‘Poetry makes nothing happen,’ said the poet W. H. Auden. How wrong he was.
My essays, On Art and War and Terror, now available in paperback, are dedicated to the proposition that art matters, ethically and politically, emotionally and intellectually – that poetry makes something happen after all. Not only does it make us feel, or feel differently, it makes us think, and think again. We go beyond ourselves, as a philosopher said, by penetrating deeper into the work.
The credo and manifesto of the book is the affirmation of another poet, Seamus Heaney, that ‘the imaginative transformation of human life is the means by which we can most truly grasp and comprehend it.’ Whatever is given, he writes in his own idiom, ‘can always be reimagined, however four-square/ Plank-thick, hull-stupid and out of its time/ It happens to be.’ The words come from his ruminations on what he calls the redress of poetry: the notion that poetry – art – can function as a kind of moral spirit level, an agent of equilibration, ‘an upright, resistant, and self-bracing entity within the general flux and flex’.
That is an inspiring notion. Walt Whitman proclaimed something similar:
Of these States the poet is the equable man,
Not in him but off from him things are grotesque, eccentric, fail
of their full returns,
Nothing out of its place is good, nothing in its place is bad,
He bestows on every object or quality its fit proportion, neither
more nor less,
He is the arbiter of the diverse, he is the key,
He is the equalizer of his age and land,
He supplies what wants supplying, he checks what wants checking,
For the great Idea, the idea of perfect and free individuals,
For that, the bard walks in advance, leader of leaders,
The attitude of him cheers up slaves and horrifies foreign despots.
The essays take seriously the idea of the artist as moralist – an unfashionable idea – or moral witness, in Avishai Margalit’s phrase, with a moral purpose and a sober hope. Hope for what? Hope that there is, or will be, an audience of sentient spectators, viewers, readers, absorbed in the work: a community, a moral community, for who it stands up and who will stand up for it. Art is the highest form of hope, as the painter Gerhard Richter has finely said.
The essays also take seriously Auden’s cautionary words: ‘The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts, is to makes us more aware of ourselves and the world around us. I do not know if such awareness makes us more moral or more efficient: I hope not. I think it makes us more human, and I am quite certain it makes us more difficult to deceive, which is why, perhaps, all totalitarian theories of the state … have deeply mistrusted the arts. They notice and say too much, and the neighbours start talking.’
Armed with art, in other words, we are more alert and less deceived. My essays seek to investigate these claims. They put the imagination to work in the service of political, historical and ethical inquiry, as I have tried to explain in an interview for the American publishers, Columbia University Press.
Poetry outbids prescription. ‘We work in the dark,’ wrote Henry James, ‘we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.’
Have a care, gentle reader. Beware the madness of art.