But an inhabited world, with its own philosophical, artistic, scientific, and literary traditions, is not what the European conquerors and colonists wanted to find. It is therefore not what they saw. They saw instead an empty world, free and ripe for the taking. They saw a gift of God meant for no-one but themselves.
This deliberate hallucination is still with us, like the star of a Christmas without end.
The European colonists’ arrival in the New World marks the escalation of a war that had been fought in Europe and Asia for more than two millennia and continues even now. It is the war between those who think they belong to the world and those who think that the world belongs to them. It is the war between the pagans, who know they are surrounded and outnumbered by the gods, and all the devotees of the number on – one empire, one history, one market, or one God – and who nowadays insist on the preeminence of everyone for himself: the smallest number one of all.
It is no accident that prophets of monotheism, including Plato and Mohammed, have often banished the poets. These prophets understand that the poet is a pagan and polytheist by nature. In a certain sense, even Dante, Milton, San Juan de la Cruz, Teresa of Ávila, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and T. S. Eliot are pagans. Without admitting it, they seem to understand, like the peoples of the Altiplano of Bolivia and Peru, and like many Native Canadians, that it is best to interpret Christianity as one more form of paganism.
But Mohammed and Plato are poets too in their way, monotheistic and tedious at times, but very much livelier and more pluralistic at others.
The great danger is single-mindedness: reducing things to one perspective, one idea, one overriding rule.
A polytheistic understanding of the world survived in Europe even in the time of the conquistadors, though it was then forced to take a wordless form. Music gave it refuge. It is found in polyphonic music, which is the music of multiple, simultaneous and independent voices. The churches of Europe overflowed with music of this kind in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It did not change the course of history, but it preserved an essential perception of the plurality of being. It preserved the essential, faithful heresy that reality is not of just one mind.
European music of more recent centuries is, for the most part, homophonic. It is the music of one voice that speaks in the names of all and of many voices that answer as one voice.
In the meantime, the conquest continues – in South America, North America, Asia, Australia, and in Europe too. It continues in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where a tradition of oral epic poetry survived from Homer’s time until even a few months ago. Now, at this moment, the villages in which those poets lived are rubble and mass graves.
From Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, and from Ireland to Japan, the forests fall and subdivisions replace them. The homes of the gods are supplanted by the houses and garages of human beings. It is hard work, this eviction of the gods and of all the cultures that acknowledge their existence. We keep at it even so.
The Haida poet Skaay refers to human beings as xhaaydla xitiit ghidaay: ‘plain, ordinary surface birds.’ Creatures with more power – killer whales, loons, grebes, sea lions, seals – know how to dive. They pierce the surface, the xhaaydla it is called in Haida. If we go with them – if, that is, we are invited to go with them – we enter the world of the myths. We come back speaking poetry.
Two thousand kilometres south of the country of the poet Skaay, in the Ruby Mountains, the country of the Paiute, now part of the state of Nevada, there are pines of the species Pinus aristata, bristlecone pines. These trees live longer than any other creatures on the earth. The oldest individuals – not much taller than I am – are 5000 years of age or more. A few years ago, a person who called himself a scientist found in these mountains a pine that might, he thought, be the oldest of all. He cut it down to count its rings. He killed what may indeed have been the oldest living being in the world, to convert it into a statistic. Then he published his report, without the least apology, in a scientific journal.¹
This is not science. It is one more thoughtless manifestation of the conquest, one more step in reducing the world to human terms.
The American novelist William Faulkner, when he received the Nobel Prize, concluded his address, by saying, ‘Mankind will not only survive, he will prevail.’ I am an admirer of Faulkner, but I think that his prediction is logically impossible. I think that if humanity survives, it can only be because it does not prevail, and that if we insist, like Ozymandias, on prevailing, we will surely not survive.
I have been listening to the world for barely half a century. I do not have the wisdom even of a young tree of an ordinary kind. Nevertheless, I have been listening– with eyes, ears, mind, feet, fingertips – and what I hear is poetry.
What does this poetry say? It says that what-is is: that the real is real, and that it is alive. It speaks the grammar of being. It sings the polyphonic structure of meaning itself.
