And I think that always the moment you’re right, you’re wrong. Political poetry starts with the assumption, “This is the way it is, and I’m going to persuade you that this is the way it is.” You end up almost always writing propaganda. During the Vietnam war, many poets wrote poetry of protest against the war and poetry of anguish about the war. Most of it was just terrible... I think that poetry and the most valuable things in our life come out of what we don’t know.”

Some have argued that art must be political if it is to be honest. In 1964, Irwin Silber of the liberal folk music magazine SING OUT! wrote an open letter to Bob Dylan criticizing his transition from political songs to more ambiguous subject matter:

“You seem to be in a different kind of bag now, Bob -- and I'm worried about it... You said you weren't a writer of "protest" songs -- or any other category, for that matter -- but you just wrote songs. Well, okay, call it anything you want. But any songwriter who tries to deal honestly with reality in this world is bound to write "protest" songs. How can he help himself? Your new songs seem to be all inner-directed now, innerprobing, self- conscious -- maybe even a little maudlin or a little cruel on occasion... You seem to be relating to a handful of cronies behind the scenes now -- rather than to the rest of us out front. Now, that's all okay -- if that's the way you want it, Bob. But then you're a different Bob Dylan from the one we knew. The old one never wasted our precious time.”

What do you think?

  • Do you agree more with Merwin that political art is “almost always... propaganda,” or with Silber that any artist who “tries to deal honestly with reality in this world” is bound to be political? Why?

  • Can you name some examples illustrating either Merwin’s or Silber’s arguments?


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    Comments

    This was one of the most brilliant things I've ever experienced. Thank you!

    Faith and Justice:

    To Whom it may Concern:

    Does the values have anything to do with a Country that calls itself CAPITALISTS.

    FAITH AND JUSTICE is only meant for people who are not hyprocrites, they talk about all values in life but still try to hide their want for material things.

    Where does "Right to work" state come in, or to "work at-will". These so-called laws are made by communists or socialists.

    Just look how the Judges broadcast their sermon on the Judges pulpit and the look of scorn at the court in not caring if the defendants and the plaintiffs understand or not if they are not legal experts. Try fighting your legal battles if you are not a lawyer. 3 years college and they are trying to make a million bucks in a year.

    Is this justice????.

    What is the name of the wonderful poem that Merwin read on Bill Moyers interview about not spending enough time with his Father? I have tried Google and Bing and no luck in finding that poem.

    Thanks, life changing. Now I understan what I could not for 40 years.

    Bill

    Be Well

    DEAR MR. MOYER,

    REGARDING YOUR JULY 3, 2009 BROADCAST,
    IT WOULD APPEAR TO ME THAT ONE WHO IS SUPPOSED TO BE A SEEKER OF TRUTH WOULD APPROACH ONE MOST CLOSE TO IT.
    I NOTICED YOU DID NOT HOST PROPHET BISHOP H. WALKER AS A MEMBER OF YOUR PANEL OF "EXPERTS" ON THE RELIGIOUS ASPECT OF YOUR TOPIC.
    BISHOP H. WALKER IS MOST NOTABLY THE BEST SOURCE, AND WEALTH OF CREDIBLE INFORMATION ON THE SUBJECT OF CHRISTIANITY KNOWN TO EXIST IN THIS GENERATION, AND VINEYARD. YET, YOU SELECT SUBSTANDARD SOURCES TO PARLEY, AND ANNOTATE THE TOPIC OF YOUR SHOW IN A MAZE OF INCONCLUSIVE, UNFOUNDED, AND UNFRUITFUL RHETORIC. USING MISINTERPRETED, PERIODIC BIBLICAL CLICHE`S TO STRESS BLASPHEMOUS POINTS WAS MOST HORRENDOUS.
    WHY? "TRUTH SEEKER", WHY?
    OR ARE YOU NOT REALLY INTERESTED IN TRUTH?

    BISHOP H. WALKER CAN BE CONTACTED AT TRUE LIGHT PENTECOST CHURCH, 121 OLD CONVERSE RD., SPARTANBURG, SC. 29307, (864)579-0025, OR prophetwalker@sc.rr.com

    I ENCOURAGE YOU TO SEEK HIM OUT, AND PUT HIM ON YOUR SHOW. HOW RIVITING, HOW ENLIGHTENING, AND HOW TRUTHFULL IT WILL BE.

    VERY TRULY,

    RACHEL RODGERS

    Harry, thanks for sharing with us your project. It makes me think of Carl Jung's approach known as "active imagination." It also makes me think of the Quakers' "waiting." And a book by Oliver Sacks too. I hope what you pick up here (or end up laying down here) will help you piece things together.

    I have kind of a piece-together-thing going on right now myself. It is a matter of re-experiencing the gifts my mother's words conveyed. At first after her death last November there was shock. Along with the shock came a crusade mentality...to support by the most ingenious means available her vision of what the the world should be. I find no specific path, though, that looks like destiny handing over such a mission...naturally. Perish the thought I couldn't handle such a means myself. Oh man, perish the thought the kinds of words she uttered will never come out of my mouth with such grace...because I never had the joy of overcoming all that she overcame...or the faith to allow the Great Spirit to help me in so many moments (vs mine which looked for help in fewer, in some moments of thankfulness...in not enough of those where it was a matter of distress).

