Galway Kinnell: Nuclear Threat and Poetry
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“When this bitter knowledge enters our poetry fully, it will change its character. One will hear it in the voice of the poem, and it will be so pervasive in the mood of the poem that it will be as if it is the paper on which the poem is written. Should that happen, then even the most private poem about the most private joy or happiness will not be a private poem, but will actually address this issue.”
In this 1984 audio recording from the PEN America Archives, former PEN America President and poet Galway Kinnell discusses the relationship between nuclear threat and the craft of contemporary poetry.
I just want to say a few words about the response of poetry to what Bob has called the nuclear end. Alas, it has been rather limited. This is because, I think, that poets, just like everybody else, have suppressed thoughts about this subject, and no wonder, because it is a subject that, the more you think about it, the more hopeless you become. But I think knowledge, of course, not only in the society but also among poets, knowledge of this prospect is sinking in. It might be thought of as bitter knowledge, the consequence of a second fall which occurred at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And, similar to the knowledge that the individual dies, which Adam and Eve acquired in the first fall, I think that when this does happen, when this bitter knowledge enters our poetry fully, it will change its character. One will hear it in the voice of the poem, and it will be so pervasive in the mood of the poem it will be as if it is the paper on which the poem was written. Should that happen, then even the most private poem about the most private joy or happiness will not be a private poem but will actually address this issue.
I think that, technically speaking, poetry at that point will change too. For one thing, the “du-dum, du-dum, du-dum” of conventional poetry will seem like wishful thinking, like a desire to impose an order that has disappeared. The box of the conventional stanza in set rhyme will not hold this grotesquely shaped understanding well. And the same is true for free verse, that the Whitmanian or Whitmanesque cadences of free verse will seem too self-satisfied and complacent. The common speech of contemporary free verse will not be able to raise this already very prosaic subject into poetry, and the poem will look just like chopped up prose. And in fact, the sloppiness of contemporary free verse probably will cause free verse to collapse just under the weight of this heavy understanding.
The stanzas of a formal verse, perhaps, seem like gardens in which one might seek escape, under the presence of the bomb. Free verse too is a victim of the bomb, a victim already because young poets ask, “Why should I make my poem to last forever, to last until the end of time, when that may be in a generation or two?” That’s a very good question. I don’t know if one should write about the subject in poetry. In fact, I think with regard to poetry, it shouldn’t be used. But I do believe it would be humiliating for anybody who lived by the word to acquiesce in the prospect of a nuclear end in silence, and therefore I believe we will see poetry take up this question very much in the future. It’s even possible that poetry might shed some light on it, if it addresses the question directly. Such as, “What has gone wrong inside the human being that the human being now wishes to be, appears to be, on the verge of suicide?” Surely whatever it is in the general psyche of the species also is visible in the psyche of the individual.
Also, it may be possible to see, to look into that common assumption that’s made, which is that everything is the same, our ways of behaving are the same, our ways of thinking are the same, what has happened is that suddenly a bomb has entered upon the scene as though it were snatched from heaven by a demigod. The Promethean fallacy, I call it. And it might be possible that poetry could pursue the Faustian notion that the human race in the west has pursued power through knowledge in exchange for the future.
As far as form goes, form in poetry is not rhyme and meter. That’s one aspect of form, perhaps the least of it. Form is the power to make that vehicle by which the understanding of a poem will be carried forward, and in that sense free verse may be as formal as any formal verse of the past. Demoralized as it is now, I think free verse will become much more formal once this subject is no longer suppressed, which is the source of the demoralization, and faced. Now one rushes into a bookstore and seizes a literary magazine off the shelf, opens it up and reads a poem, call it which calls for more life, for the poem is so badly written we feel it rotting in your hands as you read it. Form is the rug that the poem that lacks it pulls out from under the future. Form expresses both hope and courage, and in that sense it’s not decorative but basic.