Poetry and Social Injustice: An unpublished essay by Huck Gutman originally
submitted to The Statesman, Kolkata, India
The following is a condensed
version of a talk to be presented by Huck Gutman, Fulbright Associate Professor
at Calcutta University, at the International Seminar on “Identity,
Relevance, Text: Reviewing English Studies” at Calcutta University
on February 8, 2001. Dr. Gutman is Professor of English at the University
of Vermont, USA.
of the Modern Lyric Poet"
The lyric poem is the most personal and private
of the literary genres. Yet in our century many lyric poems are social
in nature, recording the consequences for individuals of institutional injustice
and brutality. Such poems are called ‘poems of witness.’
Their central purpose is to testify to the catastrophic consequences which
result from choices which governments and state institutions make, often
without thought of those consequences. Poems of witness testify to
the actual – not the imagined – results of war, imprisonment,
forced exile, concentration camps, political repression, torture, forced
labor, racial or religious repression.
The credo of those poets who respond to the need
to witness to the suffering they have undergone, and the suffering of their
contemporaries and colleagues, might be this short poem by Bertholt Brecht:
But the lyric poet does not willingly record
the ruin of society. Most lyric poets want to live a private life:
they want to write about the twists and turns, the ecstasies and depressions,
the savage needs and wonderful satisfactions, of their emotional life.
Love and passion, anger and loss, joy and despair: these are the realm in
which the lyric poet works. But the poet’s predicament is that
there are times when the world – the social world in which we all live
– impinges on the poet. Society has its claims, not merely on
individuals, but also on art. These claims are not merely the demands
of tyrants or state authorities who say to the artist, ‘do this or
do that, write this way or that way.’ There are other social
demands: those who suffer indignity and injustice, especially at the hands
of the society in which they live, have a right to be heard, and to ask the
poet to forego his or her private vocation in order to record the sufferings
of victims of social wrongdoing and oppression. (Often poets, open
to the world and rebellious against its injustices, are themselves the victims
of this social oppression.) Poets need to testify to that suffering
and record it so that others – those who are ignorant of or blind to
the suffering, those future generations who might otherwise not comprehend
the suffering of the past – can see just how deep was the tide of human
suffering, and how many perished in its flooding waters. Walt Whitman’s
description of the poet’s role, written in America in 1855, is still
relevant today: “Through me many long dumb voices,” he wrote,
“voices of interminable generations of slaves…voices of the
diseased and despairing…voices…of the rights of them the others
are down upon…”
This, then is all. It’s not enough, I know.
At least I’m still alive, as you may see.
I’m like the man who took a brick to show
How beautiful his house used once to be.
There is a wonderful poem about the predicament
of the modern lyric poet by Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize-winner from Northern
Ireland. Entitled “Summer 1969,” it tells of the poet’s
vacation in Madrid at a time when a “mob” of Protestants attacked
Catholics in Belfast while the police looked on without intervening.
After a night of drinking, the poet’s companions
urge him to take an active role in the political conflict being played out
in his homeland. “‘Go back,’ one said, ‘try
to touch the people.’/ Another conjured Lorca from his hill./We sat
through death-counts and bullfight reports/ On the television.”
But Heaney ‘retreats’ from
the heat of both the season and the political situation. Ironically,
his retreat is to the Prado Museum, where he stands before Francisco Goya’s
famous painting of the execution of political prisoners on the third of May.
He sees both violence and Goya’s direct, anguished, angry response
to it, moving on to more paintings and etchings of “nightmares…dark
cyclones,” of “Saturn jeweled in the blood of his own children,”
of Chaos raping the world.
The final stanza of the poem is a stunning rebuke
to the poet, reminding him that private lyricism is not sufficient in world
of injustice and violence. Summarizing the strength of Goya’s
art, is to my mind one of the most striking passages in twentieth-century
He painted with his fists and elbows, flourished
The stained cape of his heart as history charged.
The Russian poet Boris Pasternak – also,
like Heaney, a Nobel Prize-winner – faced the same predicament
in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the era of Stalinism.
In his lyric “Hamlet,” a poem read at his funeral, Pasternak
speaks as both Hamlet and as the actor who will play Hamlet. Neither
wants to go on stage in this production: “I love your preordained design/And
am ready to play this role./ But the play being acted is not mine.”