    David F, I guess you guys wanna use my pomade too???

    =;-]

    You're right about the coin. Merwin's type of poetry and the kind Keilor reads provide evidence that there are many, many humans who can "capture moments" [Cath 6/30] with at least as many of the same kinds of feelings I'd wish to note myself. These poems are like where phenomenology should have gone. Maybe that's where it went.

    No footnotes leading back to back-up. No links back to unquestionable authority. All the back-up is right in the words themselves. That is the direct Zen way. My late mother's way. Except you become as one of these...except your intent becomes as guileless as one of these...

    But if all we do is capture moments, how will we capture solidarity? Of course, I don't say bring back the little red book; I just wonder how such a variety of touted spaces is gonna be sustainable. Whoever it was down there that said "elitist," of course I understand that. Yes, I understand (even from guys like Toffler) that our society has actually encouraged the legion private Idahos. We're immersed neck deep in'em. But who am I to post here that conscientious people should begin weaning themselves from their lands of make believe? There are so many of the latter that to think of them as a cumlative set or a group even for a moment brings to mind Roger Penrose's "many worlds" theory [perhaps their existence subjectively enhances the appeal of this metaphysical POV]. But if on some day in the future poems end up as unmakebelieve as their writers can make them, then at that time it will be interesting to see if those truer reflections demonstrate we are more one underneath it all...than we are all exceptional poets.

    Wasn't it Dylan Thomas who hoped for a whole new language? And then Roszak seemed to think it plausible an army of Blakes could take over. But the world kept truckin along that razor's edge, and on one side down below those swift boater dudes never went away [Why do they try to say Obama's so loved in Europe when the UK's just booted out labor?] At any rate, there are those phenomenologists out there.

    As I watched W.S. Merwin with Bill last night I was starkly reminded of what I don't know and that I must actively work to know it so that I continue to create my past. I composed this part of my past. I have suffered two sever Traumatic Brain Injuries in the last 5 years. By grace I am still alive with futures still to know.

    Some Loss Will Gain
    it is gone
    and shall not come back
    a galactic synapse
    a sliver of a greater mass
    what it knew
    it knows no more
    what it will know
    is not yet known
    grace a teacher
    a strong hand
    a guide light
    a new connection
    a revival renewed
    no reconnection or construction
    it is gone
    the new
    shall fill it back


    H.T.E., tmec july one

    Seymour Joseph posts...
    "Merwin is wrong. (Does that make him right?) He says “the moment you're right, you're wrong.” What on Earth does that mean? Is he saying there is no right or wrong? Nonsense."

    My read is Merwin meant that "right" and "wrong" are conditional and fleeting.
    In the case of poetry there is no right and wrong. There is a whole lot going on. However, there should be truth and meaningfulness that transcends the obvious.
    There are many forms of poetry but it all speaks to people. Merwin's poetry is classic Nelson Bentley which is popular at the moment with the elitists. Others prefer rap. What poetry says in and of itself transcends good or bad even though it can be badly written.

    For more on this topic, see my recent article "Politics and Popular Music" on the Victory Music Web site.

    Thanks for rebroadcasting your profile of poet W.S. Merwin. He is a national treasure. In particular, his rich book-length poem "The Folding Cliffs" on a 19th century Hawaiian cowboy and his love deserves a broader audience.

    The conversation between Bill and W. S. Merwin was a
    fascinating one from my perspective.

    I bring the lens of human development and that of a very amateur poet to this discussion.The hour last Friday was so good for my soul that I do not have words to describe it.

    I truly believe that poetry does come out of the
    heart's desire to make an attempt to capture experiences in life. Attempt is the operative word. My sense is that we have only a glimmer of most
    experiences at best and W.S. Merwin said that in a variety of eloquent ways.

    Beyond this I am so glad for the opportunity of seeing more of Bill's vulnerability as he struggles with issues he raised on a more personal level. It is so important for us to be able to share our vulnerabilities in ways
    that others can identify.
    Honestly probing life's questions and issues takes us to this deeper level, yet so seldom do we experience this anywhere on TV. PBS is our source of the extraordinary within
    the ordinary and the Bill Moyers Journal is ever a source of inspiration and intelligent discussion.

    Kudos!

    Thank you Bill. Thank you Merwin.

    I wonder if politics are a veil that hides us from one another, and if true poetry can only exist in the uncovering of that veil.

