Arms and the poet

The political dimensions of warfare are rarely alluded to in [Aztec] poetry; instead, warfare is seen as an artistic act, and the warrior becomes a poet. There are, in fact, two ways to be reborn on earth: in poetry, and in warfare. It is in battle that nobles can achieve their true stature, and their greatest fame, by becoming “eagles and jaguars,” the names for orders of seasoned warriors:

Nobles and kings are sprouting as eagles, ripening as jaguars, in Mexico: Lord Ahuitzotl is singing arrows, singing shields.
Giver of life, let your flower not be gathered! …
You’ve adorned them in blaze flowers, shield flowers.

In these lines, as in many of the war poems, images of natural fertility and harmony are linked to the beauty of art, with shields adorning the warrior in the same way that poems adorn the poet. By this means, the battlefield itself, seemingly a place of death and destruction, is represented as a place of beauty, growth, and fertility. … Singers in the imperial period seem to have vied with each other to create ever more striking images to link beauty and terror…

– David Damrosch, “The Aesthetics of Conquest: Aztec Poetry Before and After Cortez,” Representations Vol. 0, No. 33

If history, as it comes through the historian, retains, analyzes, and connects significant events, in contrast, what poets insist on is the history of “unimportant” events. In place of historian’s “distance,” I want to experience the vulnerability of those participating in tragic events. In other words, Sappho rather than Homer as model. His sacred times, the time of myth, versus her time, which is the moment, forever irreversible. Beginning with Sappho’s insomnia, there’s a tradition of the poem which says “I exist” in the face of all abstractions and cosmos and history, a poem of a passionate desire for accuracy for the here and now in its miraculous presence. I am not talking about confession. The best poetry of this kind is conspicuous by the absence of ego. The most reliable “histories” are told by first-person pronouns who remain subordinate, even anonymous. History teaches humility. My own physical and spiritual discomfort is nothing in comparison to that of those being imprisoned and tortured tonight all over the world.

– Charles Simic, “Notes on Poetry and History”

I came out first as a political poet, even before The Dream of a Common Language, under the taboo against so-called political poetry in the US, which was comparable to the taboo against homosexuality. In other words, it wasn’t done. And this is, of course, the only country in the world where that has been true. Go to Latin America, to the Middle East, to Asia, to Africa, to Europe, and you find the political poet and a poetry that addresses public affairs and public discourse, conflict, oppression, and resistance. That poetry is seen as normal. And it is honored. …

I keep on not wanting to know what I know — Matthew Shepard, James Byrd Jr., the schoolyard massacres. There keep being things I absolutely don’t want to know, and must know — and we as a society must know. I explore the whole idea in a poem in Midnight Salvage called “Camino Real,” while driving this road to Los Angeles, thinking about [accounts of] abuses that I had been reading by people who actually went back to where they had their human rights violated. And how that coexists in the poem with what is for me a journey of happiness. …

Poetry can add its grain to an accumulation of consciousness against the idea that there is no alternative — that we’re now just in the great flow of capitalism and it can never be any different — [that] this is human destiny, this is human nature. A poem can add its grain to all the other grains and that is, I think, a rather important thing to do. …

I think my work comes out of both an intense desire for connection and what it means to feel isolated. There’s always going to be a kind of tidal movement back and forth between the two. Art and literature have given so many people the relief of feeling connected — pulled us out of isolation. It has let us know that somebody else breathed and dreamed and had sex and loved and raged and knew loneliness the way we do. …

One of the things I have to say about this demon of the personal — and I have to take responsibility for my part in helping create this demon, as part of a women’s movement in which we celebrated personal experience and personal feelings — is that it has become a horribly commoditized version of humanity. It’s almost as though the personal life has been taken hostage in some way, and I’m shying away more and more from anything that would contribute to that.

– Adrienne Rich, 1999 interview with Michael Klein

The larva of the tortoise beetle has the neat habit of collecting its droppings and exfoliated skin into a little packet that it carries over its back when it is out in the open. If it were not for this fecal shield, it would lie naked before its enemies.

– Stanley Kunitz, “Three Small Parables for My Poet Friends” (#2)

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