In the great ceiling of the Sistine Chapel there are readers rather than writers. The prophets and sibyls scrutinize their folios and scrolls. Nothing is written there that we can read. The great pages in their laps and in their hands reflect what happens as if they were mirrors. In front of these blank mirrors the blind prophets are listening. There is only one writer, Jehosaphat the scribe, tucked away in the corner with his scrap of paper, listening to those who really listen.
The theme of the ceiling is the poetry of the world, not the glory of the poet. It is true that the face of Michelangelo is there in the midst of the chapel’s big back wall. It is rendered, this self-portrait, as a face still attached to a human hide freshly peeled from someone else’s living body. The sculptor is subsumed in his own tale. The listener listens to himself. In the midst of his own vision, the visionary can be seen. But he is peeled. In the midst of that most sculptural of paintings, the image of the sculptor is reduced to two dimensions.
When I was a youngster in school, someone asked me, ‘If a tree falls in the forest with no-one there to hear it, does it make a sound or not?’ The question is demented. If a tree falls in the forest, all the other trees are there to hear it. But if a man cuts down the forest and then cries that he had no food, no firewood, no shade, and that his mind can get no traction, who is going to hear him?
Poetry is the language of being: the breath, the voice, the song, the speech of being. It does not need us. We are the ones in need of it. If we haven’t learned to hear it, we will also never speak it.
Beings eat one another. This is the fundamental business of the world. It is the whole, not any of its parts, that must prevail, and this whole is always changing. There is no indispensable species, and no indispensable culture. Especially not a culture that dreams of eating without being eaten, and that offers the gods not even the guts or the crumbs.
When he sees his own people destroying the world, what is the poet to say? Stop? Or more politely, Please stop, please?
All the poets of all times can only say one thing. They can say that what-is is. When he sees his people destroying the world, the poet can say, ‘We’re destroying the world.’ He can say it in narrative or lyric or dramatic or meditative form, tragic or ironic form, short form or long form, in verse or prose. But he cannot lie, as a poet, and offer himself as the saviour. He can believe or not believe that salvation is possible. He can believe in one God or in many gods or in none. He can believe or not believe in belief. But he cannot finally say anything more than the world has told him.
When he sees that, in absolute terms, we human beings are now too numerous –in addition to the fact that we seem too powerful as a species – what is the poet going to do? Pull a trigger? Sing a song of praise to Herod or to Hitler? It is hard to say it to other humans, and humans of course, are loathe to believe it, but this is the fact: humans beings have built a world in which humans need to die more and faster then they do. Yet even in this condition, murder is not the answer.
Long ago, in a book of poems protesting the war in Vietnam, I read a simple statement that stays with me. I have not in thirty years been able to find the book again, and I am told that the lines I remember are really quoted from a speech by Martin Luther King. I remember seeing them in a poem, but perhaps the book in which I saw them was published only in my dreams. The lines as I remember them, in any case, are these:
When one is guided by conscience only,
there is no other side
to which one can cross.
There is no other earth to cross to either. There are no new worlds. Paradise will not be our asylum, and our hell will not be anywhere other than here. The world is one, at the same time that it is plural, inherently plural, like the mind. The proof of this plurality is the persistence of poetry in our time. It is extraordinary but true, in the present day, that poetry survives in the voices of humans, just as it does in the voices of all the other species in the world.
¹ The first-person account of this event is in Donald R. Currey, ‘An Ancient Bristlecone Pine Stand in Eastern Nevada’, Ecology 46.4 (Durham, North Carolina, 1965): 564-6. Galen Rowell retrells the story well in High and Wild (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1979): 99-105.
Images: Robert Montgomery
Robert Montgomery follows a tradition of conceptual art and stands out by bringing a poetic voice to the discourse of text art. Montgomery creates billboard poems, light pieces, fire poems, woodcuts and watercolours. He was the British artist selected for Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012, the first biennale in India. Montgomery has had solo exhibitions at venues in Europe and in Asia, including major outdoor light installations on the site of the old US Air Force base at Tempelhof. The first monograph of his work was published by Distanz, Berlin in 2015. robertmontgomery.org
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