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  • The Premonitory ShiverVol. 47, No. 3, Spring 1985
  • Maxine Kumin

Terrence des Pres, writing in a respected literary magazine, The New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, which has devoted its entire summer issue—over 200 pages—to the question of the role of the writer in the nuclear age, examines in particular the response of the poets to the possibility of what he calls nuclear wipe-out.

We have fallen from the Garden, and the Garden itself—nature conceived as an inviolate wilderness—is pocked with nuclear waste and toxic dumps, at the mercy of industry and Watt, all of it open to nuclear defilement. Generations come and go, but the earth abideth forever is something we need to feel, one of the foundations of poetry and humanness, and now we are not sure. That is the problem with nuclear threat, simply as threat; it under mines all certainty, and things once absolute are now contingent. To feel that one's private life was in the hands of God, or Fate, or even History, allowed the self a margin of transcendence, the dignity of personal life was part of a great if mysterious Order. But now our lives are in the hands of a few men in the Pentagon and the Kremlin, men who, having affirmed that they would destroy us to save us, have certified their madness-and yet their will determines our lives and our deaths. We are, then, quite literally enslaved, and assuming that this bothers poets no less than the rest of us, why do they so seldom speak of it?1

Is this a fair question? If so, is it answerable? Although I am one of two poets singled out in this article as coming to grips in some way with the reality of possible extinction of the species, I am not sure I want to be so noted. Part of me wants to resist the raising of the question on grounds that the poet is no better equipped to wrestle the demon of ultimate destruction than, say, the dentist or lawyer, the flight attendant or psychiatrist. Part of me wants to insist that the essence of poetry is contained in its lyric voice, that whatever else takes place in the world as long as we last, there will always be a place for the capsule poem of the lyric moment, for the personal cry from the heart.

But of course that is begging the question. Given the social nature of language, which is to communicate, given the impulse to write the poem, which is, in Auden's words, "a passive awe provoked by sacred beings or events," the poet cannot escape his obligation to bear witness to the times. [End Page 233] It is impossible to separate the life and the art. Wherever there is language, there too stands the poet, the ultimate observer, a little to one side of things, but there. Whether the subject is a diving beetle or a fire-bombing, the poet's function is to speak of the encounter.

I will try to explain what I mean by the poet's function. Over my desk I have a line copied out from Rilke's "Ninth Duino Elegy"—in translation, I hasten to add—a line that so impressed me that I excerpted from it for the title of a collection of poems. Speaking of the poet's role in society Rilke muses: "For are we here perhaps merely to say: house, bridge, fountain gate, jar, fruit tree, window-at most, pillar, tower? But to say them … to say them in such a way that even the things themselves never hoped to exist so intensely." This exhortation to the poet to name things—to say out their particularities as clearly as possible—seems to me to go to the heart of our "craft or sullen art." The poet's mission is to be authentic and specific, first of all, to evoke with an intensity that poetry, above all language by reason of its selection and comprehension, can evoke, the color, the clutch and hang, the shape of an event, an object, an emotion, a relationship. The poet trains...


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