For others, bravery in poetry is about the courage to say what needs to be said.
Yet we undeniably live in a time and place where “bravery in poetry” means something very different than it has in the past. This bravery has sometimes meant putting aspects of one’s life on the line.
Still, bravery is and always has been an infinitely broad rage of experience. In some cases it manifests most profoundly in what is not said.
All this and more was broached at The Poetry Society of America and PEN World Voices Festival’s “Bravery in Poetry” presentation last week at The New School. Several contemporary poets discussed the work of poets they feel have demonstrated bravery and risk-taking in their work and lives.
Mary Karr talked about the “brute facts in unvarnished terms” in the work of Zbigniew Herbert.
“Risking something is more than unconventional line breaks,” said Karr, as though reminding us of a different time and place, one in which what was risked was significant, one today’s young poets may struggle to channel.
Yet, to Herbert, who shrugged off such accusations, it was never about bravery—it was simply a matter of taste.
Concluding “The Power of Taste” he writes:
It did not require great character at all
we had a shred of necessary courage
but fundamentally it was a matter of taste
that commands us to get out to make a wry face draw out a sneer
even if for this the precious capital of the body the head
Herbert raises the important question of whose place it is to qualify one’s bravery.
Yusef Komunyakaa talked about “the severe bravery” and “lack of hesitation” in the work of Muriel Rukeyser.
As someone who “breath[ed] in experience” and “breath[ed] out poetry,” Rukeyser’s life and work were about “learning the so-called Other,” said Komunyakaa.
Edward Hirsch’s depiction of Joseph Brodsky as “a party of one,” (in “I Sit By The Window”: “My song was out of tune, my voice was cracked, / but at least no chorus can ever sing it back”) and one who saw poetry as a form of existence for which he must make the largest possible case came closest to my own realm of experience, and the tensions between declaring oneself a poet and standing by the lifestyle (though I would never dare compare my “bravery” to Brodsky’s).
In perhaps the most moving presentation of the evening, Henri Cole took on James Merrill, who eventually succumbed to AIDS-related illness, though he, arguably, never directly addressed the experience of his illness in his work, nor did he tell anyone but his close friends he was sick.
“I hate the word ‘elegant’ to describe him,” said Cole, who sees the word as a slur by critics for Merrill’s homosexuality.
Merill, said Cole, did not want to be treated as a sick person despite the moral pressures of the time to speak out.
“His silence was heroic,” said Cole. “He denied himself the comfort.”
Maybe we don’t have to be as socially and politically courageous in our work as the writers who came before us, though we struggle still, and forever will, to be personally courageous. The bravery our predecessors took on is a luxury for us but, potentially, a detriment as well. Will we ever learn to be as bold as they were—as they remain in their immortalized words—if not presented with the challenges they helped remove?
(Ed note: this is a second review of the May 1 "Bravery in Poetry" event. Read Sharon Preiss's take here.)