Some time back, I received a memo about a panel discussion I was being asked to join. Unfortunately, my aged knees needed replacing, which kept me from flying to Slovenia, whose chapter of PEN was holding its annual conference in April 2018. Part of the memo read:
[As] ever, writers and poets continue to dream. They are dangerous, because they encourage others to do the same. How is it that we must still fight for the right to dream? Where do new threats to that right come from?
I’ve been ruminating on this ever since, no matter that I wasn’t a participant in Slovenia. I started, somehow, by reflecting on a passage from Candide:
During this conversation, news was spread abroad that two viziers of the bench and the mufti had just been strangled at Constantinople. . . . Pangloss, Candide, and Martin, as they were returning to the little farm, met with a good-looking old man, who was taking the air at his door under an alcove formed of the boughs of orange-trees. Pangloss, who was as inquisitive as he was disputative, asked him what was the name of the mufti who was lately strangled. “I cannot tell,” answered the good old man; “I never knew the name of any mufti, or vizier breathing. I am entirely ignorant of the event you speak of. . . . I never inquire what is doing at Constantinople; I am contented with sending thither the produce of my garden, which I cultivate with my own hands. . . .
“This good old man,” said [Candide] to Pangloss and Martin, “appears to me to have chosen for himself a lot much preferable to that of the six kings with whom we had the honor to sup.”
“Neither need you tell me,” said Candide, “that we must take care of our garden. . . .”
This passage attracted me as a college boy; it still does—even as it offends me. On the one hand, there’s considerable sanity in concentrating on matters one can control, cultivating one’s garden. On the other, the world’s viziers and muftis are counting on us to wash our hands of sociopolitical issues, so that we won’t raise a fuss about their self-serving power. They are the major threats to the right to dream, and scarcely new threats. No pretty pastorale ever aroused resistance to the likes of Hitler, Stalin, or Idi Amin, and will not do so, as I truly wish they could, to Donald Trump.
So I turn to an opposing comment by Nikki Giovanni:
Poetry exists to disturb. We who are poets may not always be profound but we must always reach for the living, the different, to identify with the Outs. . . . We are all outlaws. Who can afford to be otherwise in our world?
Rarely in U.S. history has this sounded more relevant than today. But yes, my objection equals my attraction. It’s the “we must” part that troubles me.
I think we must do whatever the subliminal energies of a given poem want us to do. If we know where we are going ahead of time, what will we discover by poeticizing it? And is it not discovery that motivates us? Is it not surprise? Is it not dream_?_ (It’s certainly not money or fame.) If we are merely looking to confirm what we already believe, why write a poem rather than a letter to an editor or a political column? Why constrain the freedom of a poem to be what it longs to be?
Admittedly, the problem is scarcely puny: how do we honor the artistic imperative to be autonomous dreamers without resorting to ignorance-as-bliss and thereby giving free rein to this or that tyrant? True enough, in the current American climate I find myself taxed to keep social issues out of my poems.
Poetry keeps asking me to concentrate on epic issues, uniformly awful: Syria, arrogance in high places, unspeakable child abuse, nuclear menace. But lately that poetry keeps getting called back to my late neighbors, Tink and Polly Hood, both dead in their mid-nineties in 2018. Two old-fashioned country-folk, they had foibles like us all, but they literally cultivated their own garden and remained decent, humble, good-hearted. In contemporary America, these are rare and dear qualities. More than ever, they are worth celebrating. As I seek to do so—in anticipation of a double memorial where I’ll recite—I keep getting nagged at by those epic issues. As the archaic English idiom has it, I find myself betwixt and between.
Part of me wants to retreat into the sort of private world the Hoods forged. But what, then, of Trumpian bluster about the Mueller investigation, his attacks on press freedom, his contempt for the judiciary, his unconscionable shutting down of government? Do we throw up our hands and become fatalists about such terrible matters? I certainly haven’t: I will do anything within my small power to oust the ignorant bully as soon as possible. I’m just confused about what poetry has to do with it all.
What I’ll claim in the end is that this vacillation between retreat and social engagement, this worry over the objectives of art, is at the heart of the capacity to dream, because the alternative—a rigid attachment to what John Keats called “fixities and definites,” supreme enemies of artistic and even political freedom—results in the extinction of poetic “dream” as I understand it.
Perhaps Nikki Giovanni is right, though in a way she might not want to own: our unwillingness to submit our freedom to ideology, and to close our minds to alternative points of view, may itself be a “political” act. Our service may be to keep some minds open to novelty, no matter how strenuously the true believers want us to close them. That is how we will remain what Ms. Giovanni calls “outsiders.”
Our doubts about poetry, moreover, are as old as . . . poetry. Consider this excerpt from Robert Frost’s “Pan with Us,” whose protagonist frets that the change from one kind of world to another may defeat him as an artist:
Times were changed from what they were:
[His] pipes kept less of power to stir
The fruited bough of the juniper
And the fragile bluets clustered there
Than the merest aimless breath of air.
They were pipes of pagan mirth,
And the world had found new terms of worth.
He laid him down on the sun-burned earth.
Play? Play?—What should he play?
Who knows, I answer. Frost’s Pan is with us: like us, he will simply have to forge ahead on faith. That’s really the only means for us poets to grapple with our high anxieties, not only about art but also about our world—which is a vexed one.
Sydney Lea is the author of twenty-four books: a novel, five volumes of personal essays, three of critical essays, and fifteen poetry collections, including the forthcoming What Shines (Four Way Books, 2024). A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the Poets’ Prize, he is founding editor of New England Review. He served as Vermont’s poet laureate from 2011 to 2015, and in 2021, he received the state’s most prestigious arts distinction: the Governor’s Award for Excellence. (updated 4/2023)