You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
and the poppy-petalled metaphysics ?
and the rain repeatedly spattering
its words and drilling them full
of apertures and birds?'
I’ll tell you all the news.
From 'I'm explaining a few things' by Pablo Neruda
What good is poetry in times like these?
When I wrote my thesis, a million years ago, our starting point was World War I. The size of the war and the sudden industrialization of violence had a profound impact on artists and writers. After The War nothing was the same ever again. Reality had become unknowable, the self fragmented and untrustworthy.
We wondered if World War II had the same sort of impact. After all, hadn't Adorno famously said it was impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz? Now I know Auschwitz is really very different from Paris, Beirut, Bali, Ankara. But then again hatred is hatred.
This week terror struck Brussels.
Again we try to find words. Again we find ourselves stomped as we face unspeakable violence and hatred. We try to understand but we can't really because we don't. We don't understand. We try to explain but it all seems so unexplainable.
And then there's Pablo Neruda to explain a few things. This poem is about the Spanish Civil War and its state-induced terrorism. In it Neruda laments the loss of his friends, including Federico García Lorca, who was shot by the Nationalists. What is there to say about violence and terror? Neruda says it all in the last lines: "Come and see the blood in the streets. Come and see the blood in the streets."
Come and see the blood in the streets. There really isn't much more to it.
With my thesis I found that poets will always write about that which cannot be explained, what cannot be named. And that's not violence. Violence is simple, just blood in the streets.
No, the truly inexplacible is (poppy-petalled) metaphysiscs. That which causes us. That which predates and outlasts us. That which encompasses us, both the barbaric acts of terrorism and the goodness of people who lay their own lifes on the line to save another's.
Poetry opens us up to deep truths. Much, much deeper truths than blood in the streets. In the face of terrorism and hatred all over the world, poetry may well be the only weapon we have.