In a cave in southern Germany, archeologists found what they believe might be the oldest surviving musical instrument, a flute made of vulture bone, and they thought, so that’s it, that’s why the Homo Sapiens survived and the Neanderthals, who were physically superior, did not. Not the mighty flute, of course, though it no doubt raised some spirits along the way, but the flute as evidence of music as evidence of community, of social organization. My mother sang to me as a kid, and then at a certain age she stopped. Many years later, she died. I hear that singing still.
And yes, part of the power of music is its phantom nearness, like the breath that sings. The poetry I love is like that. Sometimes when I write I close my eyes to see how things sound in the dark. Sometimes the silence around the language has the power of another person in the room. It is not of course. And yet, as a part of language, it becomes part of the expressive yearning, that hunger for connectivity and its opposite, for the play of meaning, that longing to be two people and one at the same time.
Of course the communal is in there, the historical, the political, and even our conditioning to say they are there—though it is a lie to say we see these things any more clearly than we see what it is that is original in our own decisions, our gestures, our errors and gifts, our words. Language is where we feel most acutely the tension between the individual and the collective, the private and the public—a tension which, mercifully, never resolves.
I feel most honest if I begin my musing on community by conversing with one person, real or otherwise. That’s how days tend to begin, by talking to one, considering, if I am mindful, that person’s face, how full of character it might be, what is in there and not there yet, the inner life in all its lovely complexity that dissipates in the hands of the larger categories. I think I do better, starting with one to see the many. This way I am more acutely aware of what in “the one” is and is not of “the many.” Both seem central to my imagination of humanity. My experience. Both. And I would say, likewise, both seem central to the experience of language. Particularly language that would embody most inclusively what we are, paradoxically by way of radiant essentials. Particularly poetry.
I am not terribly invested in the label “poet.” I tease a friend of mine who is a well-known poet who said in a radio interview that he is not a “poet,” just “a guy who writes poems.” Oh, brother. He laughs about it now too. We are all on a path somewhere. If you have written a poem, you’re a poet, I say. But “poem” can mean a lot of different things. Too many to discuss here. Perhaps central to the question about community is that “poetic activity” and what I find valuable in it is, to me, universal. It meets a universal need. That need and its symbolic expression allow for the wider resonance of poems that, in light and in spite of their inner intensities, refreshes many.
When language reaches beyond its utilitarian dailiness, via play and singularity of expression, to model one’s inner life as invested in and shaped by the outer world, it engages in something poem-like. For this reason, I find it useful to be out and about each day, trading words with whomever, because they surprise me, feed me, feed my writing. And what I say in return surprises me. Our greatest animating tensions are between the private individual and the public world, and poetry aspires to bear fuller testament to what those are by refusing to separate or conflate them absolutely. They dream the reconciliation of dualities more largely, of facts and values, culture and nature, imagination and reason. Metaphor as the heart of the poetic does similar work: bringing together without dissolving the vital energy of difference.
I see poems as “the other self,” or conscience, of philosophy. Likewise as the conscience of sociology. We’ve all seen it: the ardent Marxist, usually young, who is so smart and full of both good intentions and a desire to matter, full of the handed-down categories, brilliantly recast, the large mannered gesticulations that are the signature of civic mindedness—but the jargon has a way of effacing individuals in the distance. It’s not my intention to throw this jargon out or condemn such things, but one way of making immediate the notion of dialectic is to consider what these categories do not say. This means considering what the category of “community” can never say. Poems enact that kind of mercurial questioning, or can if they aspire toward the subtlest of inclusions. They are the one hand clapping, the one calling to the many, the many calling to the one. So when the topic turns to politics, just who is that person speaking? Who is listening? Who is imagined as listening? Are we getting better? Closer? Getting things done?
So yes. Poetry is fundamentally communal. It has the power to bring us together in the way that music does, to fill an auditorium with palpable awe as the last word falls. Perhaps it changes the behavior of some. Possible. Unknowable perhaps. Or rare. Surely it can voice a conscience that we recognize as something the culture desperately needs. I hope so. To put this hope into action is to let the best words inform our own, and so on. Words that are heard by many would be good. Really heard, the way poetry encourages us to hear by breaking into lines, slowing us down. “Bombs with slow fuses,” that’s what Ginsberg called poems. Or perhaps they comfort a mother who, in hospice, has a book by her bedside. There was a book like this at my mother’s place, a book she discussed with no one I know. I want to think it moved her. It made something enormous happen. I do not know this. I want to say, however sad or happy, it made her feel less alone.
Bruce Bond is the author of nine published books of poetry, most recently Choir of the Wells: A Tetralogy (Etruscan, 2013),The Visible (LSU, 2012), Peal (Etruscan, 2009), and Blind Rain (LSU, 2008). In addition he has three books forthcoming: The Other Sky (Etruscan), For the Lost Cathedral (LSU Press), and Immanent Distance: Poetry and the Metaphysics of the Near at Hand (University of Michigan). Presently he is a Regents Professor of English at the University of North Texas and Poetry Editor for American Literary Review.