The Power of the Poet

A conference of distinguished poets was held in Cambridge last summer in connection with the Harvard Summer School, and their discussion brought out these illuminating words of PIERRE EMMANUEL, the French poet and critic. Mr. Emmanuel, who was born in 1916, is the author of some fifteen volumes of prose and verse; he taught mathematics and philosophy at a French lycée but stepped out of academic dress to take an active part in the Resistance movement. He is now in charge of the English-language broadcasts of the French government radio station. Radio Diffusion Française.



I WISH to examine here a general problem, that of the communicability of poetry — or, more precisely, the conditions poetry must fulfill in order to become a common mode of expression and to cease being an idiom for initiates, a sacred but dead language. We are living in a world where the interest of such a discussion max appear quite insignificant to certain minds. Without a doubt, we believe in poetry in general, but the poet, in his heart, doubts the seriousness of what he conceitedly calls his poetic activity, as soon as he becomes attacked by the monstrous sorrow of the world, by the images of war, bombardments, concentration camps, and slums.

In these days, to allow oneself the luxury of sitting before a sheet of paper to lament the flight of time, or, as Unamuno says, to sing of the thighs of a passing mistress, would seem a childishness so scandalous that, lacking irony, simple modesty would be sufficient to deter us.

We are plunged into a century which leaves us no way out, involved as we are in the confusion, the misery, and the crimes of our time. That communion which men cannot attain in the harmony of a mutual ideal, they are attaining today in the universal anguish which drags them into mutual ruin.

We feel that this solidarity in destruction and death is our most precious asset, the hallmark of our human condition, our only place in the sun. If there is in man a ferment of love which inspires him with the thirst for language, the need of surpassing himself by expression, to create universal values, it can be found only where the weight of history is the most compelling and the abandonment the most despairing: that is, in the common human fabric that suffers, that cries in vain toward happiness, and dies in order to find it — or too often because of not finding it.

In the face of this suffering which invades us, how disarmed we are — we, the manipulators of phrases. We should like both to say and to act — and we are ever but sayers, ”les diseurs de mots.”

Words have lost their power; if they have still an effect of magic, they are incapable of carrying us forward, of bearing witness to our faith in them. Language no longer has the value of a moral action which would create the example and the type, the ratio between what should be and what is.

Of course, we speak learnedly of the stars, we meddle with unexpected metamorphoses, and the richness of imaginary marvels encumbers our verses. We are proud of having delved very deeply into what we call poetic experience, to have enlarged the field of imagery and liberated words from their ordinary sense.

But is not this precisely our mistake? We no longer speak like ordinary men, and our isolation humiliates us, in spite of the proud solitude with which we mask our humiliation. For we feel keenly that what man lacks most in the present disorder of thought is the common meaning, the verity that is true for all, a verity whose formulation escapes us. We have lost the power to utter it with a conviction which the words exact.

We believe ourselves responsible for language, and it belongs to the dignity of the artist to carry that responsibility to the end. But what does this responsibility require from us if not to preserve, to search out, and to magnify more and more the common meaning of everybody’s words, the concrete experience by which the humblest lives grow?

Do you remember the line by Hölderlin in his elegy “Brot und Wein": “ Brot is der Erde Frucht, doch ist vom Lichte gesegnet — Bread is the fruit of the earth, but by light is it blessed”? The things of common experience, sentiments, aspirations, receive their true meaning from this double reality, earthly and luminous. The vocation of the poet is to give to all things their part of light, their portion of beauty which transfigures them.

But, says again Hölderlin: “What good are poets in these times of misery?” There are people who are hungry, others who are oppressed, others who kill and are killed, others who prepare or stir up wars; and this is not a passing crisis, it is the daily condition of our universe. The most monstrous event is in the order of the immediate probabilities; the prospect of the worst horror becomes the subject of casual conversation in the street, and there is no word, be it ever so sacred, that has the power of giving men back their reason. What then is happening? We have entered into a period of mutation in history, which, tomorrow perhaps, will express itself by vast specific migration and the trampling underfoot of the old values by new barbarian times. Our thought is unprepared for events of this order and magnitude; it is anguished and disconnected; at one moment conservative, at the next revolutionary, but always at odds with itself.