    Merwin is wrong. (Does that make him right?) He says “the moment you're right, you're wrong.” What on Earth does that mean? Is he saying there is no right or wrong? Nonsense. The quality of a poem — or any work of art — is not based on category; it's based on talent. There are works of anger, protest, dissatisfaction, which are awful, but there are other such works which are true art. Ask Goya and Picasso about it. Is the song “Strange Fruit” ipso facto bad because it was motivated by the outrage of lynching? Anything that moves an artist to create — whether it be the upsetting of a field mouse or the bombing of a city — will be judged not by subject matter but by the ability of the artist to have moved the reader or viewer. There's nothing wrong with being right; getting it right is another matter.

    What is this, a David convention?

    You guys are confusing me, now I’m back on the fence. Is this one of those trick (apples and oranges) questions? Both styles are heartfelt. The songwriters have used their hearts to open our eyes, while Merwin has used his ears to open our hearts. I don’t know, who’s got a coin?

    "Blow'in in the Wind" as sung by Peter, Paul, & Mary was perhaps the spookiest song ever played on pop radio [and one of the most beautiful]. Its airing marked a change, which even a 9 yr old could feel.

    In this land we're familar with one good archetype at least as "the rushing of a mighty wind." I don't know what the Vietnamese word for good wind is, but they do have a recognized term for one that's evil...pronounced yar. These principalities of the air, as it were, were about ready to engage, and when they did engage the center did not hold very well at all. Families were split right down the middle, and all kinds of folks were yanked into temporary insanity. If your memory needs jarring on this score, watch "Born on the 4th of July" this coming weekend.

    Re the war alone (leaving out civil rights activism for the moment) 57 thousand and some on our side was it? And how many millions on theirs?

    I agree with Mr. Merwin's statement "And I think that always the moment you’re right, you’re wrong," but that observation might also apply to his statement, "Most of it [Vietnam era protest poetry] was just terrible." One of Dylan's best known "protest songs" of that era, "Blowin' in the Wind," asks a series of questions, and supplies no answer: "The answer is blowin' in the wind." Another was quite strident in its way, and *did* supply an answer, but was, I think, very effective because it painted such a clear picture of its human subject: "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." I haven't had a chance to watch the program yet; did Messrs. Moyer and Merwin discuss the "great Naropa poetry wars?"

    Only one more time to note the happy and fruitful marriage between art and science.

    Carolyn, Nice thoughts. Thanks for sharing (not being sarcastic).

    The only way you can get from what you know in the now to figure out what you don't yet know is through REAL science.

    Art is what gets you to be in the present at a human pace. For instance, the first time I encountered a cactus, I said to myself, "What the heck is this thing about?!" So I took one home with me, one that had a spikey bad hair day look, put it up on the sunniest windowsill, and learned how not to bother it too much so that it could be what it was meant to be :-)

    It took a lot of "science" to arrive at a sense of certainty as to the truth of the cactus's existence.

    A cartoon should be forthcoming :-) Will it have a political message? Something "green"? Not on purpose, but that's the point. Where there is intention to misinterpret scientific data, I guess the divorcing of art from science wrought by "polis" begins by using "art" to misinterpret. Yes, even "light" can be imagined to be less real than the "dark".

    Anything that brings us into the "now" is a wonderful gift from the artist. I just wished that, after watching the program and feeling sad, that Mr. Merwin's religious father had done a better job of parenting him by establishing a loving connection. The poet might have found more truth in the "light" and less in the shadows, and been more energized by what he knew, than what he didn't.

    The truth is never political propaganda.
    Propaganda is the twisting of truth into a virtual lie.

    "Politics does work better when citizens are guided by a sense of right or wrong rather than sheer expediency."
    George Soros

    Poetry needs to be more than an assortment of words without meaning. It should speak to the heart as well as the mind. There must be the right words to convey the message, the right structure for harmonic meter and right form for meaningful manifestation.
    There are many forms of poetry that provide both entertainment and/or enlightenment. Some times poetry is abstract and sometimes it is "in your face". There is no such thing as a bad poem but there are malicious critics and arrogant poets.

    The rich get richer and the poor get poorer; all is well with the world?
    The weapons get deadlier and the fears get fiercer; so goes the world?
    The minds get fuzzier and the lives get meaningless; who wants to know?
    The earth is suffering and the people are blustering; where are the caretakers?
    We pray for peace and pay for war; what for?
    When life is done and there is no one; will there be a place for love and grace to get it right?
    David Eddy



    It's a beautiful here in Sea Bright, New Jersey but I was in a foul mood for many reasons; the fact that my condo hasn't sold in this troubled market and the fact that my ex-husband and the father of my two grown children is in the hospital dying. The latter is almost impossible for me to comprehend. I plopped down on the couch and picked up The Gate House by Nelson DeMille to try to relax and tune out the Asian Spa music that my new downstairs neighbor feels free to share with me. I flipped on Bill Moyer's Journal and there was W. S. Merwin. I was listening and staring at the TV and couldn't for the life of me figure out why he seemed so familiar. I write poetry and while living in Rochester, NY in the early 90's I visited Writer's and Books several times. On my last visit before I moved, I bought a package of bookmarks and the only one I ever used featured "Late Spring" by W.S. Merwin on the back. I am relocating to Manhattan very soon. Is there anywhere he will be appearing in NYC? I would be honored to meet him after all these years of using this bookmark and never leaving it behind in library books when I returned them. The title of one of my poems is "Bookmarks" - I wonder if this means anything. Just from this one poem "Late Spring," I was in awe of him. It was wonderful to finally see him recite.

