The Art of Poetry: To Turn Our Grief to Music

 Andrew Mossin on Rachel Tzvia Back

“Poetry makes nothing happen.” W.H. Auden’s oft-quoted line appears in his 1940 poem, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” which includes the less quoted language that follows:

…it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Auden’s point is that poetry survives in its displacement from those in power, those “executives” who would misappropriate poetry’s genuine purpose and provide false understandings of the world.  “It survives,” Auden would have us believe, precisely because it has the capacity to remind us of what is essential, vital, in our daily, lived cultural and political lives, and as the poem’s last line has it, to “teach a free man to praise.”

In her fifth full-length collection, What Use Is Poetry, The Poet Is Asking, Israeli poet Rachel Tzvia Back situates her own thinking in a time of ongoing political violence in both in her own country and across the globe in ways that confirm Auden’s position while also complicating how poetry might make things happen.  Back’s question might seem a strange one to ask at a time when poetry’s cultural capital has long since been diminished.  There’s no doubt that poetry books continue to be published in great abundance each year by independent, university and major trade presses and, judging by the pages of Poets & Writers, the service magazine for creative writers in the U.S., that there are an abundance of outlets where poets can publish their work. At the same time, poetry’s importance to the culture-at-large is arguably minimal.

So, to ask the question, “What use is poetry?” is also to ask, “Who’s the audience for this question?”  Put another way, who are the stakeholders in this conversation and what do they want to understand about poetry’s role in the contemporary political, social, and ethical landscapes that contemporary poetry transects? Part of the answer to the question Back poses lies in the book’s subtitle, “the poet is asking.”  Not a poet, but the poet. The rhetorical impetus, then, is a provocation of the poet’s role in working out the conditions of a response adequate to both the communal and individual contexts of poetry as the oldest of the literary arts. In the opening section of the book’s title poem, Back presents an initial response to the problem:

What use is poetry, the poet is asking
of the evening news
where the experts

of military affairs have been assembled,
the political analysts and politicians,
amassed, ex-generals

of measured pace and phrase all
called to the ideological front…

This language of official newspeak quickly delivers us to this representation of war’s actual violence that closes the opening section:

There were troops moving south
under rocket-lacerated skies, arced anger
and armoured vehicles fully unarmed by fire,

there were boys pulling other boys from
the wreckage and flames, from the tunnels or into tunnels
beneath it all, an underworld amazed

while whole buildings collapsed from above,
bombed complete to the ground, perfect aim at
entire worlds behind walls, all destroyed, until

the buried alive and the buried dead the burned and the
broken are all one in the hearts darkest undertow so
what use is poetry, the poet
wants to know.

Back identifies the young soldiers as “boys,” and she moves us from a top-down perspective to envision war as a series of actions in which “the buried alive and the buried dead” have no distinguishable differences.  If the language has a harsh beauty to it, like that of Auden’s “Homage,” it also recollects the often unstated realities of war: that it kills young boys, men and girls, women who have mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers for whom the devastations of war are likewise consequential and ongoing. The scene narrated here may fit any number of military actions occurring in any number of geographic locales, but the premise undergirding Back’s response is to engage the human dimension of war, to show us what it does to bodies and lives. The book’s five sections charts these realities of war in different ways.  It is notably a book of mothers and sons and lost children damaged irrevocably by the continuous wars central to the Israeli and Palestinian existence.  In a poem dedicated to Sahir Abue Namous and Daniel Tragerman, two young boys, one Palestinian and the other Israeli, killed in the Gaza war, Back writes:

In the photo, he is all little boy pride standing tall
beside the colourful tower he’s built, slender and so

In the photo, bundled in small denim coat, he
sits by the sea, he is smiling, it must be a
first evening breeze.

It was mortar fire.  It was a missile.
It was or it wasn’t pre-emptive, was or wasn’t

One can read these stanzas with no knowledge or particular interest in the conflict that is being represented. By including the names of the boys killed at the end of this poem, however, Back does two things. First, she makes us inquire into the citizenship identities of these children, identities that are and aren’t materially important; second, she asks us to look as she is looking at two boys, innocents, brought together in military death.  Back’s inquiry forces these activities of public empathy and political clarity into a public conversation in a way that her poetry implicitly indicates is one of the essential “uses” of poetry now.

