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On "the press of the real"

Terence de Pres, 1988

The press of the real is problematic for all of us but especially for poets because their art requires attention to humanity’s sad still music that now, amid the awful nonstop roar of things, is hard to make out. There is the need for a diction that won’t be outflanked by events, and the further need to support, through the stamina of language, the trials of spirit in adversity – aq struggle that is often appalling, painful merely to observe. Among poets alert to these conditions, Charles Simic is exactly on target in his "Notes on Poetry and History" written in 1984 [from The Uncertain Certainty (Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1985), 124-125]:

If not for the invention of photography and motion pictures, one could perhaps still think of history in the manner of nineteenth-century painting and Soviet Revolutionary posters. There you meet the idealized masses and their heroic leaders leading them with chests bared and sleeves rolled up. They are marching with radiant faces and flags unfurled through the carnage of the battlefield. The dying young man in the arms of his steadfast comrades has the half-veiled gaze of the visionary. We know that he has glimpsed the future of humanity, and that it looks good. Unfortunately for all concerned, people started taking pictures. I remember, for example, a black-and-white photograph of a small child running toward the camera on a street of collapsing buildings in a city being fire-bombed. The smoke and the flames are about to overtake her. She’s wearing a party dress, perhaps a birthday party dress. One is also told that it is not known where and when the picture had been taken.

With a shift in the means of representation, a radical change occurs in the way the world is known. Epic fantasy gives way to stark realism. And now politics is everywhere and hopeless. The photo of the luckless girl is an image of ubiquitous suffering; and in the gaze of the dying hero we behold the end of faith in the future. The myth of Progress has run its course and failed; now no political agendas, East or West, can appeal to the old triumphalism. No glory is at some future date, or plan of greatest happiness to come, can dismiss the actualities of power taking its toll. The agony of third-world peoples is with us; terrorism is with us, death squads and torture; and an arms trade boldly supplying the whole of the world with weapons, that too is with us. None of it is going to go away tomorrow, and when this recognition arrives, as indeed it has, politics begins to be seen as less a means than as an end in itself – a condition, in fact, that the human spirit and therefore poetry must take into account.

From Terence de Pres, "Prolog" in Praises & Dispraises: Poetry and Politics, the 20th Century (New York: Viking, 1988) xv-xvi.

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