    Jeanne Sarosy

    Someday, Freedomfree, your heart might, say, let an environmental concern in. You might become depressed about its lack of progress. Later you might think it's not worth the worry. You might become numb. At that moment...if you wanna feel the motivation again...here's one I recommend that's easy to remember...

    "Beautiful Creatures" by Bruce Cockburn (the ck is silent)

    I gather it's available at the iTunes Store.

    Off topic: If memory serves, the instrumental that follows "Beautiful Creatures" on the CD is pretty good too.

    "Libraries are vital for filling the informed citizenry void of our democracy."

    I agree Wm. There's a biography of Yeats (sp?) I wanna get into someday down at our town's central branch. When our home connections get too slow to hear the Greider/Namomi Klein talk...we gotta head on down there as well.

    I went back to my oldest Lasch book yesterday, "The Culture of Narcissism." He was describing in '79 how our education was tanking by '75. They say now companies'll go offshore not just for cheaper labor, but because that's the only place where skilled labor exists (in large pools I guess).

    In addition to libraries it looks like eventually we'll need free community broadband (unless it ends up pushing the EMR level past critical).

    Art has traditionally been married to SCIENCE, not to politics!

    No wonder why "arranged marriages" rarely work out :-)

    Old age decided NOT to marry "religion" to "state". Irreconciable differences...

    New age battle is going to be for keeping "art" happily and fruitfully paired up with VALUE ADDED SCIENCE.

    I knew, as we all did, that the rationalizing was going to be intense. At this point, it's decidedly off the chart of "normal".

    It's like all the "mathematical geniuses" are quivering on the brink of total madness and ready to become wilderness hermits ala Ted Kosinski (sp?) who venture out into the "polis" only for revenge.

    ART IS THE HEART , NO POLITICAL PART ,

    CAN RESTART ART , REALITY ,

    COMES FROM THE HEART .

    I was mesmerized by the interview with W.S. Merwin last night. As a physician I'm not usually captivated by poets, but now I think I should be. The comment by the noted Pulitzer Prize Winner that words of the poet are used to describe the unspeakable, the unknowable, the very essence of what we cannot put into words was a profound revelation to me. How I wish our medical system could strive for the same deep understanding and connection with the human condition that this genius of a man so precisely and concisely elucidates for all of us. Kudos to Bill Moyers for his contribution to the work of art that was this interview itself. Please do more of these for the good of us all.

    Thanks.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the program with Bill Moyers and W. S. Merwin. It was inspiring and a spiritual experience to listen to these two men converse. Merwin's reading of his poetry brought it to life. I was not familiar with Merwin so went to the library today and picked up three of his books. I especially appreciated finding the poem titled: SEPARATION.

    I believe writing poetry is a political act. Finding voice for our experiences is important. I understand about not "getting preachy"; if we stay true to the details of our experience it doesn't have to come off as preachy. It's important to give words to injustice.

    I appreciated so much this program and hope you do more with poets and poetry.

    Thank you

    Heartfelt, and special, thanks for among the most memorable moments of television I've ever had the good fortune to experience.

    W.S. Merwin is an American treasure, a poet whose work has been an inspiration to me, and many others, for forty years. I can't recall when I've heard that much poetry read on a major network, and it was a joyous experience. Mr. Moyers was a generous, and charming host. The questions were well-conceived, and gentle.

    One couldn't help but recall the wonderful line from Walt Whitman: "Now I will do nothing but listen." If only world leaders could spend one delightful hour listening to a program like this one.

    As for whether poetry is political, "polis" means people in Latin (or Greek?), and anything having to do with humanity is, in the best and most profound sense of the word, political. W.S. Merwin understands this--he gets that all the great poets, like Garcia Lorca and Whitman, spoke to children, and the man on the street.

    Congratulations to W.S. Merwin on his Pulitzer; congratulations to America on producing such an inspired, and inspirational, voice.

    Before I had watched Moyers’ show yesterday, I had come to his blog and read about Merwin. I was about to write a comment concerning the “political art is ‘almost always propaganda’” question, but then I thought, maybe it would be better to watch the show before I went off half-cocked.

    So, after the show, my opinion was pretty much the same. Poetry is just another form of writing. You are just using words to convey a message or thought. But then I woke up this morning and as I was lying in bed, I closed my eyes and listened.

    A cool morning breeze rolls in to shake me awake
    it quietly calls
    wake up
    wake up and come outside
    you are missing all the fun
    I pulled up my blanket and rollover
    with my face half buried in my soft magnetic pillow
    this pesky breeze rolls in again
    but this time She is not alone
    She is laced with a feathery music
    it excitedly chirps
    wake up
    wake up and come outside
    you are missing all the fun
    I reluctantly sit up and sense
    next She will probably want me to smell a rose or taste a nectar
    but then again
    this sounds like fun…I wonder if She brought a Frisbee
    Now I can see what Merwin means. There is virtually no beauty in politics (on either side), so REAL poetry has no room for it…just listen.

