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Merwin on Political Poetry

[From "The Name the Wrong." Excerpted from Nation, Feb. 24, 1962.]

It is possible for a poet to assume his gift of articulation as a responsibility not only to the fates but to his neighbors, and to feel himself obligated to try to speak for those who are in circumstances resembling his own, but who are less capable of bearing witness to them. There are many kinds of dangers involved in any such view of what he owes himself and his voice. There is, for instance, the danger that his gift itself, necessarily one of the genuinely private and integral things he lives for, may be deformed into a mere loudspeaker, losing the singularity which made it irreplaceable, the candor which made it unreachable and unpredictable. Most poets whom I have in mind would have considered this the prime danger. But the other risks have all claimed their victims. Where injustice prevails (and where does it not?) a poet endowed with the form of conscience I am speaking about has no choice but to name the wrong as truthfully as he can, and to try to indicate the claims of justice in terms of the victims he lives among. The better he does these things the more he may have to pay for doing them. He may lose his financial security, if he has any. Or his health, his comfort, the presence of those he loves, his liberty. Or his life, of course. Worst, he may lose, in the process, the faith which led him to the decision, and then have to suffer for the decision just the same.

Put at its simplest, and with its implications laid out all plain and neat, the decision to speak as clearly and truthfully and fully as possible for the other human beings a poet finds himself among is a challenge to obscurantism, silence, and extinction. And the author of such a decision, I imagine, accepts the inevitability of failure as he accepts the inevitability of death. He finds a sufficient triumph in the decision itself, in its deliberate defiance, in the effort which it makes possible, the risks it impels him to run, and in any clarity which it helps him to create out of the murk and chaos of experience. In the long run his testimony will be partial at best. But its limits will have been those of his condition itself, rooted, as that is, in death; he will have recognized the enemy. He will not have been another priest of ornaments. He will have been contending against that which restricted his use and his virtue.

From Regions of Memory: Uncollected Prose, 1949-1982. Ed. Cary Nelson and Ed Folsome. Copyright 1987 by W.S. Merwin.

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