By Phil Henry
Some people are built to describe things prosaically, others poetically. For the most part, this is a function of our personalities. You know the drill: you’re an engineer, I’m an artist. But when it comes to giving expression to the deepest crevices of suffering and pain in our lives, poetry seems uniquely suited as a medium of expression.
In a recent issue of the New Yorker, Ruth Franklin takes up this issue when studying a Holocaust writer (“The Long View: a rediscovered master of holocaust writing” by Ruth Franklin, January 31, 2011). Franklin’s article begins by reviewing a dialogue between two authors, HG Adler and Theodor Adorno, and contrasts their fundamentally different viewpoints when it comes to chronicling the Holocaust.
Adorno, in correspondence exchanged with Adler, is famously recorded as saying, “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” That’s not a word one usually minces: barbaric. I take that to mean subhuman, or inhuman, even. Barbaric, for Adorno, consists in “trying to impose artistic coherence upon such a monstrosity.” Such an attempt was, and would be, for Adorno, an “inherent falsification.”
This point of view suggests that only a bare reportage is apropos after such a horrific display of human degradation. Seeing, as we do in the Holocaust, what depths of depravity human behavior is capable of achieving, we lose words, we lose whole expressions, and lost are even entire idioms from human vocabulary. In this case, the idiom Adorno strikes is that of poetry.
But is an attempt at poetry in the face of an unspeakable tragedy an “inherent falsification”? Haven’t people always attempted to create poetry in the face of otherwise open-mouthed horror? Isn’t poetry by definition that art form which gives a voice to things which would otherwise be beyond description?
While I pondered this troubling question, the same theme came up again in a recent Philadelphia area public radio interview. The topic was poetry; I can’t recall the author, or the interviewer, but I can’t forget the description given about tragic poetry: "They start out as screams of pain and anguish and then they become objects of pleasure and works of art. This is one of the paradoxes of poetry."
What is it about poetry that, when the art is endured through the pain of naming, of identifying our pain, becomes a work of art?
Where Adorno is wrong, and I believe he is wrong, is in his veneration of prose. Think about it: prose, as poetry, attempts to bring a logic of its own to events or experiences that otherwise lack coherence. Somehow, even a bare, factoid narrative of an otherwise awful experience gives it coherence and removes it from the realm of the insane and mind-boggling. Even a documentary-level review of suffering places it, even anchors it, within the confines of WORDS, on the eye-bolts and dock moorings of terra firma.
When an event submits to words of any kind, it submits to a larger-than-life reality. It becomes situated in the world. It is shown to be dependent upon, and loyal to the LOGIC of the world. At that point, the logos of the cosmos, becomes apparent in and through IT, where prior to that art (or act of articulation) such was simply invisible.
Ruminate, in undertaking to publish poetry, is a midwife of suffering.
Part of our mission is to seek to provide a forum or context (or medium) in which suffering can be given a voice. In this we are children of our heavenly Father:
Father of the fatherless and defender of the widows is the LORD in his Holy Habitation. (Ps. 68:5)
Unspeakable (in any other context) griefs can come to being in our pages, and in that simple act of publication, an otherwise meaningless world becomes that much more meaningFUL.
Our commitment is clear. We are passionate about this calling of ours. What remains belongs to those in our extended family who suffer: are you willing to put your pen to paper and give a voice, and therefore, risk giving meaning, to that which would otherwise be a terrorist of your soul?
In her New Yorker article, Franklin records an interview with our Holocaust poet and singer, HG Adler, with a journalist, Joachim Fisher. In that interview, Fisher asks Adler: “Isn’t the act of writing such a book...a form of self-laceration, a continual re-churning up of a horror most people would prefer to suppress?”
His response is stunning: “I would not be here before you today if I had not written that book. That book constituted my self-liberation.”
His poetry freed him.
As a Christian, I would add that ultimate liberation is achieved not merely as springing from self, though it is not less than that. Ultimate liberation is a freedom that is achieved by the Lord of Glory, who Himself promised that the truth would set us free.
My truth, expressed in prose or poetry, is a gift not only to ourselves and to my readers, it is an offering of worship to God, an act of faith in the face of unspeakable circumstances, that there is an order and a reason and a beauty and a poetry in the world despite what our eyes and hearts and lives may tell us.
We would even say that such poetry demands the kind of faith apart from which it is IMPOSSIBLE to please God (Heb. 11:3).
We know our calling is to give space for suffering voices to be heard.
Phil Henry is married and has six children. He currently lives in South Jersey where he is starting a new church community, Mercy Hill Presbyterian Church. Phil served on the Ruminate staff as an associate reader from 2009-2011.
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