    Yes, Robert, that approach of Merwin's is very Zenlike.

    I should clarify that my "self-doubt" is not a matter of wondering just how lengthy and ridiculous were my own back pages, but my main quandry now is in regard to what actions will burn up the resultant karma most thoroughly. Of course, there remain awesome wonders that will not fail me (and my faith in them has not been shaken)...yes, some things to meditate on here at the end. And, speaking of burning, a lot of these wonders are things we are torching...or forcing the sun to torch. And the smoke and the light block our vision of those night time wonders whose power is not available for our grid at all.

    Yep, we paved paradise and now there's scorching blacktop instead. Have mercy, all the place is I'm thinking about is three blocks worth of phony city for the sake of image. Meanwhile no one even thinks about rebuilding the hospitals full of super bugs. Max Rameau has to break laws and locks to find families decent places to sleep. Main Street to Mean Street.

    They try to bring back the 60s. They speak the words "no child left behind" and invoke rote "Standards Of Learning." They try to get all the components in place. The assumption seems to be: just reinsert random images and moods from the zeitgeist and all things will come of this. Actually I'm the product of too many amazing protest artists. In a way I was actually spoiled by'em. And I know first hand that with artists taking the lead the other side can always say....see, you gotta make leeway for extreme pluralism. You gotta make room for the next king, the next idol...and the whole horde that desires the slot themselves along with whatever means they wish to devise to get it (cause not to allow this would be disallowing "freedom"). Whereas the hardest thing in the world is not to cite Bono, but to come up with your own reason outta the mouth of your own orignal face. To find on the spot the one that'll make the most sense to the most, and say it with your own force no matter how many others do likewise. Agreeing with so many others, that's the hard part...but I think probably the next phase for us spoiled folk. That's why Silber does make a point about statements drying up and the music that goes along with'em. But then, it must be time for something else...as per Tao te Ching's 18th chapter. All those mental/conceptual Gordian Knots I mentioned below...perhaps I am still inflating about understanding them all (hoping for...intending some expertese). I worry about younger people dealing with it, but Bill McKibben is optimistic so I'll go with that flow.

    Wonder what people here think of Coldplay lyrics. I first heard'em I think over the evening network TV recap of "Live Eight" (didn't I?). I don't even have enough time to think about their lyrics, but somehow...intuitively it seems to me many are very well synched in with their respective melodies. My over all impression is that they sometimes address personal dysfunctionalities that the system has forced a lot of us to accept...and therefore constitute protest at a different level...perhaps somewhat like Dylan's more recent phase.

    My husband, a disabled Vietnam veteran, and I, an activist with more "causes" than can be counted, watched Bill Moyers (as always), and W. S. Merwin speak with each other on this poet-laureate's works.
    We sat in silence; we were in the TV presence of passion, intelligence, and greatness.
    Several times, we'd look at each other, with a smile and/or tear on our respective faces. The readings, interactions, questions we saw reminded us of our feelings re our upbringing, our love of words, our lives at 62, our joy of hearing an intelligent conversation between these two men.
    I've written my share of poetry, and some have earned medals and/or certificates of merit. They meant something when given, but at present, I've no idea where these "gifts" are, and do not care.
    My husband is a trained artist with a degree; I have too many degrees - seems I didn't know when to stop. The one degree that gives me the most pride is my degree in English.
    I have to disagree with W. S. Merwin re his feelings toward politics, e.g., protest songs. If you remove the music, so many of them are luscious poetry. We have a DVD of Crosby, Stills, and Nash which is a wondrous melange of words that do not slap the listener in the face; some/most take thought to understand; once you reach understanding, you have begun the road to non violence, and wanting war no more.
    I grew up with a mother who was a voracious reader. She was a Robert Frost admirer, but she and I read all of the great writers, and poets. If you take Mr. Merwin's stance on political songs not being worth the paper on which they are written, then you are removing insurmountable compilations of the important works of men and women who put pen to paper in an effort to hand their feelings to a populous whose hatred of the war(s) were (and are) palpable.
    Aside from this, we thoroughly enjoyed hearing Mr. Merwin read his own lovely, and thought-filled poems.
    Thank you, Bill Moyers, for introducing us to this man of talent we did not know until last night!

    Of course, all poetry is political in some sense--but mostly the act of writing poetry is a political act.

    Especially these days.

    Still, I was told by a poet once not to write political poetry because it's always bad, as Merwin says.

    Perhaps if one intends to write a political poem it usually comes off as a slogan. But you can make poetry manifest as political according to the material you use--your landscapes, and voices, and memories. It depends.

    Mostly poetry is about the irony and ambiguity of time and space and shadow and light and nothing else. And yet just enough.

