Image: Palestinian man returning home (cc) falasteenyia
DURING THE RECENT EVENTS in Gaza, I was struck by how many more questions I had than answers. As poets, we spend our days thinking about specificity and detail. We attempt to make sense of the world, or at least, illuminate the ways comprehension eludes us. If poetry is news that stays news, then what can poets help us understand about seemingly incomprehensible situations?
In true 21st century fashion I issued a call on Facebook asking if anyone could put me in touch with poets and critics who were in Israel or the West Bank, Palestine. Within moments I had so many suggestions and offers of help. This in itself says something about the world of poetry. How small it is. And how varied.
It has been my privilege over the last 10 days to work with some very brave and thoughtful poets on the following dispatches on the situation in Gaza. Some of the poets are American citizens. All have a deep connection to the region. Three of our four correspondents are currently living in Israel or the West Bank. All of our correspondents wrote their pieces amidst sirens and fears for the safety of their families. Which also says something about the world of poetry.
We welcome letters and thoughts about these pieces. We welcome you to the conversation.
— Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Poetry Editor
— Joshua Rivkin, Assistant Poetry Editor
— Elizabeth Metzger, Assistant Poetry Editor
ANY MOMENT A PIERCING siren may go off, one that hustles people into bomb shelters, stairwells, protected rooms. I announce that if this happens, we’ll head to the shelter in the building, wait for the danger to pass, then return to our classroom. I am teaching a course on Walt Whitman at Tel Aviv University, which I’ve taught for the past several years in the Department of English and American Studies. In many cases, the students’ first languages aren’t actually English, but Hebrew, Arabic, or Russian. We are very far from where Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass, not just geographically, but linguistically and culturally. Two students have emailed me to say they were sorry to miss class, but they’d been called up to the army. The students who are in class have a questioning expression on their faces: Who can study Whitman at a time like this? I have a ready response to this question, which I say aloud: Now is the time we must study Whitman.
At best, such a statement probably sounds naïve, at worst, absurd. Why would reading Whitman — the 19th-century American, bombastic, arrogant, sensual poet — be relevant, let alone urgent, during a crisis in the Middle East? Not to mention there is a pervading doubt among students, society, and frequently poets themselves, as to poetry’s importance. Poetry doesn’t make anything “happen”; rather, it is a vague and suspicious “way of happening,” to evoke Auden’s elegy for Yeats. A poem can’t break down a wall or protect us from missiles. A poem can’t rush to the scene of a bus bombing with blankets and stretchers. Whitman himself vo...read more