In “Song of the Younger Brother,” Back expands further the political dimension of this work in a poem that relates the circumstances of Aylan and Ghalib Kurdi, two Syrian children drowned in their family’s attempt to seek asylum in Greece after having fled to Turkey.  The photograph of Aylan’s body washed up on the Turkish shore of Bodrum went viral on social media and renewed global attention to the plight of thousands of children who lost their lives as they sought to find safe haven in European and Western countries. In Back’s rendering, the two brothers are

Sequestered in
forever  now

held   as lost
in these empty

arms   impossible

Back’s language risks sentimentalizing the deaths of Aylan and Ghali. However, Back resists sentimentalism by drawing into the poem’s representational frame the recognition that, if the poem’s charge is to respond to such events, it must re-locate them in public language and lay bare the emotional context of these losses.  In an email with the author, Back commented that she “felt heart-broken that the big brother’s death went unnoticed because there was no photo” of Ghalib in the media.  The need to focus on both, to have the reader attend as well to both children, only one of whom received extensive notice in the press, reveals another element of Back’s work  Here, she asks her readers to move back and forth between the visible and unseen formations of public understanding and, in so doing, Back relocates attention to the “impossible song” that may not be able to affect the outcomes of events such as these but can attest to both their universalism and timelessness as acts of war.

In a World Literature Today essay, “‘A Species of Magic’: The Role of Poetry in Protest and Truth-Telling,” Back describes what she refers to as a “poetic holy trinity,” one composed of the following elements: “(1) the drive toward accuracy and truth-telling; (2) the personal accountability of the poetic, and (3) the magic of intertwined meaning and music.” The poems of What Use Is Poetry bespeak the combined elements of this trinity, as Back interweaves deeply personal accounts of loss and grief with the socio-political dimension of the traumas of wartime. This wartime, Back reminds us, circulates continuously in the contemporary, whether viewed through social media, news reports or the incidental images of violence that populate our cultural ether.

Among the most moving poems included in this collection are those that address Back’s sister, Adina, who died from ovarian cancer in 2008.  These are, like other poems in What Use Is Poetry, elegiac in tone and drive forward the emotional truth of events that would otherwise foreclose understanding.  In “Untitled,” Back relates this grief as an address that will never be completed:

to speak of you who
are gone
as though you are gone

is to betray

first and everlasting

In “Untitled,” she asks, “And now in this darkness   how // will I carry you with me.” These lines provide readers, to be sure, another turn on the question of poetry’s use in the face of insurmountable and finally incommensurate loss.  Back’s answer relies perhaps most fully on the third criterion of her trinity: that the poem perform a magic that intertwines linguistic meaning and musicality.  Recalling Louis Zukofsky’s poetic credo from“A,”  “ Lower limit speech / Upper limit music,” Back here and elsewhere situates the poem in that integrative space of poetic language and melos (from the Greek, meaning song or melody).  In so doing, she maintains an objective clarity, while drawing on the longstanding power of poetry to re-instantiate awareness of our public world and our disparate places in it.

The collection’s final poem, “Like a Believer,” contains perhaps the fullest response to the question posed by the title and echoed throughout.  For all its political topicality and locality as a response to ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, Back’s deeper connection—and one that readers will either share or challenge—is that poetry is a form of religious faith, a vocation one is called to.  Here, the poet, self-described as a “poet of fallen faith,” offers up the ritual prayer of the observant Jew who begins each day with the words Modeh ani, which translates as “I give thanks.” In so doing, Back places the prayer in the feminine form of Modah ani and writes:

modah ani breath to my body restored

so compassionately—
and there as another

unbelieving believer
at prayer, she

puts one more poem
on the page.

Back would have us understand that the poetry of use is borne of necessity and faith. Whether one believes in poetry or not, whether one has faith in a divine being or not, Back’s response to the dislocations and violences of 21st century life is to insist upon the foundational context of poetic making when“the destruction of city after city, the thousands dead, millions displaced” surrounds us( email to author).  In the face of public indifference or apathy or numbness or all of the above, Back’s poetry pushes at the hard cultural creases of faith and faithlessness, speech and spectacle, language and silence. Poem after poem from What Use Is Poetry convinces us not so much that poetry has particular uses (it may indeed have only limited practical use as a rhetorical form), but that contemplating the question is itself an ethical and necessary choice.

“This // is the only poem / I want now / to write,”  Back tells her reader midway through this book.  Back’s response to the exigencies of poetic making echoes that of Samuel Beckett in The Unnamable, “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Every page of What Use is Poetry raises our “terrible grief to music,” reminding us that the stakes of poetry are simultaneously cosmological and spiritual, political and social.

Andrew Mossin is the author of five books of poetry, including The Epochal Body, The Veil, Exile’s Recital, Torture Papers, and Stanzas for the Preparation of Perception.His new book of poems, The Fire Cycle, is forthcoming in 2020 from Spuyten Duyvil Press.