    Poetry is like writing about someone who has walked in front of you. For that moment, you notice the color and texture of the clothing, the hair style and the way in which they carry themselves. A feeling and an impression is left that only you and no one else can express because it is your experience. Political poetry is like writing about someone who has walked in front of you but you can see the brand labels on the clothing. Unspoken and perhaps unnoticed, they introduce impressions even on the most subtle level. They become part of the experience which no longer belongs to you alone as the poet.


    An example of a magnificent piece of political art is Picasso's Guernica. Its power lies in the ability of the painter, the passion he felt and communicated in the work, and the fact he painted it as a painter,not as a political commentator. It goes back to Goya, Delacroix and others who simply describe without comment what they see in front of them. Just as in W.S. Merwin's poems, there is the artist just looking without knowing and reflecting back, describing, that which one sees.
    The context within which a piece of art is framed gives it its meaning. That meaning can be political or otherwise.

    Oh, I forgot to thank you (Bill and WSM) for the line:
    "On the last day of the world ... I would plant a tree."

    That alone in this magical hour made me a MUCH better person!

    Bill Moyers' most inspiring conversation with W.S. Merwin was a delight, though I felt in watching it some sadness that such thoughful, meaningful events are becoming quite rare -- I recall the nightly shows of David Susskind of the early 60s?

    And I felt sad again when the conversation ended. A uniquely enjoyable hour indeed! (It recalled, as have other Journal hours, my rueful reluctance to end some of the past-midnight bull sessions in the dormitory in the 50s.)
    ------------------

    The observation

    >>not really knowing a whole lot about a whole lot, and on trucking on in life with reliance on what we "know" unconsciously

    reminded me of Alben Barkley's less poetic advice for facing uncertainty and self-doubt: Just rely on your Kentucky "windage".

    I do agree with WSM that political art is “almost always... propaganda.” This has become obvious to me especially since retiring 3 years ago and having enough time and energy now to notice and see very clearly the hypocrises and chicaneries and betrayals of the 'political artists'.

    --and with Silber that any artist who “tries to deal honestly with reality in this world” is bound to be political? My supporting argument for this has been quite forcefully made by 'those who would SEE even though seeing is dangerous': George Carlin, Pat Condell, Reverend Jeremiah Wright!

    Liked Merwin's theme regarding not really knowing a whole lot about a whole lot, and on trucking on in life with reliance on what we "know" unconsciously. Or unconscious reliance on the unconscious (usually).

    We have to have political poets because political reality is a part to truth, and poetry must deal with truth. To me, though, Merwin's take on the transient nature of conceptualized truths seems one thing that would make our lives more tolerable. No doubt there are abiding truths that seem equally useful to others and there are some for moi too; but, as it happens, when one grows older one must acknowledge all which did not pan out and all which did but which one did not learn how to transmit/state. For instance, what we were looking for could not be defined--it was the very youth we had. Now we can sort of define it, but we no longer have it. Re Silber's letter to Dylan...it seems from my vantage point right now we spend many of our last days trying to deal with the habits and the karma of "My [our] Back Pages." Lord, we thought by this age we'd all be liberated and instead of qualms we'd have so many more lofty things to dwell on. But these aforementioned dealings with presumption-karma had already started with boomers (or for boomers) with Lasch's writings and with Michael Young's ("meritocracy" is our huge presumption in this age but few see it). However, someone must always come along and almost non-politically (of course less politically than Lasch and Young who were not poets) attack the little head trips of political leaders or even grass roots activists that begin to be accepted as default...like: this life will last a really long time and I will be thankful for all these good folks in it tomorrow.

    There was nagging regret drifting off to the words of Merwin. But the nice result was that I ended up sufficently awake to appreciate last night's NOW for a change. Yes, regret...but the music of his words must have made for a great dream. What follows is something I was going to post elsewhere at the beginning of a new thread. I won't relate the title, but perhaps someone here could come up with one better...

    As Rene Girard has pointed out, many people [I will say symbol analysts, media people, and the educational establishment] figure they should have the same desires as given model people. These desires and intellectual preoccupations trickle down (accurate apprehensions of how they should appropriately manifest trickle down). We mimick the smart ones, and we shine only in as much as our "supply" (of appropriate concepts) gets closer to the stores that belong to them. Many discuss sports as distractions, but I'm wondering if the size of our obligation-to-concepts these days is turning them into unmanageable items (possibly by design). One such item I seem to note is managing our electronic devices. Now, I could debate as to whether this is really left-brained activity (but I am no expert and might easily get snuffed re my doubts on this). It seems to me as though texting for example is a replacement activity that substitutes for other activities wherein the "minds of our hands" pick up knowledge, experience, and achievement. And hand-minds I'm not sure always operate in conjunction with the left side upstairs...as in acquiring the ability to throw a decent clay pot...even if ones goal is to make a profit in terms of numbers of dollars. Another is obtaining overall comprehension of recent scams (Pentagon waste, credit default swaps, the various means of "shock doctrine," etc). Another is understanding the technique/system/mechanics of ear marks (understanding whatever Kafkaesque/NAFTAlike system of law is going down wherever). Another is gleaning the nature of the actual recent experiences of societies stereotyped by Realpolitik (for example, Iranians are brainwashed by the mullahs and cannot grow to appreciate democracy because of it...vs...everything Iran went through just prior to and since Abu Al-Hasan Bani Sadr's book).

