The Brooklyn Rail

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Mel Elberg

Near the beginning of Art as Experience, John Dewey says something to the effect of: anyone can appreciate the beauty of blooming daisies. But if you want to grow daisies, you have to know about the complex relationships between soil, water, oxygen, time and sunlight; in other words, you have to: “apprehend them no longer curiously, but passionately.”[1]

We need Poetry Now to help us process, from ecstatic to excruciating, the whole range impressions that come with the experience of passionate engagement with the world. What do you actually feel? We need Poetry Now for the distinction and vivacity it lends to our unmediated relationships with the world, with people, between people and the world. “Can you accept poetry as an ‘exercise’ on which your life may depend?” [2]

Because it is “technically” worth so little (one can’t make a living off only writing poems), poetry can and loves to act that much further outside of Capitalist rules for success. As a way to the intellect through emotions, we need poetry for its effeminate, non-binary, anti-brand—an enormous resource that an amazing amount of people ignore, despise, and fear. Fear because (as Rukeyser says): “A poem does invite, it does require[. . .] invites you to feel [. . .] invites you to respond [. . .] invites a total response.[3] Simone Weil says the poorest, most disregarded person of a culture is the one who can say the truest things about that culture. We need Total Response Poetry Now.

The poem is a non-commodified social space. It is like the park; the people have a right to, and will, occupy it when the bigger city of standard language become too hostile or oppressive or simply unresponsive to them. Writing is the door between the private and the public. If ideas are rooted in language from the mind (inside), on their way out, to mingle in public with others, and then go back into the privacy of other minds, and so on, through the writing-door, poetry is the grease on that door, and the push, a ghost blowing it open. Vilém Flusser talks about writing’s main function of pushing ideas around, and essentially of pushing them towards each other.

We need many different kinds of Poetry Now to re-instill the deeply human quality of unexpectedness, leaps across space-time bringing distant objects, ideas, conditions into intimacy. Because “It remains fresh and remains fresh and it remains fresh” as the poet Will Alexander says.[4]

We need poetry’s handprints, side-eye, and marginalia. The pleasure of the unpredictable hand and hand-with-pen. We need poetry—despite the racist hetero-fascist surveillance state and mindless consumption enforced by it’s techno-panopticon—to remind us that “Nothing happens more often than the totally unexpected” (Arendt)[5] . . . from inside or outside ourselves.

If “the News” can deliver speech which says nothing, or merely repeats oppressive moral axioms in screaming muteness, changing nothing, we need the action of the poem to cut through the wall of screaming muteness; Poetry Now to say what you mean, to allow oneself to become impassioned with unpredictable language. Wouldn’t that be more “newsworthy”? “Your silence won’t protect you,” Audre Lorde said. And, (I forget who said) we’re responsible for what we don’t say, too.

My mentor, a poet, says: “I write the poems Because I Have To.”

We need the pleasure and danger of a poetry that disrupts and conflates want-to and have-to, making desire for new ideas and forms a human right.

Right now I’m reading Nicanor Parra’s Emergency Poems, which is printed in huge red letters diagonally across the cover, careening in. . . unexpected! We need diagonal poetry now. We need emergency reading. Camus’s The Plague has also been useful to me the past year.

Carl Sandburg:
People singing; people with song mouths connecting with song hearts;
            people who must sing or die; people whose song hearts break if there
           is no song mouth; these are my people.[6]

[1] John Dewey, Art As Experience (New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1934)
[2] Jane Cooper and Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry (Paris: Paris Press, 1996)
[3] ibid.
[4] Interview with Will Alexander, Poetry Project Newsletter #202, 2005
[5] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1958)
[6] Carl Sandburg, from the poem “Work Gangs,” in Smoke and Steel (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920)


Mel Elberg

Mel Elberg is a queer poet interested in speculative feminisms and the effect of writing on our experience of time.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2018

All Issues