Like Heaney, Pasternak would prefer not to respond to the unrelenting demands
of history. But for Pasternak there was no Madrid, no getting away,
not even a retreat to the art of the Prado:
But the order of the acts is planned,
The end of the road already revealed.
Alone among the Pharisees I stand.
Life is not a stroll across a field.
If the poet’s predicament is that he must
respond to the dangerous assault of history when he would rather visit museums
and drink wine, the poet’s problem is that even if he does respond,
it is not often the case that people listen to what he has to say. The dificulty
of getting people to pay attention to injustice, pain, evil, and slaughter
is the subject of the Polish post-modern poet Zbigniew Herbert’s, “Mr.
Cogito Reads the Newspaper.” Herbert uses an exceptionally flat,
direct language, distrusting rhetoric because it has been so casually and
cruelly twisted by politicians: there is only one trope, a simile, in the
entire poem, which is so direct that even the gestural force of punctuation
is abandoned. The protagonist, as in many of Herbert’s poems, is Mr.
Cogito, a combination of the thinking man and the unconsciously average modern
citizen. Herbert, the most relentlessly ironic poet of our times, seldom
slides into the corrosive anger of satire, reflecting his belief that only
a careful, measured rationality can help we human beings survive the irrational
catastrophes of the modern world.
Cogito Reads the Newspaper
Is there a way to break through numbers and into
compassion? In the nineteenth century, there was a shared belief –
more widely shared among women readers and writers than men – in the
power of sentiment. In Walt Whitman’s “Come Up from the
Fields, Father,” a family in the American Middle West receives a letter
informing them that their son has been wounded in the bloody American Civil
War. Whitman himself actually worked in military hospitals throughout
that war, often writing letters like the one received in this poem.
He felt, deeply, the pain of war and the poignancy of its brutality.
Here is a brief excerpt from his diary of the war years:
On the first page
a report of the killing of 120 soldiers
the war lasted a long time
you could get used to it
the news of a sensational crime
with a portrait of the murderer
the eye of Mr Cogito
over the soldiers’ hecatomb
to plunge with delight
into the description of everyday horror
a thirty-year-old farm labourer
under the stress of nervous depression
killed his wife
and two small children
it is described with precision
the course of the murder
the position of the bodies
and other details
for 120 dead
you search on a map in vain
too great a distance
covers them like a jungle
they don’t speak to the imagination
there are too many of them
the numeral zero at the end
changes them into an abstraction
a subject for meditation:
the arithmetic of compassion
The poem is so direct it needs no explanation. (I have edited it in the
interest of space, so that it is one-third its original length.)
The results of the late battle are exhibited
everywhere about here in thousands of cases (hundreds die every day,) in
the camp, brigade, and division hospitals.. . . No cots, seldom even a mattress.
It is pretty cold. The ground is frozen hard, and there is occasional
snow. I go around from one case to another. I do not see that
I do much good to these wounded and dying; but I cannot leave them.
Once in a while some youngster holds on to me convulsively, and I do what
I can for him; at any rate, stop with him and sit near him for hours, if
he wishes it.
Come Up from the Fields,
Come up from the
fields father, here’s a letter from our Pete,
And come to the front door mother, here’s a letter from thy dear son.
Open the envelope quickly,
O this is not our son’s writing, yet his name is sign’d,
O a strange hand writes for our dear son, O stricken mother’s soul!
All swims before here eyes, flashes with black, she catches the main words
Sentences broken, gunshot wound in the breast, cavalry skirmish, taken to
At present low, but will soon be better.
Grieve not so, dear mother, (the just-grown daughter speaks through her sobs,
The little sisters huddle around speechless and dismay’d,)
See, dearest mother, the letter says Pete will soon be better.
Alas poor boy, he will never be better, (nor may-be needs to be better, that
and simple soul,)
While they stand at home at the door he is dead already,
The only son is dead.
But the mother needs to be better,
She with thin form presently drest in black,
By day her meals untouch’d, then at night fitfully sleeping,
In the midnight waking, weeping, longing with one deep longing.
O that she might withdraw, unnoticed, silent from life escape and withdraw,
To follow, to seek, to be with her dear dead son.
Poets of witness not only let us feel those things
we think we know but do not actually confront in our own lives, they also
tell us about things we do not know, things which we are as reluctant to
hear as we are to hear about the deaths by military violence about which
Herbert and Whitman wrote. The African-American poet Etheridge Knight
wrote “The Idea of Ancestry” in 1968, while in prison.
