What Does it Mean to be a Poet in 2018?


By A. F. Moritz


Poetry is useful, in fact crucial, in its uselessness. In 2018, everything is spoiled, betrayed, ruined, even annihilated, by being useful. By being submitted to use, things are destroyed in their physical reality and, above all, in humans’ dominant conception of them. And under this regime, the humans themselves are only things to use.


What for? And by whom? If indeed they are only things useful and to use, then there is no answer to this question, and we have “a works” (a factory) with no workman. The worker is just a part of the factory. This is the situation. Everyone senses it today, even if they don’t clearly see it, or seeing it, don’t wish to say it, because saying it is too painful in its hopelessness. If the turning of this mill is nothingness, nothing exists for us to live, since the mill itself produces, as one of its chief items, the sense that nothing exists outside itself. Every year, off the line comes an insignificantly redesigned this-year’s model of boredom. An eroded despair that can’t stand, and so rejects, despair’s intensity and lapses to a “culture” of indifference, suspicion, mockery, living for the winning ticket, which never comes but does come somewhere else to “the lucky ones.” Or at least waiting for the weekend, to complain about the boss and the system while knowing that, in lieu of revolution or faith, hope and love, one will tolerate it until death.

But no. There’s not even death anymore. Neruda (and he wasn’t even the first) saw this eighty years ago:


and not a single death but many deaths came to each one of them:

every day a petty death, dust, worm, a lamp

that goes out in the mud of the suburbs . . .

they all despised themselves waiting for death, their brief daily death:

and their crushing fate every day was

a sort of black cup that they drank trembling.


In the face of this, the poet has the privilege of knowing and singing that hope is beauty and reality, that “imagination is what tends to become real” (André Breton), and that we can engage in the clash of imaginations, for there’s no use denying that the rigid systems that have arisen and extend themselves also sprang from human imagination: our often malign imagination.


It’s often said that art asks and provokes questions. This cliché is not wholly wrong. But let’s not keep asking the questions that everyone in “the arts” always asks; this is just another way of giving in to anomie, of failing to look above the hope of rendering the Ship of Fools a little more tolerable. The questions needed are the great and eternal ones. Even in their heartbreaking enigma these questions are a breath of fresh air: wilderness!


The poet, then, has the privilege of questioning the questions, and sifting them. If we are told by example and use itself, that we are only things to use, then: What for and by whom? By ourselves? Then who are we and who will we be? One answer is poets, who combine intelligent feeling with the tendency, hunger, and striving for perfect work.


The noble fact of use has lost all nobility with the loss of the craftsperson. The poet is the one who demands perfect work. Perfection of work: with this principle alone we have enough to demolish entirely the whole regime of technology, industrialism, modern administration, and all “mass” treatments of human beings whatsoever, with their unavoidably shoddy, imprecise, careless, ill-fitting address to any one individual person and his or her situation. This system of use only, which cannot even do “use” well has eliminated or demeaned everything else, and yet it cannot give anyone a dignified use, and only a few even a worthwhile one, while many are allowed none at all or only a grim, insulting parody of usefulness.


The poet is privileged to remember that sometimes, dark times, poetry is under the sign of hope, and hope only exists in any true sense when there is hopelessness. It is the denial of hopelessness and of the producers of hopelessness. The poet is privileged to remember that the most beautiful songs are often the saddest ones: Sometimes I feel like a motherless child . . . These are the ones that mysteriously enact hope by reaching beyond hope itself and making the thing hoped for present today, in the dark moment. A flower does open even at Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi.


The uselessness of poetry is in fact its resistance to the perversion of use that we live, and in this it is, without submitting to any use, as it always should refuse to submit, supremely useful. “It’s a jungle out there,” a man-made mechanical jungle, we’re always complacently told, and we are prone to fall into being “realists,” into accepting it. Rather than that aphorism, its opposite, and its beneficent healer: “Building the beautiful house for the piteous sufferer” (William Blake).

A.F. Moritz

A. F. Moritz has been called “one of the best poets of his generation” by John Hollander and “a true poet” by Harold Bloom, who ranks him alongside Anne Carson. He is the recipient of numerous awards and honours throughout North America, including the Award in Literature of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Fellowship, Poetry magazine’s Beth Hokin Prize, the Ingram Merrill Fellowship, and the Griffin Poetry Prize.

The Sparrow: Selected Poems of A. F. Moritz surveys forty-five years of Moritz’s published poems, from earlier, lesser-known pieces to the widely acclaimed works of the last twenty years. Here are poems of mystery and imagination; of identification with the other; of compassion, judgement, and rage; of love and eroticism; of mature philosophical, sociological, and political analysis; of history and current events; of contemplation of nature; of exaltation and ennui, fullness and emptiness, and the pure succession and splendour of earthly nights and days.

The Sparrow is more than a selected poems; it is also a single vast poem, in which the individual pieces can be read as facets of an ever-moving whole. This is the world of A. F. Moritz — a unique combination of lyrical fire and meditative depth, and an imaginative renewal of style and never-ending discovery of form.

The Sparrow     The Sparrow special edition

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