A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
Dawn broke Nov. 9th on a new global reality. Donald Trump, in spite of almost universal predictions to the contrary, will have his notoriously small hands on the red telephone. In the long shadow of that dawning realization a new cry for topical, relevant poetry rose up and continues. But, like Donald Trump himself, it’s entirely the creature of journalism’s hubristic presumption that it knows what’s real, what’s relevant, what’s topical.
Psychiatry’s advent in the 19th Century should have dethroned that presumption. But journalism is like quantum physics in its unwillingness to topple premises on which its mechanics depend, premises on which it daily persuades the world to depend, premises without which the world seems improbable. If, for example, quantum physics were to accept the idea of nonlocality, or what Albert Einstein called spooky action at a distance, his theory of relativity, upon which spacetime now depends, would fly out the window and we’d have to admit we don’t know how to define space. We would have to admit time is not linear, the speed of light may not be the speed limit—we’d have to admit much of what we claim to know is still unknown. We might have to admit that time, not space, is a better measure of boundaries.
To say that a poem overtly addressing today’s headlines is topical and relevant is to deafeningly claim too much. It’s now clear from a physics viewpoint that we can know only a small piece of reality and can’t extrapolate the whole from it. To say that poems about Donald Trump’s vulgarity or shady behavior are more relevant than poems about our relationship to trees or a string of amphorae dancing with the current at the bottom of the sea is a wholly journalistic convention, at best a tiny piece of reality pretending that there are no other realities. It’s not unlike claiming space has an edge simply because we find infinity inconvenient or troublesome to imagine. It’s not unlike saying bombast is superior to quietude when delivering a line.
To say that the newsroom of The New York Times knows better than the poet writing about trees or amphorae what’s real and relevant is an abject surrender to a fecklessly limiting notion of the cosmos, like physicists clinging to the Greek atomist idea that atoms must bump into each other to interact—locality—when we know that atoms can and do interact like identical twins at great distances—nonlocality or spooky action, in Einstein’s words.
We may indeed live in a cosmos of parallel universes in which each of us, for example, has a doppelganger. And that’s only one possible way to explain how the cosmos works. There are at least four or five other plausible explanations.
Why then should 19th Century telegraphic journalistic conventions dictate what we think is news, what we think is important? When Kitchener clashed with the Mahdi at Khartoum the Anglophone world was asked to believe it was the most important event of the time. It wasn’t. Inventors were changing the world. Mathematicians were preparing to reach out to the stars. Great Sufi and Zen and Hindu poems were being written. But the press was as intent on Kitchener and the Mahdi as we are now on Donald Trump. And if the poets of that period were to be relevant they had better address what had happened in Khartoum. Or at other moments they could address the charge of the Light Brigade or the calamity at Gallipoli.
In the aftermath of the genocidal World War I the press focused on Versailles and the mistakes that led to World War II—not that the press foresaw that those events would lead to World War II—but the press didn’t focus on Tristan Tzara and the birth of Dada or the dispersion of the Russia literati, Vladimir Nabokov among them. The press hardly thought they were relevant, just as so many editors and critics now think a poet writing about physics or the difficulty of defining the psyche is out to lunch or precious or elitist.
It is in fact our mundane and impoverished ideas of newsworthiness that’s elitist. It reeks of the snobbery of a club, and we know what Albert Camus thought of clubs and other self-serving, self-perpetuating institutions: that they existed more to exclude than embrace.
The press, in cahoots with the political class that our forefathers never wanted to exist, has defined the issues of our time out of a relative handful of received ideas. A better service would be to daily, if not hourly, update Gustave Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas. But on second thought that may well be what the press is unwittingly doing, because the press itself constitutes a dictionary of received ideas, many of which are as shady as the once au courant memes from which they emerged.
A press that bombastically purports to tell us all we need to know about this and that, a press that rates, lists and berates with a certain fanaticism can hardly be trusted to dictate the terms of relevance and currency: it’s too full of itself. A press that censors context and historicity for the sake of pithiness can hardly be entrusted with the task of defining importance—it’s too brazen, too lacking in respect for the unknown.
Copyright 2017 Djelloul Marbrook
Djelloul Marbrook was a reporter for The Providence Journal and an editor for the Elmira Star-Gazette, Baltimore Sun, Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel, The Washington Star, and Media News newspapers in northeast Ohio, and Paterson, New Jersey, and Passaic, New Jersey. His poems, essays, and short stories have appeared in a number of journals.
Photo: Djelloul Marbrook