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February 8, 2007

Poet laments lack of truth in discourse

“What is truly important is what we cannot forget — even if we try,” said one of the area’s most prominent authors Feb. 1 in a lecture at Benedum Auditorium titled “The Power of Less: Poetry and Public Speech.”

Events, people and places live on like aging photos, dated by their years, said Samuel Hazo, poet, essayist and novelist, who sprinkled his lecture with poetry and wisdom from Sophocles, Thoreau, John Donne, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Edmund Rostand and others, including several of his own poems.

“But memorable words seem to have an undying legacy, and they survive the times and places of their origin without difficulty because they retain their original energy and express something that is permanently true,” said Hazo, who also is McAnulty Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Duquesne University, founder and director of the International Poetry Forum and the inaugural State Poet of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a position he held from 1993 to 2003.

If, as poets have maintained, poetry represents the best words in the best arrangement, expresses felt thought in its fullness and is the voice that is great within all of us, why is this voice missing in almost all of American public discourse? There’s the rub, Hazo said, and it denotes a deplorable dearth of culture and self-awareness that threatens this country’s very humanity.

Public discourse stems from the emphasis on capitalism and its economic terminology, he said. “If the language of an economy becomes the working vocabulary of our lives, it can leave out many of those elements that sustain us as human beings,” such as imagination and reverence for life, Hazo said.

“As long as people see themselves living not in a society but in an economy, they naturally become more prone to regard themselves, or be regarded by others, as ‘consumers,’ purchasers,’ ‘assets,’ ‘personnel,’ ‘litigants,’ ‘contributors,’ ‘liabilities’ and so on,” Hazo maintained.

By this standard people are measured by quantity, not quality — that is, the language of abstraction and generality, of hidden persuasion and “spin” — and not the language of felt thought captured in its immediacy, of utterance born of necessity coupled with reflection.

“It becomes the language of inhumanity,” Hazo said.

In an economy where reality is distorted to support an ulterior worldview or agenda, the goal is not truth, but blind compliance, he said.

“To such ends language is often merchandised and cheapened, and what we are usually left with is a lie,” Hazo said. “And what of the language of government, which inclines toward and more often than we like to admit is actually propaganda,” Hazo charged. All governments lie — some less skillfully than others, some adroitly, but all shamelessly, he said.

“Lying in its essence is not merely a trivial fault; it is perversion of language itself. It does injustice to the social contract. Misused in this way, the corruption of language has led to everything from confusion to war, as our own recent history regrettably now confirms.”

Poets have the responsibility to expose such perversions of truth, to be the guilty conscience of their time, he said.

Lesser offenders in American language types include gossip, small talk, slang and swearing. Even straightforward statements, which serve a necessary purpose, soon evaporate into the forgettable, Hazo said.

“Of course, there are times in this cornucopia of usage when there are ‘poetic surprises,’ albeit just this side of clever,” he said. “Headline writers and PR types have been adopting poetic tropes for years to suit their purposes.”

“I like Ike” is an example, he said. So is the Lexus ad’s boast, “the passionate pursuit of perfection,” and when the Spanish matador Manolete was gored fatally at the instant he stabbed his last bull, a headline (in translation) read, “He killed dying and he died killing.”

“Such unexpected poetry happens almost by accident as if the ordinary diction of our lives finds itself unequal to a challenge,” Hazo said. “True poems are momentary intensities, and they are invariably as brief as they are unforgettable. They emphasize the power of less, calling to mind that principle in physics that shows how the more you reduce the spatial volume, the more you increase the pressure.”

The poetic voice is within all people, Hazo stressed, whether they tap into it or not. “Poetry tells us who we are, what our surroundings mean to us and what waits to be discovered beneath the apparent,” he said. “My 8-year-old grandson, after reviewing his arithmetic homework with his mother, told her, ‘Mom, I’ll love you to the last number.’

“People cannot live unfeelingly, however hard the stoic within them may try,” Hazo said. As every human being eventually must admit, feelings move inexorably toward expression.

“If people are more than economic integers, then the disregard of poetry will be as fatal to their spiritual lives as the deprivation of oxygen would be to their physical lives. Poetry — and all the other arts for that matter — will be regarded as ornamental or irrelevant or simply dispensable,” Hazo said.

“Why shouldn’t poetry occupy a central position in our cultural life if it is indeed the apogee of language and literature?”

—Peter Hart

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