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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Thursday, February 06, 2003 - 04:38 pm:   

Last night I decided to read a bit about Picasso's work on _Guernica_. I found, along the way, a number of quotes from Piccasso about the artist & politics. I'll offer two here.

In March 1945, when he painted what has been called the epilogue to _Guernica_, _The Charnel House_, a response to revelations of the Holocaust, he wrote: "What do you think an artist is? A fool who has only eyes if he's a painter, only ears if he's a musician, or a lyre at every level of his heart if he's a poet, or even nothing but muscles if he's a boxer? On the contrary, he is at the same time a political being, constantly alive to the heart-rending, fiery or happy events of the world, molding himself wholly in their image. How would it be possible for him to take no interest in other men, and with cool indifference detach himself from the life which they bring you so lavishly? No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy."

In May, 1937, when he was painting _Guernica_, he wrote: "I have always believed and still believe that artists, who live and work according to spiritual values, cannot and must not remain indifferent to the conflict in which the highest values of mankind and civilization are at stake."

In the meantime, the story about the "politicization" of US poets continues. Hillel Italie wrote a piece for AP posted today, "U.S. Poet Laureate Opposes War with Iraq." (This can be found over at Italie writes that the nation's poets have become "politicized" by the threatened war with Iraq-- "starting at the very top." "In comments rarely heard from a sitting U.S. poet laureate, Billy Collins has publicly declared his opposition to war and says he finds it increasingly difficult to keep politics out of his official job as literary advocate." Collins, Italie says, doesn't have a history of political activism. But he wrote in an email to the AP that if political protest is urgent, it should be "as disruptive as it wants to be."

What continually strikes me about the poets story is how block-headed so many non-poets seem to be. Have so few journalists & political operatives read poetry in their lives that they somehow imagine that poetry inhabits an arid, crystalline region totally divorced from the world in which the poets live? In the earliest years of my feminism, feminist poetry was a primary food & fuel for my feminism. My personal psychological landscape was shaped by the poetry of women like Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Maya Angelou, June Jordan, & Marge Piercy. I can't imagine poets becoming "politicized" for the simple reason that I'm used to thinking of poets as highly conscious thinkers-- politically, morally, & otherwise.

Speaking of poets & politics: check out Carla Harryman's _There Never Was a Rose Without A Thorn_. It's a mix of poetry & prose that I recently took a second look at.


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Nancy Jane Moore
Posted on Sunday, February 09, 2003 - 06:22 pm:   

I don't think poetry is widely read among journalists, particularly ones who write on politics, and I suspect the readership is even smaller among political types. Both groups pride themselves on their knowledge of the "real world," and I suspect they assume that poets inhabit some kind of ethereal world that has no importance to them. In fact, I fear that most of the population feels much the same way. Plus they're scared of it. Poetry is put in the same category as rocket science and brain surgery, as something beyond the scope of the ordinary person.
I sighed over your post about the copy of "Guernica" being covered during Colin Powell's speech. It seems to me that one ought to always contemplate "Guernica," or some similar work when discussing war.
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Jack Haringa
Posted on Sunday, February 09, 2003 - 07:21 pm:   

"I don't think poetry is widely read among journalists, particularly ones who write on politics, and I suspect the readership is even smaller among political types."

I don't think it's going out on a limb to say that poetry isn't widely read, period. Even by a great many people who are considered, or who consider themselves, well-educated. At one time poetry was an essential element of a liberal--and politically conscious--education, and poets were often at the forefront of political discussion.

However, there have often been arguments within the poetic circles of various times as to whether poetry should be concerned with such mundane matters as immediate political crises. Yeats' break with his Pre-Raphaelite mentors hinges on just such an argument. And the Aesthetes and Decadents squabbled among themselves as to how this question should be handled as well.

I agree with you both that Italie's statements show a sad lack of both poetic and political history; sad but not entirely surprising. We Americans have always been known for our lack of long-term memory in the political arena, and the problem seems increasingly acute. A glance at the history of poetry in the English tradition alone would suffice to make plain to Italie that poets are more often than not political thinkers. Whether right-minded or not remains open to debate (think Pound, for instance).

