Friday, December 31, 2010

Reflections: The Poet's Burden

For the benefit of those who may not be familiar with Italo Calvino’s poetic novel, Invisible Cities, I will state briefly here that it imagines a series of descriptions of cities supposedly visited by Marco Polo in his travels, presented to Kublai Khan as Polo attends the Great Khan’s court. It is a bit like A Thousand and One Nights, but without the overhanging threat, or the narrative content. Invisible Cities is not comprised of tales, but rather of concepts strung together, giving shape and scope to these imagined cities. For a fuller description, click here.

In a recent discussion of poetry and the arts on Facebook, I posited an assertion that the poet, or artist, once he has proclaimed his vocation, and made public the product of his artistic visions, has ipso facto taken on a responsibility to the world at large. This thought was inspired by contemplating these words of the poet, Robert Lax:

It is funny that in most all societies, even though poets may not be well-treated, the idea of a poet is honored. I think it has something to do with vision; that without vision, the people perish. I think the people sense that poets are or should be carriers of vision, and should be those who express it. And people sense that that is needed; that vision is always needed.

If it is e-ffective, one’s art will a-ffect one’s audience, either positively, or negatively. This certainty is what entails the artist’s responsibility; it becomes a moral obligation, reminiscent of charity.

In this light, consider the following excerpt from Invisible Cities. Calvino has Marco Polo describe a city called Laudomia. Laudomia, he says, is not only a double city, allowing equal space for both the living and the dead; but a triple city, in that the unborn are also allowed equal space:

… Rightly, Laudomia assigns an equally vast residence to those who are still to be born. Naturally the space is not in proportion to their number, which is presumably infinite, but since the area is empty, surrounded by an architecture all niches and bays and grooves, and since the unborn can be imagined of any size, big as mice or silkworms or ants or ants’ eggs, there is nothing against imagining them erect or crouching on every object or bracket that juts from the walls, on every capital or plinth, lined up or dispersed, intent on the concerns of their future life, and so you can contemplate in a marble vein all Laudomia of a hundred or a thousand years hence, crowded with multitudes in clothing never seen before, all in eggplant-colored barracans, for example, or with turkey feathers on their turbans, and you can recognize your own descendents and those of other families, friendly or hostile, of debtors and creditors, continuing their affairs, revenges, marrying for love or for money. The living of Laudomia frequent the house of the unborn to interrogate them: footsteps echo beneath the hollow domes; the questions are asked in silence; and it is always about themselves that the living ask, not about those who are to come. One man is concerned with leaving behind him an illustrious reputation, another wants his shame to be forgotten; all would like to follow the thread of their own actions’ consequences; but the more they sharpen their eyes, the less they can discern a continuous line; the future inhabitants of Laudomia seem like dots, grains of dust, detached from any before or after.
The Laudomia of the unborn does not transmit, like the city of the dead, any sense of security to the inhabitants of the living Laudomia: only alarm. In the end, the visitors’ thoughts find two paths open before them, and there is no telling which harbors more anguish: either you must think that the number of the unborn is far greater than the total of all the living and all the dead, and then in every pore of the stone there are invisible hordes, jammed on the funnel-sides as in the stands of a stadium, and since with each generation Laudomia’s descendants are multiplied, every funnel contains hundreds of other funnels each with millions of persons who are to be born, thrusting their necks out and opening their mouths to escape suffocation. Or else you think that Laudomia, too, will disappear, no telling when, and all its citizens with it; in other words the generations will follow one another until they reach a certain number and will then go no further. Then the Laudomia of the dead and that of the unborn are like the two bulbs of an hourglass which is not turned over; each passage between birth and death is a grain of sand that passes the neck, and there will be a last inhabitant of Laudomia born, a last grain to fall, which is now at the top of the pile, waiting.

Imagine if you will the radically different take on these passages as read by a devoutly religious Catholic, whose moral life is dominated by daily contemplation of the abortion and birth-control controversies; or by an artist who is continuously driven onward in quest of recognition and the apparent immortality offered by fame, or even infamy. In creating and publishing his works, the poet, the artist, is obligated to make a good-faith attempt to present a true vision and an inspired prophecy, rather than just one more cynically contrived and self-referential example of onanistic drivel. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.