What I mean ~ theatre notes

Monday, January 01, 2007

What I mean

You know, I get tired of sniping over the bows. On Planet Alison it seems a necessary evil, silence being a slow, deadly acid, but in all the shadowboxing it's easy to lose the point. After all, how is it possible to take art seriously in a world where human life is among the cheapest of all commodities, where the planet itself is scored and damaged by our greed? Why should it matter?

As the New Year struggles in its swaddling bands, blessed by a range of evil fairies, I turn to Muriel Rukeyser's 1949 book The Life of Poetry. Rukeyser is one of the great American poets of the past century, as necessary as Whitman, but her courageous and luminous poems are puzzlingly underrated. Her reputation suffered badly under McCarthy, as she was a communist who travelled to Spain to fight Franco and, later, a committed human rights activist; and perhaps it didn't help that she was a woman.

The Life of Poetry is a collection of Rukeyser's lectures, and worth reading in full, especially in dark times. Today, this quote caught my eye. The war she refers to is World War II, but her words often have an uncomfortable way of resonating in the present; and of course, although she speaks of poetry, she could as well be speaking of any of the human arts.

During the war, we felt the silence of the policy of the governments of English-speaking countries. That policy was to win the war first, and work out the meanings afterwards. The result was, of course, that the meanings were lost. You cannot put these things off.

The putting-off of meaning has already been reflected in the fashionable writing of the last years. Our most popular novels and poems have been works of easy mysticism or easy wit, with very little in between. One entire range is represented, for us, in the literature of aversion. There has been much silence.

The silence of fear. Of the impoverished imagination, which avoids, and makes a twittering, and is still.

Communication comes, to make this place fertile, to make it possible to meet the world with all the resources we have, the fund of faith, the generous instruments of imagination and knowledge.

Poetry may be seen as one sum of such equipment, as an image of the kind of fullness that can best meet the evening, the hostile imagination - which restricts, denies and proclaims death - and the inner clouds which mask our fears.

Or, as Rilke said: "You must change your life".

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