On one side we see souls who are highly and perhaps excessively individualized, but incapable of vital force and concerted action; on the other side are the almost indivisible masses moved by a confused aspiration, where each individual thinks and feels itself alive only when it is submerged in the mass force. These individualized beings and these masses use the same words but not the same language. Suppose the language of the first group has attained perfection in one kind of meaning. This meaning is the result of a long tradition of intellectual privileges patiently consolidated by an elite, reinforced by the existence of a corresponding social order. Yet this social order succumbs to its own contradictions, this elite is devoured by its own skepticism. A poet who sings for himself, and for the three hundred or so readers each of whom will honor his work with a misinterpretation, cannot help doubling not only the necessity but the reality of what he writes: more precisely, he does not know for whom he writes, or, if he does, he no longer has confidence in this “elite” which has ceased to believe in itself.


WE SEE happening today what inevitably happens each time the number of privileged people diminishes while the mass of have-nots increases: this mass upsets the social balance and, with it, its intellectual guarantees, the weakened guardians of a language incomprehensible to the masses because it tells them nothing which corresponds to their own experiences. Of course it is always possible for anyone to acquire the old type of culture; but even if the great mass of people had the time to follow the path traced by this culture, they would not take it, because their inclination leads them elsewhere, down some other unpredictable path.

As I said, the language crisis comes from this paradox: that the same words are the vehicles of two different languages. Do words represent permanent values, definite conquests of the human spirit, and if so, to what extent are we to blame for having limited these conquests by reserving them for a small elite instead of extending them to everyone? Or, on the other hand, will the new man be of a different make-up than ours, and must he, in order to invade the world scene, destroy all these ideas which seem to us constituents of human nature in general?

Take the word liberty, for example, and the present-day idea it implies. Does it contain an indestructible something which would be part and parcel of man? Or, on the contrary, will the concept of liberty such as we all agree on (I mean the idea of individual free will) appear one day as strange as emperor-worship is to us.? Or will even this latter idea replace our conception of free will in men’s spirit, so that man might come to depend on Caesar alone for his thoughts as well as for his bread?

It is not an academic question: it is the question of today. Are we sitting in on the death agony of the human personality? We could just as well ask ourselves, why this agony? And the reply is easy: if it is true that every human being tends to be a distinct personality, the masses, becoming more and more numerous, have ceased being personalities, because they had not the elementary means of obtaining a standard of living, a standard of freedom, higher than the vital minimum required.

We begin to perceive that the meaning of words is conditioned by the needs of man, that there is no liberty without bread. In other words, the idea of liberty contains the idea of bread; and the idea of bread, for those who know how to develop it in the light, embraces the idea of liberty. A great poet could write a whole epic starting from the one word bread. In fact all the basic factors of life are worthy of the poet’s inspirations, for it is from life that human aspirations evolve. Men need to be talked to about what they feel and what they suffer, and the first duty of language is to meet the everyday experience before exalting it. To cast the light on bread is to endow it with the dignity that those who cat it recognize vaguely; thus they do more than simply nourish their bodies: they partake of a symbolic communion. But this communion, far from abolishing their own personality, makes them aware of its singular taste. Each one accepts the symbol of his own way, and the same word awakens different responses and impulses.

Every day, we notice to what extent men are insensible to impeccable logical reason: had they been sensitive to it, the world would long ago have become rational. It is because logic neglects the affective element in man which corresponds to the obscure energies of the world. But clothe an idea in a metaphor and it will call forth a response in those whom the naked idea leaves cold. Poetic language has therefore a virtue in itself that we no longer know how to exploit, because we cease to take it at its source, at the heart of natural human needs.

It is not true that the fundamentals in man change, and that this appetite for singularity which makes people moral beings should be nonexistent in the underprivileged. It can be mute or throttled, unsuspected because of the lack of words that express it, but it exists. And I say that it is for us to give it words and meaning.

