Not long ago I became involved in a discussion of language as used (and misused) in support of a cause. It began with the ‘truths’ that political parties and such would use to enhance their image, how they would use words and phrases commonly understood as admirable to distract attention from some things or ideas that were not as acceptable to many people. From there it evolved into the language of war and conflict with terms such as “ friendly fire” and “collateral damage.” In this context propaganda was also discussed, using language to portray as good something that might seem unpalatable.
From there the conversation flowed into a discussion of advertising and how, because of the money and resources available to that industry, the language it uses to sell dominates all our media. Often terms and slogans invented or manipulated by advertisers become a part of our language. Many of these are memorable because of their inherent poetry, whether simile or image or simply a new use of terminology. I mentioned how I had published a poem many years ago which described a deep and sensual relationship using words and phrases from an advertisement for a brand of liquor, a “found” poem so to speak.
The whole discussion left me with a disquieting feeling somewhere between my throat and my ears. I asked myself if this is the function of poetry, of a poetic exploration of language. We are so far from the marks set by such as Chaucer, Milton, Spencer and Shakespeare.
I truly believe that today’s poetry needs to become more separate from the personal and emotional expression. One way is through the use of concrete images to carry such emotion in new ways. Another, and one that hasn’t justly been explored to my knowledge, is by writing excellent poetry about causes, about necessary social changes. Where is the poet of the recycling movement, the compost pile? Where is she who would explore the plight of whales and dolphins in terms that involve the heart and the mind?
When the chance arises, I will attempt to write for a cause. I have long been a member of Poets for Peace. It’s not a great step from my usual themes of love and respect for land and life to protesting destruction by means of arms or machinery; I have done both, physically and poetically. Recently I participated in a relief for Haiti poetry project undertaken by a New York poet. (Make a donation to a charity involved in the relief effort and one of your poems gets published on the web site.) Such involvement is only the beginning.
Poets need to speak out, to speak up for the needed changes in society to improve our environment and ourselves. We, the ones who should be the masters of language, cannot abdicate our social responsibilities and leave the beauty of words and phrases in the hands of sellers of beer and deodorants. We should not leave it to political speechwriters to tell us how to interpret the world.
The causes exist. Struggles have been engaged. Poets are needed to speak and support or the world may be changed by glib phrasings from those looking only for a good way to make a buck.