June 30, 2007

A Regime of Blood, Wounds and Fire

[UPDATE: Although the Sharon Olds letter below was posted to my opera discussion list as if it were "new" news, it turns out that this happened in 2005, at which time The Nation published Olds' message to Laura Bush. This fact doesn't change a single substantive point in any manner (including my own remarks) -- except to underscore that these horrors have continued for an additional futile and gruesome two years, as they will continue for at least several more -- but I mention it for the sake of accuracy and completeness.]

An intriguing discussion on my opera list might be of more general interest. (The entire thread is the first one here, "A Letter Forwarded by Marilyn Horne.") It began with this very powerful message:
Sharon Olds, Poet, Declines White House Invitation

The power of poetry

In a culture like ours, one sometimes forgets the power of a poet's words...

Here is an open letter from the poet Sharon Olds to Laura Bush declining the invitation to read and speak at the [National Book Festival] in Washington, DC.

Feel free to forward it along if you feel more people may want to read it.

Sharon Olds is one of most widely read and critically acclaimed poets living in America today. Read to the end of the letter to experience her restrained, chilling eloquence.
Dear Mrs. Bush,

I am writing to let you know why I am not able to accept your kind invitation to give a presentation at the National Book Festival on September 24, or to attend your dinner at the Library of Congress or the breakfast at the White House.

In one way, it's a very appealing invitation. The idea of speaking at a festival attended by 85,000 people is inspiring! The possibility of finding new readers is exciting for a poet in personal terms, and in terms of the desire that poetry serve its constituents -- all of us who need the pleasure, and the inner and outer news, it delivers. And the concept of a community of readers and writers has long been dear to my heart.

As a professor of creative writing in the graduate school of a major university, I have had the chance to be a part of some magnificent outreach writing workshops in which our students have become teachers. Over the years, they have taught in a variety of settings: a women's prison, several New York City public high schools, an oncology ward for children. Our initial program, at a 900-bed state hospital for the severely physically challenged, has been running now for twenty years, creating along the way lasting friendships between young MFA candidates and their students -- long-term residents at the hospital who, in their humor, courage and wisdom, become our teachers.

When you have witnessed someone non-speaking and almost non-moving spell out, with a toe, on a big plastic alphabet chart, letter by letter, his new poem, you have experienced, close up, the passion and essentialness of writing.

When you have held up a small cardboard alphabet card for a writer who is completely non-speaking and non-moving (except for the eyes), and pointed first to the A, then the B, then C, then D, until you get to the first letter of the first word of the first line of the poem she has been composing in her head all week, and she lifts her eyes when that letter is touched to say yes, you feel with a fresh immediacy the human drive for creation, self-expression, accuracy, honesty and wit -- and the importance of writing, which celebrates the value of each person's unique story and song.

So the prospect of a festival of books seemed wonderful to me. I thought of the opportunity to talk about how to start up an outreach program. I thought of the chance to sell some books, sign some books and meet some of the citizens of Washington, DC. I thought that I could try to find a way, even as your guest, with respect, to speak about my deep feeling that we should not have invaded Iraq, and to declare my belief that the wish to invade another culture and another country -- with the resultant loss of life and limb for our brave soldiers, and for the noncombatants in their home terrain -- did not come out of our democracy but was instead a decision made "at the top" and forced on the people by distorted language, and by untruths. I hoped to express the fear that we have begun to live in the shadows of tyranny and religious chauvinism -- the opposites of the liberty, tolerance and diversity our nation aspires to.

I tried to see my way clear to attend the festival in order to bear witness -- as an American who loves her country and its principles and its writing -- against this undeclared and devastating war.

But I could not face the idea of breaking bread with you. I knew that if I sat down to eat with you, it would feel to me as if I were condoning what I see to be the wild, highhanded actions of the Bush Administration.

What kept coming to the fore of my mind was that I would be taking food from the hand of the First Lady who represents the Administration that unleashed this war and that wills its continuation, even to the extent of permitting "extraordinary rendition": flying people to other countries where they will be tortured for us.

So many Americans who had felt pride in our country now feel anguish and shame, for the current regime of blood, wounds and fire. I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it.