How this is to be done remains to be seen. It is important, I believe, to recall the example of the French resistance poetry under the occupation. During that time, ideas were forbidden: whoever ventured to clarify the logic of facts would have come under censorship and been put in prison. Besides, and this was the crux of the matter, the national conscience had been wounded; the humiliation, the anger, the guilt complex had attacked the core of the most ordinary sensibility, and one does not give moral health by good reasoning. It is also true that the official ideology, whose inventors were perfectly aware of the profound malady of the French soul, persevered during four years in expounding a logic that conformed to the appearance of facts and which nevertheless never convinced anyone but cowards and imbeciles; and this was because the majority refused all appearance of reason, in the name of another profounder reason, that of the heart. And whatever help was received from voices over the air to boost the French morale once again, it was not by logic that these voices captivated the most logical people on earth, but because this logic took the same direction as our instinct.

And this is what happened: French poetry before the war was the appanage of a small number of alchemists who were distilling a rare liqueur for delicate palates. All of a sudden these same alchemists, with one accord, abandon their retorts, neglect their cabalistic formulas, and begin speaking at the level of ordinary human sensibilities. The emotions, the passionate forces, that the upheaval of defeat brought to the surface were so strong that the poets themselves were overwhelmed by them. He who feels himself gripped by the throat tends to cry out; and if he succeeds, perhaps he will then breathe easier, even for a short second, Cry out. This indeed is not in itself a poetic act, but the miracle is precisely that each one cried in his own language, using the words, the images, and the poetic syntax that were his. Between their pre-war poetry and the new themes which necessity discovered for the poets, there was no lack of continuity in expression, but a progress in the communicability of thought, because the forces which were expressing themselves by the voice of the poet were the same as those which moved the hearts of millions of beings, in France and elsewhere.

When poets spoke of liberty at that time, they knew, through the most bitter experience, what they were speaking of. And liberty meant for them the sky, the tree in front of the deserted house, the taste of dust when a man shot to death bites the earth, and the last sun ray before he closes his eyes. It meant also, sometime, somewhere, in some mysterious way, the resurrection of that man into another one, who would perhaps die in his turn, and so on without end.

Why did people begin to understand a language which had been closed to them before? Simply because their souls and their wounded entrails were crying louder than cold reason; because they had a need for symbols and not for logical thought. The proof was there, at least for a time, and the most personal language can give voice to a universal aspiration, make it conscious of itself, and in so doing make it live and grow.


I SAID: The proof was there for a time. For the post-war period saw poetry once again disaffected, the poets deprived of that universal soul which had permitted them to surpass themselves. Why? Because the community of sentiments, instinctive religion which had reappeared at the hour of danger, had only known how to combat the immediate and visible enemy; the latent egoisms, the contradictory interests, were slumbering, but the victory had liberated them. The old social forms came back to life. Man’s imagination, mobilized only in revolt, had not created any new forms, nor even altered those in use, which survived, though recognized as quite out of date. We were exactly at this point: our old civilization is like the chrysalis which holds an impatient world eager to be born; no one, it would appear, has sufficient imagination to crack the shell that imprisons it.

What then is lacking in Western man — not for survival over himself, but to renew himself? He seems to lack a raison d’être, a motive.

Occidental man has lost his lyrical power — that is to say, the power to believe in his own accomplishment, no matter how technically perfect it may appear. And why? Because this man, whose roots go back to the old humanist tradition, suffers obscurely from the regression of his spiritual values; he feels that technique alone is not sufficient. To this uneasiness must be added another: the technical accomplishments are unequally distributed, and the principle of equality on which our society is founded is upset. All the conditions for wellbeing seem to be realized, but this well-being is nowhere the starting point for a spiritual transport, a renewed hope, a great architectural movement or a new epic of man.