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Eric Schaller
Posted on Monday, February 10, 2003 - 11:08 am:   

I had a t-shirt with the Picasso quote on the front of the shirt that read: Art is Dangerous. On the back of the shirt there was information indicating that this was from the MOMA exhibition of Picasso.

Anyway, I wore this shirt into a bookshop and the person behind the counter only read the front of the shirt and thought that I was against art.

Many people only have one definition for a word.

Dangerous can be a good thing.
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L.Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Wednesday, February 12, 2003 - 09:57 pm:   

Today is the National Day of Poetry Against the War. (The San Francisco Chronicle has an article about it, which can be found at More than 150 events have been scheduled for the event. & more than 5300 poems have been collected at The event's organizer, Sam Hamill, said "It was never my intention to close down her poetry tea party [Laura Bush's poetry symposium], but I had to make a statement. There isn't just a war being planned against Iraq, there's a war going on against the Constitution."

From what I've read, Nancy, I think the rationale for hanging the tapestry of the _Guernica_ outside the Security Council was precisely because at least some people thought "that one ought to always contemplate "Gunerica," or some similar work when discussing war." The Pentagon is predicting an initial half million deaths from their bombardment of Baghdad-- followed by outbreaks of several diseases, likely of epidemic proportion, & large-scale starvation. (The scale of the attack, it is believed, will so "shock" the population of Iraq that its people will be incapable of resisting invasion. The bombing operation is being called "Shock and Awe.")

Jack, you're right to remind us that poets' political thinking has always ranged all over the political spectrum. Poetry has always served a variety of interests-- including nationalist interests. On considering this, I began to think about how poetry-- particularly the respectable sort-- seems more likely to be explicit about all things political than fiction. Poetry achieves its effects through explicit, concrete detail & a highly concentrated focus on the particular (even when the particular is generalized) & often demands an exactitude in its imagery comparable to that demanded by the visual arts. So then I began to speculate that the formal conventions of poetry discipline *how* poets express ideas, perceptions, & feelings rather than determining or limiting *which* ideas, perceptions, & feelings they express, while the narrative conventions of fiction exert a great influence on its content & restrict the kinds of stories the writer can tell in such a way that writing politically oppositional stories that aren't didactic poses a serious challenge to the technical proficiency of the writer (in a way that just isn't true for poetry).

But then I read Kurt Vonnegut's remarks of 1/27/03 to _In These Times_ ( "Literature is by definition opinionated. It is bound to
provoke the arguments in many quarters, not excluding the hometown or even the family of the author. Any ink-on-paper author can only hope at best to seem responsible to small groups or like-minded people somewhere." This statement is part of his reply to a question asking him whether he had noticed any difference "between the cultural leaders of the past and the cultural leaders of the present" as to "their responsibility to society." Vonnegut correctly calls into question the interviewer's use of the word "society." Earlier in the interview he says that "every serious writer" in the country came out against the Viet Nam war, & discovered that their protest had "the power of a banana-cream pie three feet in diameter when dropped from a stepladder five-feet high." "Now, as then, on account of TV, the right of citizens to peaceably assemble, and petition their government for a redress of grievances, `ain't worth a pitcher of warm spit'."

As a critical reader, I can't help acknowledging that with a few exceptions, regardless of a work's subject matter I nearly always pick up on political subtexts running through the fiction I read (genre or otherwise). & yet in several cases I know of, writers have written texts that don't reflect the political opinions I have heard or read them expressing. Occasionally, a writer with somewhat conservative opinions will write a novel provocative of oppositional attitudes in the reader. More often, a writer with liberal to leftie opinions will write a book that is inherently reactionary (& sometimes even racist). Many fiction writers don't seem to know *what* they are doing, politically, in their work. & so the very idea of all literature being "by definition opinionated" seems rather tricky to me.