This poem addresses a terrible truth about the United States:
The U.S.A. has the largest prison population in the world, the great majority
of which is incarcerated African-Americans and Latinos. Thus, Knight
writes not merely about the sufferings of one man: he witnesses to the actual
consequences of imprisonment, the rupture between the convict and his former
and future world.
The poem is in two parts. The first emphasizes
family, its community and its continuity. Even the “empty space”
caused by his uncle’s disappearance does not rupture the bonds of family:
in the poet’s grandmother’s Bible, which lists “everybody’s
birth dates (and death dates) in it . . . . there is no place . . . for ‘whereabouts
In the second part, the poet feels the drives,
as with a salmon ready to spawn, to return to his roots and his family.
He recalls how the previous year he went back home when he felt the “electric
messages, galvanizing my genes” of his birthplace. He recounts
how he returned home, despite his drug habit; how he “almost kicked”
the habit “with the kinfolks;” how he felt a sense of connectedness
and a sense of peace. “I was almost contented/ I had almost caught
up with me.” But that ‘almost’ is catastrophic, for
he relates, “I had a ball till the caps[ules] ran out and my habit
came down.” Needing a fix of junk, he broke into a doctor’s
to get the drugs he needed. Sometime later, he was arrested and sentenced
to prison. The final stanza opens with an image of the prison wall
which locks him in and acts as a dam to his need to swim back to his family,
his communjity. Here is the powerful, tragic ending to “The Idea
of Ancestry,” with the poet’s recognition that in a prison cell
there is only blockage, exclusion from history, and an unspannable emptiness.
This yr there
is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when
the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunk
and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them.
they are all of me, I am me, they are three, and I have no sons
to float in the space between.
Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem” is one of the
great poems of the twentieth century. Akhmatova was an ‘enemy
of the state’ during the Stalin regime, but because she was Russia’s
most beloved poet, even Stalin did not dare to silence her directly.
Instead, he imprisoned her son, and thereby held her hostage. “Reqiuem”
begins with a prose poem in which Akhmatova recounts her visits to the prison
to try to see her son, at the same time clarifying why the poet must, at
times, renounce the private vision and speak as a witness to the ravages
Here, in conclusion, is one of the poems from
“Requiem.” This is the ninth poem in the sequence, the
section just before the climactic poem which unhappily depends too much on
context to be cited apart from the rest of the poem. In section nine,
the magnitude of the poet’s suffering leads her to the brink of madness,
as well as to total defeat. Her life is owned, controlled, by the state,
by circumstance, by history.
In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen
months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody
in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips
blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before.
Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and
asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
of a Preface
“Can you describe this?”
And I said: “I can.”
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had
once been her face.
(Yet at this point you realize, as I do, as Akhmatova
did, that in the strange alchemy of the imagination even the unendurable
can give rise to a strange beauty, the beauty we call art. This is
not to smuggle in some sort of literary estheticism here, not to modulate
through sleight-of-hand from the tragic circumstances of the world to the
redeeming powers of art. Poems of witness tell us that, as the novelist
Saul Bellow once wrote, “suffering is merely terrible.”
They tell us that we must pay attention to suffering, and not merely escape
into the Prado of art and the imagination, as Heaney attempted to do.
But at the same time we must never forget that
even total catastrophic defeat, as Akhamtova chronicles here, can turn into
a victory of the human spirit. Loss may be transformed into presence
in the poem. The voiceless may receive a voice, thereby enabling readers
to recognize human suffering rather than ignore it. The poem can sustain
us by bringing us close to reality, painful as that reality may be.
The beauty of such a lyric poem, written under the compulsion of social injustice,
is that it testifies to the human spirit which strives to witness, and to
IX Already madness lifts its wing
Already madness lifts its wing
to cover half my soul.
That taste of opiate wine!
Lure of the dark valley!
Now everything is clear.
I admit my defeat. The tongue
of my ravings in my year
is the tongue of a stranger.
No use to fall down on my knees
and beg for mercy’s sake.
Nothing I counted mine, out of my life,
is mine to take:
not my son’s terrible eyes
not the elaborate stone flower
of grief, not the day of the storm.
not the trial of the visiting hour,
not the dear coolness of his hands,
not the lime trees’ agitated shade,
not the thin cricket-sound
of consolation’s parting word.