We now come to the core of the situation, where poetry, the fact of creating, presents itself in the perspective of history. There is a “lyricism" in Communist countries, a “lyricism” of edification which we know will exhaust itself early in the game because it will become saturated. In Western countries we find no community lyricism which, without deviating from the technical effort, could bring it to its just proportion, destroy the slavery of the machines without hindering progress, and on this material gain establish a spiritual edifice which we lack. I see two reasons for this lack of power on our part. The first is that our modern states feel themselves threatened in their material power and they can stave off this threat only by letting themselves be corrupted by the methods of the adversary— that is to say, by sacrificing individuals to technique. The second, which proceeds from the first, is that the individuals are ensnared by the obsession of technique, are becoming one with the machines, which should protect them but which in reality devour them. And I mean by machines not only steam hammers and tanks, but all the bureaucratic apparatus which controls more and more the social comportment of people.

Is there still time for the creative spirit to dominate the historic situation? In the present state of things, is there still sufficient spiritual force — that is to say, are there enough powerful individualities — in the Western world to react against the fatalism which has us in its thrall? Can these powerful individualities animate the mass of men by restoring to them their ability to believe in themselves and in the community to which they belong: Men or groups that defend only material wealth are condemned to defeat. They are retreating into an aggressive neurosis, like the miser haunted by the fear of thieves. Fear is not a creative force: it is the contrary of faith. A community which would refuse a spiritual risk would, by its own act, efface itself from history. Have we, at present, the opportunity of taking on a spiritual risk? The values that we pretend to defend, and that it would be better to illustrate, are all values founded on risk; but are they still alive, or can they be brought back to life?

An old Chinese curse runs something like this: May your children live in a historic epoch! We are all struck by this malediction. But let us reflect on the chances for grandeur which might result from our position. History unfolds around us like a vast mythical fresco: we are the forced actors in a universal drama, though we are not — or we believe we are not — equal to the drama which is being played.

Each one of us today feels that he has a destiny out of proportion to the measure of his ability — whence the neurosis of our times. If history, from every angle, were presented to man by the drama or the epic, with the protagonists against a backdrop formed by the chorus, by the communion rites such as were practiced by the Greeks or during the Middle Ages, each of us would take part in the human adventure and become fortified in his faith, detach himself, perhaps, from the chorus, and join the actors in their place on the front of the stage. The importance of the theater today comes from the fact that the spectators delegate the actors in their place; the contrary can be equally true, the spectator receiving the mandate from the poet through the actor as intermediary.

The poet of today, if he is — and wants to be— conscious of the tragic grandeur of his times, has in him what is necessary to build up such an enterprise. He suffers through history on the same plane as other men, in the ranks; he is goaded by the remorse of not having said what they needed to hear, and that he is aware of. He has weighed the essential values, kept what is permanent in their transitory forms; he knows the language of myths, as much from ancient culture as from the recent discoveries of the subconscious; he foresees some of the great figures of the future. Of course, the prop of the collective faith is lacking, that would save the modern hero from his contradictions and his doubts in himself. But the reverse is almost true: the latest collective faith is lacking in poets who may have the audacity to express it.

He may be you or I — he is in fact everyone who does not surrender his own soul to the overpowering fatalism of our time. If we believe in man — that is to say, in our own vitality — we are prepared to challenge the world’s absurdity with deeds as well as words. Moreover we are prepared to express, if not to succeed in expressing, some kind of hope worth the scale of the present drama of mankind. It is essential for me to think of men to come two hundred years from now. In my deepest soul I feel contemporary with any achievement of man, be it past or future; and that thought is for me the only means of overcoming the despair of modern life. By the strength of that thought, yesterday’s cathedrals were built up. There are still cathedrals to build up everywhere; there is still, there will ever be, faith to cry man out of his own death.

It is only a question of breath: breath and faith are one and the same. Is it possible that a few might have enough faith to transmit it to all? There are moments when I think so, and others when our impotence crushes me, because the society in which I live, and where the moral inheritance seems inexhaustible, is severed at the roots and pulled apart from its foundations. Its virtues become incarnate only in moments of dire distress.

And here is the conclusion I come to concerning this language crisis which is first a crisis of faith. I wonder if we may not. have to face the absolute risk of death in order that we may find again the reasons for living, and that the chorus of the drama may find its voice.