    Also, for what it is worth, I wanted to mention that I have worked to produce a documentary called “Local Poet” this past 4 years.

    A 45 second trailer of this 76 minute documentary can be viewed at www.facebook.com under the name of “Local Poet.”

    I am currently shopping the documentary at national and international film festivals.

    Local Poet has been rejected by Cannes and is currently submitted to the Austin Film Festival.

    Go to www.facebook.com under the user “Local Poet” to see the 45 second trailer of the documentary “Local Poet.”

    I asked our local DC to Harrisburg PA poets the following questions:

    1) What is your ethnicity and does it impact your work?

    2) What role does meaning play in poetry?

    3) What influences lead to you becoming a poet?

    4) Define the word “Local.”

    5) Define the word “Poet.”

    6) Given that you will likely never be adequately financially compensated for your work, why do you continue to write poetry?

    Some common/interesting answers to the last question were

    1. “Compulsion! I can’t not do it; I can’t not do it.

    2. “Give me just a couple of people who know who I am; who have the same kind of – for lack of a better word – disease...”

    3. “ I write to keep myself same.”

    4. “I get a high from it.”

    And (my favorite):

    5. “You’ve taken control of the universe for a second and scattered it on a page in ink.”

    All in all:

    I was absolutely thrilled with your interview of MS Merwin that aired tonight on the Journal!

    I, thankfully, have been introduced to the intimate details of all sorts of different arts that are less familiar to me by watching your show, but being a Buddhist and a poet, this one struck a personal chord with me.

    If I may be so bold, please allow me to share the following poem. It is not as quiet or august as Merwin’s work or most of my own, but certainly explains why poetry and Buddhism are so very needed by some. (Oh, and I am also a Biologist by trade.)

    Vivent les trois!

    CORPUS DECLENSION

    Bring me your body to undo,

    your wind unwinding, a part of
    certain probability

    Electrons’
    positions do in the threading
    And tally,
    tally their regularities
    vague, precise prophecies fulfilled hourly, pointing at

    Borrowed
    lying blue within nuclei between
    needle and bone, a part of
    certain longing

    Nucleotides’
    keys do in the lending
    And turn,
    turn the spool around and over to
    mechanistically-minded protein busy minutely, pointing at

    Ancient autonomy
    your riots contained neighborly, a part of
    certain housekeeping

    Membranes’
    manners do in delineating
    And rise,
    rise as competition compels
    brocade of integrity, spatially, temporally, pointing at

    Conjugate effect
    your snugly-sinewed between
    right and restless, a part of
    certain productivity

    Organs’
    knots do in the tying
    And pull,
    pull pursuit around
    repetition, cradling
    rhythmically pointing. Now

    unfinger
    the nervous:

    the rambler, skipper, jumper, sitter, waiter, the well,
    the million errant pendulums
    And come,
    come willingly to fold a brain
    into the certain celebration
    of body’s rhythms inviting.


    Lauren Gross

    W. S. Merwin, the Merlin of Poetry…

    W. S. Merwin's poetry can stop your heart, blur your vision with a tear, bring you hope in your living and start your life again with vivid brilliance and spectacular purpose. His words of truth are bare yet breath taking with shared realities of our human experiences. They are at once painful and soulful without deceit. We deceive ourselves every moment, but Merwin, makes us reflect and connect.

    Bravely honest and passionately perceived, every line of his poetry reveals more of our human condition, frailties and strengths as he validates what our spirit’s should a, could a, would a which may inspire us to life again with his words.

    His readings certainly touched Bill Moyers, and my spirit during this interview and his works humble us all. Merwin, is never holier than thou, but maybe wiser. Wisdom, is a Devine gift. Those of us that have gifts and ignore them, commit one of the worst crimes against humanity.

    Expand your mind and read Merwin. If he invokes pain, it is what you need for face and forgive.
    If he invokes joyfulness, be glad and share that with others, too.

    Maybe if we all listen as well as Merwin, we will begin to hear the truth of life that he hears and has been racing time to capture in his journals, notes and books. The insights are transient at best and pen and paper must always be at the ready to capture them. His poetry mirrors our lives and makes us think about just how fragile we are.

    The real prize here is W S Merwin, and we are all better for his sharing!

    Live long and prosper W.S. Merwin, and keep on listening for the wisdom you share with us in your poems.

    Sincerely,
    Supert Nevets

    Well,

    I am sad.

    Because I see that this is not a very well-used section of the blog.

    Representing, perhaps, that Bill Moyer’s Journal has very few poets or poetry aficionados watching the Journal. (No reflection on Bill or his guests, of course! :-)

    (Ah me!)