This exchange was forwarded to the original sender by the famed American opera singer, Marilyn Horne, who had also turned down a similar invitation some time ago, as follows:
Brava! I did not write a letter when I was asked a few yrs. ago to sing for the Christmas Tree lighting at the White House. I refused, but did not go public about it. I just could not be seen as supporting this regime. It was the first term, too.......

The majority of the responses on the opera list were very positive. However, in yet another demonstration that there is no refuge from the more general dynamics at play in our culture, one response went as follows:
Blah, blah, blah. More worthless blather from the liberal hate mongers of the world. Grow up and realize that you are being asked to do something for your country and not by a particular political administration. If everyone who held any sort of political view followed this sort of lead where would artists and art be? All would be involved in a boycott of one thing or another.

Just grow up and start acting like adults.
In response to that comment (and one or two similar ones), I sent a reply of my own:
[Another lister] wrote:
Grow up and realize that you are being asked to do something for your country and not by a particular political administration. If everyone who held any sort of political view followed this sort of lead where would artists and art be?
"Where would artists and art be," indeed. In another message, [another lister] already mentioned part of the response that had occurred to me: Verdi and his passionate devotion to Italian unification. I seem to recall that influenced his work on more than one occasion, just as Verdi's more general political-ethical concerns hold great sway in a work such as "Don Carlos." It appears this is now to be regarded as a tragedy beyond measure: "where would artists and art be?" Without much of Verdi, if we were to follow [the other lister's] prescription. That, however, is *not* a tragedy. The basis for these calculations is not readily apparent to me, which is undoubtedly my own failing. I also recall that, on more than one occasion, Verdi's refusal to compromise his political convictions caused him some serious professional problems.

Another obvious response to [this lister's] comments might be Beethoven's "Fidelio." Oh, my. "Where would artists and art be?" Without "Fidelio." We are all terribly burdened by this regrettable combination of art and politics. There are many further examples, which I'm certain other listers can fill in at their leisure.

I do enjoy the appeal to "your country," as opposed to "a particular political administration." It might be noted as a preliminary matter that, in certain contexts, "a particular political administration" in effect *is* "the country." Two further responses on this issue. One is embodied by certain behavior of a noted soprano of the last century. For her, aiding the party in question was of no more significance than "joining a union." Well, she had been "asked to do something for [her] country," after all, and she did have a career to think about. It is neither hers nor ours to reason why in too much detail. See this essay for a lengthier discussion of my own evaluation of these regrettable actions (which evaluation is not necessarily what you might anticipate in its particulars).

As to the more general connections between art, politics and many other aspects of life, I will leave that point to a man who expressed those connections gloriously and passionately [an excerpt originally offered in this article]. In the Preface to "Cromwell," Victor Hugo wrote:
"[T]he modern muse will see things in a higher and broader light. It will realize that everything in creation is not humanly beautiful, that the ugly exists beside the beautiful, the unshapely beside the graceful, the grotesque on the reverse of the sublime, evil with good, darkness with light. It will ask itself if the narrow and relative sense of the artist should prevail over the infinite, absolute sense of the Creator; if it is for man to correct God; if a mutilated nature will be the more beautiful for the mutilation; if art has the right to duplicate, so to speak, man, life, creation; if things will progress better when their muscles and their vigour have been taken from them; if, in short, to be incomplete is the best way to be harmonious. Then it is that, with its eyes fixed upon events that are both laughable and redoubtable, and under the influence of that spirit of Christian melancholy and philosophical criticism which we described a moment ago, poetry will take a great step, a decisive step, a step which, like the upheaval of an earthquake, will change the whole face of the intellectual world. It will set about doing as nature does, mingling in its creations—but without confounding them—darkness and light, the grotesque and the sublime; in other words, the body and the soul, the beast and the intellect; for the starting-point of religion is always the starting-point of poetry. All things are connected."
"All things are connected." In certain respects, I think that appreciating and understanding the many applications of this idea may be the most important principle of all. It is when we seek to *disconnect* -- from each other, and from the culture in which we live, including the politics of our time -- that trouble always follows. Sometimes, that trouble is terrible beyond contemplation.



P.S. I think Sharon Olds' letter is eloquent, infinitely moving, and unusually powerful. In a word: magnificent. I sincerely thank [the original poster] for sending it to the list.