Should the poet ‘take positions?’ We say, invariably not, for partisanship always implies progress or improvement and such a position can never be timeless—since improvements always involve present problems. You don’t fix a leak in the roof with philosophy, symbolism, or beauty, and to write a poem out of some political position is just like assuming this.
The other problem with partisan behavior is that it forces us to adhere to a laundry list of associations with whatever we happen to support. For instance, if you support this good, it inevitably means you support, through a network of connections, that evil–and eventually this pins you down into a position fraught with embarrassment, and to be intellectually embarrassed is the worse thing that can happen to a thinker or an artist; it mars the artist’s contemplative solitude, it stalks with social frenzy the serenity the poet needs. The poet is naturally irritable, because he is more sensitive than others; but to be defensive in the face of social embarrassment undermines the irritable poet’s inspiration and takes the naturally private poet wholly out of himself.
Do not, then, stoop to politics if you wish to make art. Do not be political. Politics will not fix the leak or write the poem—it will hinder fixing the roof and writing the poem, because whatever aims to triumph in the realm of advice (the default rhetorical purpose of political discourse) hinders the artist (who is, if art is properly understood, not an advice-giver).
You must never attempt to triumph; the muse will have nothing to do with the artist who makes an attempt to win her. The muse must already be yours.
The artist must be victorious before the game even begins; the great artist sees the game entirely before it starts; the poetic work is simply copying out the pre-seen result. There must be no struggle, no harangue, no attempt to convince, no argument—for then the artist will be no artist at all, but a mere Emerson, a mere sermonizer. The art must flash upon the consciousness like a piece of music, the argument hidden in the folds of the exquisite notes.
If the argument is key, leave it for a sermon—as I am doing now.
Oh, and even better than the sermon is the dialogue. Allow comments on your blog.
Do not be like Poetry’s Blog Harriet or the blogger Ron Silliman.