    What I wanted to say, on a more general note to the airing, is that I was struck by Merwin’s analysis that language was created by persons expressing vowels which then became surrounded by consonants.

    I thought it was a particularly interesting “theory”. I don’t know if Merwin thought this theory up himself, or if others had thought of it before him.

    But I had a bit of fun with it.

    Suppose a pre-language woman has an orgasm with all “oooo’s” or “uuuu’s” and then adds a “g” to denote the beginning of such, and a “d” or “t” to end it all. That would result in the word “goooood” or guuuuuut” (good or gut or God).

    Not bad!

    I agree with Merwin and agree with Silber. And I disagree with Merwin and disagree with Silber.

    My disagreement with Merwin is this:

    (Very excellent poetry came out of the Vietman era...you just have to wait long enough. Time for a fertilized egg to turn into a 20-something, or a 40-something person capable of reflection.)

    Game Is Over, President Tells Iraq (newspaper headline 2-7-03)

    by Elizabeth Gordon

    --1--

    I remember my life like it never happened:

    the beautiful city of my birth

    river city colonial city city of self- immolation

    my parents' lovemaking the slow groan of continents

    the dogtags pressed between them

    the copter hovered above them slicing

    the ghosts of my ancestors

    smell of chemicals and refuse diesel and perfume

    fine candies melting on the tongue

    --2--

    I remember my life like I never lived it:

    smiling children in a photograph

    creased maps stuffed in the glove compartment

    white Chevy with red interior

    the egg man's truck with the letters E-E-G-S

    coal stove and a cigar after supper

    nightmares

    two white rabbits in a chicken wire cage

    nightmares

    what did I forget what did I forget

    what

    did I forget

    --3--

    I remember war like I never outgrew it:

    motion pictures I couldn't watch

    books I couldn't buy
    books bought never read
    a black granite wall I steer clear of

    driving through the city on the way to my sister's house

    past

    the blasted Pentagon

    my jungle boots my camouflage

    my village my straw hat

    my artillery
    my hate
    my hash

    my sallow face
    my cunning innocence

    my commander in chief

    boats in the Mekong Delta

    against a backdrop of new hotels

    billboards of American smiles

    the veteran I met in southern Indiana

    when I told him who I was

    he took my hands

    into his two hands and held me

    like that

    and the continents

    groaned

    and it wasn't a game

    and it wasn't over.

    I always said that the Iraq war was all a ploy.Bush used the war for big Oil Corporations and also Bush and his family being in the oil business made enormous profits. if their is proof that this happened and 9/11 was all set up by bush and company then all should be tried in the HAGUE COURT for war crimes. i hope that the day will come that someone or documents will be found to convict all the SCUM-BUMS.

    Art looks at things from different angles, filtered and bent by the mind of the artist, and expresses it in a leap of creativity. It has much in common with politics. The latter must be concerned with what others think to avoid buffoonery, but not if its form bypasses defensive filters and its clarity and truth carry it all the way to the heart.

    Great question, Bill. I have been thinking lately on a growing perception that museums be seen as social agents in their communities. Getting people in the doors to have a deep experience and reflect on that experience seems to me to be a most worthwhile undertaking in and of itself. I recently came across this entry on Percy Bysshe Shelley, the English Romantic Poet who said that the imagination is the great instrument of moral good and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the causes. However, Shelley identified as the lesser poets as those who have frequently affected a moral aim, and the effect of their poetry is diminished in exact proportion as they compel others to follow this or that purpose. I too feel that cultivating the imagination creates a future rich with possibilities and empowers people to choose that possibility that suits them best not something imposed on them from others.

    Art is the act of pointing out the obvious, which shares quite a bit with Voltaire's observation on common sense. Stating the obvious has a way of getting under the skin of power, which is generally more comfortable with illusion (Greed is Good, Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair) than reality.

    An essay, poem, painting, blog, or other act of creation that states the obvious (e.g., The Emperor has no clothes; Our problems stem from our acceptance of this stinking rotten system; The weather is getting extreme; Life is beautiful; Joy is.) can't help but be political when we have created a system (about 5000 years old) in which it is difficult to be good.

    Mairead Maguire once told me that being nonpolitical is a political act of support for the powers that be. Being human means being social means being political.

    Human Art is therefore always political. Either it opposes the powers that be (or some act or omission on the part of power), or it support the powers.

    It always comes down to choice.


    At Figgers Institute we have come to the conclusion that there can be no dissent or resistance without artistic creativity. Critical thought and the conception of art may be the same phenomenon.

    I personally like the political approach (open-ended and dialogic) of Neil Young. Although he appears self-obsessed and of limited measurable intellect (contradictory too)his method is unique. Only the artistic savant possesses that kind of insightful humor. (Ref: "Let's Impeach the President for Lyin'" (so bad it's irresistible)

    Listen to "People Have the Power" by Sonic Smith and Patti Smith if you don't think political songs can be created purposely. The thing that keeps them from being "good" is probably market awareness or career panic (INSINCERITY).

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