Poetry v. Unreality
Scoundrel Time is dedicated, in large measure, to the on-going project of fostering a poetry of engagement. Perhaps the most important part of that project has to do with the marshaling of language as a tool of precision, of careful attention, of truth-telling. Some may, perhaps, find it a little bougie to speak of “the truth” of anything, but we have set aside such things for what they are—largely graduate school seminar objections about language’s essential non-referentiality—to recognize, instead, and with alarm, that language is currently under siege—that forces in our culture, by dint of a kompromat-style program of repeated falsehoods and “alternative facts,” have successfully sewn chaos into the fabric of American governance and political and cultural discourse, have unleashed, to a degree never before imagined, what historian Daniel Boorstin warned us about, in 1961: “the menace of unreality” taking hold of a broad swath of culture. Boorstin’s phrase, which must have seemed hyperbolic back then, now looks like cinéma vérité. We believe that poetry has a role in challenging the forces of unreality, and we believe the battlefield exists in many districts, but never so much, for poetry, as it does now at the level of language, at the level of the smallest unit of thought, the sentence, and at the level of the unexamined phrase. “It is not easy to hold on to the best of our human insights and motives in such times,” the poet Heather McHugh observed recently, “but to do so must be central to the struggle we engage in. (In a sense it is NOT partisan, but largely practical and humane to do so.)”
At its best, as McHugh has observed elsewhere, poetry lets nothing go by unexamined–and we suspect that, because of this, poetry actually does make something happen: it develops, as neuroscientists are now beginning to measure, a musculature of attention to the truth of complexity in the world, the truth of nuance, the truth of compassion, the truth of who is doing what to whom. A poetry that seeks an audience isn’t a poetry that’s been dumbed down, in other words, or sanitized, or reduced to being a platform for propaganda. But we do believe and are guided by something most performing musicians, for example, take as a given, without much fuss: if you’re not in tune and on time, they say, you’re going to have a problem—with your audience. We believe this analogy to the world of music is something that poets, and poetry, can learn from. But we don’t think of this emphasis on audience as a rear guard action, either. Just ask our most recent Nobel laureate in literature about that one. Or, as a 19-year-old musician once told me after playing a few songs at an Irish session, “Trad is rad.”
Many are the occasions in which something old, perhaps even forgotten, becomes re-seen, re-imagined—and the newest form of literature leaps from the page, or now, onto the screen–trad turned rad. So welcome to Scoundrel Time. We hope you’ll enjoy exploring these pages and, however you choose to start, wherever you end up going, we hope you hear, as we do, the strange, bracing rhythms of poets responding to a strange time, to scoundrel time: a time when sparks may still flash—to paraphrase a poet who searched and found another rhythm for his own, different, if no less dangerous time—and still manage to engage in a new music across the American night.
Contributing Editor, Poetry/Founding Poetry Editor