Merwin on Political Poetry

It is possible for a poet to assume his gift of articulation as a
responsibility not only to the fates but to his neighbors, and to feel
himself obligated to try to speak for those who are in circumstances
resembling his own, but who are less capable of bearing witness to them.
There are many kinds of dangers involved in any such view of what he owes
himself and his voice. There is, for instance, the danger that his gift
itself, necessarily one of the genuinely private and integral things he
lives for, may be deformed into a mere loudspeaker, losing the singularity
which made it irreplaceable, the candor which made it unreachable and
unpredictable. Most poets whom I have in mind would have considered this the
prime danger. But the other risks have all claimed their victims. Where
injustice prevails (and where does it not?) a poet endowed with the form of
conscience I am speaking about has no choice but to name the wrong as
truthfully as he can, and to try to indicate the claims of justice in terms
of the victims he lives among. The better he does these things the more he
may have to pay for doing them. He may lose his financial security, if he
has any. Or his health, his comfort, the presence of those he loves, his
liberty. Or his life, of course. Worst, he may lose, in the process, the
faith which led him to the decision, and then have to suffer for the
decision just the same.

Put at its simplest, and with its implications laid out all plain and neat,
the decision to speak as clearly and truthfully and fully as possible for
the other human beings a poet finds himself among is a challenge to
obscurantism, silence, and extinction. And the author of such a decision, I
imagine, accepts the inevitability of failure as he accepts the
inevitability of death. He finds a sufficient triumph in the decision
itself, in its deliberate defiance, in the effort which it makes possible,
the risks it impels him to run, and in any clarity which it helps him to
create out of the murk and chaos of experience. In the long run his
testimony will be partial at best. But its limits will have been those of
his condition itself, rooted, as that is, in death; he will have recognized
the enemy. He will not have been another priest of ornaments. He will have
been contending against that which restricted his use and his virtue.

"The Name the Wrong." Excerpted from Nation, Feb. 24, 1962.
Regions of Memory: Uncollected Prose, 1949-1982. Ed. Cary Nelson and Ed
Folsome. Copyright © 1987 by W.S. Merwin.

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