Poet and doctor Fady Joudah's essay "The Name of the Place," published in the Poets Against the War Newsletter (November 2006), explores and meditates on the role of the poet in a situation of genocidal conflict. A member of Doctor Without Borders, Joudah, a Palestinian-American, has served in Darfur (the unnamed "name" of the place), and clearly has a tempered view of poetry's power to make social change. In such scenarios, and with such an oblique relationship to a place, I imagine I might feel similiarly:
Much in today's poetry straps itself to the socio-psychologic, inward turning, "I" in privation, under democratic excess. Paradoxically, this heterogeneity, this balkanization of the "I," does not safeguard against homogeneity necessarily. It often slips into a voice box of empire. The self as nation. Aesthetic as talk show screen. A jazzy sketch of sovereignty. Commodity and clone. Shiftless pronoun. A way of life.
True, there's never been a poet who could affect the political climate, or we would have left art to enter history, the mother of all propaganda. Art history, for example, qualifies as such on occasion. A canon firing east or west of the pen, in the name of the place. To write the political is not necessarily to proselytize or to write history. But not to consider the political brings poetry down to aloofness, a pretension of higher morality. The political in poetry today is not faint as much as it is deflected. This repelled presence is often the writer's apprehensive, indoctrinated stance against the "use" of art, opting instead for the subjective as aesthetic, for hermetic humility. And dialogue stagnates into automated, knee-jerk algorithms.
It is not only a matter of how much, but also how our art is a possession of empire. And how is freedom of speech, in American poetry, manipulated under the rule of art, let alone the rule of democratic hegemony? Poetry is a product of its place, of the speech of that place. So what is the name of the place? Is it the global village, an evolutionary step from Marlowe's (Conrad's) childhood love of maps, or is it the ostrich head of the "I," neither, a combination thereof, with or without other intermediate choices on the wild swing of the pendulum?
Yet surely Joudah's translation of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, in the recent book, The Butterfly's Burden, provides a fascinating example of how a poet can play a critical role in narrating the life of a nation. Rather, Joudah seems particularly vexed by what it means to be a poet in empire, and perhaps of empire--what can be written to unwrite the epic poems of war, of imperial adventure, of genocide?