Anent his comment about how much attention was paid to the opposition of "every serious writer" to the Viet Nam war (which I suppose must explain why so many writers acquired FBI files in the 1960s, even though they were otherwise ignored): he's correct to link the political expression of writers to that of peaceable citizens. In a democracy-- at this moment a purely hypothetical construct-- citizens' petitions & the opinions of writers, activists, artists etc (i.e., those sometimes called "organic intellectuals") would be part of the discussion (were there one). TV, Vonnegut says, makes the attempt of citizens to enter the public sphere worth "a pitcher of warm spit." TV as it is now constituted, he seems to be implying, could not be part of a democracy. I don't see how I can help but agree with that. (Even though he has some kind words to say about particular episodes of TV *dramas*, which are something else altogether.)

Many things upset me about the plans for this war, but this one is apropos to this discussion: although the US claims to be a champion of "democracy," it is insisting that the leadership of all its allies ignore & act in defiance of the wishes of their own citizens. (The Australian parliament has even censured their prime minister for insisting on doing Bush's bidding rather than carry out the public will.) I imagine that if instead of making the war seem inevitable the US media began reporting on the issue honestly, even more people in the US would oppose the war than already do.

Although it's not exactly on-topic, I like one of Vonnegut's answers so much I'm going to quote it, too: "I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been. What has happened, though, is that it has been taken over by means of the sleaziest, low-comedy, Keystone Cops-style coup d’etat imaginable. And those in charge of the federal government are upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka “Christians,” and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or “PPs.” "

More on the poets' protest:
Katha Pollit, "Poetry Makes Nothing Happen? Ask Laura Bush" <>
John Nichols, "Poetic Protests Against the War, Censorship" (at the Nation website, under The Online Beat)

More on the Picasso's _Guernica_:
William Walker, "The Lessons of Guernica: `Profound Symbolism' as U.N. hides Picasso's anti-war masterpiece for Colin Powell's call to arms" Feb.9, _The Toronto Star_
David Walsh, "UN conceals Picasso's "Guernica" for Powell's presentation" <>

Finally, I see that although Ron Sillman hasn't (that I've noticed, anyway) talked about the poets' protest in his weblog, he does discuss the first issue of _Radical Society_-- a reincarnation of the old _Socialist Review_-- in which the work of several poets are featured. Sillman writes "It's not clear what the role of poetry will prove to be in _Radical Society_ over time. The history of _Socialist Review_ doesn't necessarily auger well. The journal has had what can only be characterized as a tortured relationship to culture over the decades." This, by someone who was a member of the editorial collective for several years.

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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Wednesday, February 12, 2003 - 10:39 pm:   

Having quoted Vonnegut on martians in the White House, it occurs to me that SF has been there, done that: Patricia Anthony's wonderful _Brother Termite_ is wicked political satire in which aliens have been occupying the White House for decades (unbeknownst to the general public). I highly recommend it. (& am now thinking I'd like very much to reread it myself.) I don't know if it's still in print, but it was originally published by Harcourt Brace & Co. in 1993.

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Holly Wade Matter
Posted on Thursday, February 13, 2003 - 09:46 pm:   

_Brother Termite_ is my personal favorite of Anthony's novels. I thought that John Sayles was making a movie version, but it's been so long since I've heard anything about it that I'm beginning to think I made that part up in my head.
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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Friday, February 14, 2003 - 09:05 pm:   

_Brother Termite_ is probably my second favorite-- after _God's Fires_. I'd love to see a movie version-- if it were by John Sayles, anyway. You probably didn't make it up in your head-- since, after all, movie deals are always falling through.
I suppose what I'd most like, though, is another novel from Anthony. . .

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Alex Irvine
Posted on Tuesday, January 13, 2004 - 07:17 am:   

Timmi--Have you seen a book called Picasso's War? It's about the creation of Guernica, and the painting's history during and after the war. Fascinating stuff.
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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Tuesday, January 13, 2004 - 12:32 pm:   

Hey, Alex. How's it going? No, I haven't seen Picasso's War. I've read a bit about the creation of the painting, but the accounts I've read of its early history have been sketchy. Not many paintings would warrant an entire book, but this one certainly does. So who wrote it, & is it by chance in print?

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