Do It Anyway
Updated: Feb 15, 2022
Wendell Berry keeps going back to this poem by Hayden Carruth, a poet Wendell deeply admires. The poem is a reply. Someone asked Carruth to write a poem against the Vietnam War.
“Well I have,” starts the poem, and it culminates with these lines:
But death went on and on
Never looking aside
Except now and then like a child
With a furtive half-smile
To make sure I was noticing
Wendell reads and re-reads this poem because he likes it, but also because he wants to understand its hold on him. It’s uncomfortable and he wants to understand his involvement with the problem presented.
The problem is futility. It’s a feeling I’m all-too-familiar with myself. I’ve blogged about it before and I’m in the thick of it today, even, feeling puny versus my health insurance company, which I really need to come through for my family right now. There’s that, plus my having recently been hollowed out by Isabel Wilkerson’s authoritative social history Caste, which taught me in 400 pages more than I got in eight years of higher education about the “nature of our discontents.” The book leaves an impression, probably never to fade for me, that the subjugation of people of color by whites in America has always been, and remains, as structurally impenetrable as a presidential bunker. The American caste system is sanctioned, intentional and insidiously effective. Futility is much on my mind these days, yes.
Carruth’s poem is called “On Being Asked to Write a Poem against the War in Vietnam,” and it is an indictment of protest poems. Yet he wrote it anyway.
In his short essay “A Poem of Difficult Hope,” Wendell is working out why Hayden Carruth, or anyone for that matter, would speak out in protest, when protest (despite our most fervent wishes), so rarely alters events. Easy to see why this might hit close to home for Wendell, a poet and a champion of the losing side on pretty much every modern issue.
Poets and poetry have always borne the cross of futility. The cartoon poet picks at daisies and scribbles in dark café corners – is almost by definition, what, touched? Out of touch? Even the best poetry is still just words, just pen and ink. It doesn’t stop wars. I think about that photograph from the Vietnam and hippie years -- the flower stuck in the barrel of a rifle. A poetic image. A nice statement. But the rifle always wins. The futility problem is a deadly serious one.
What to do? Every day I wonder. What to do? American democracy, I’m learning, is a mirage, and even the mirage is falling apart. Russia is amassing troops around Ukraine, the pandemic rages on rending the few social contracts we have left, labor is underpaid, materials are unaffordable, and greenhouse gases are STILL accumulating. We’ve gone past the kind of dread that’s spoken only in whispers. We’re seeing entertainment offerings now like the Netflix blockbuster “Don’t Look Up” and reading Times op-ed’s like Michelle Goldberg’s “Are We Really Facing a Second Civil War?” As recently as a couple of years ago, these out-loud, catastrophic, end-state reckonings would have been scoffed out of any pitch-room.
Things are bad and getting worse. Berry wrote this essay in 1990, the year I graduated from college. A lifetime ago. Although his essay is dispassionate and clinically analytical as is his wont, I believe this Carruth poem speaks so poignantly to Wendell because neither has his pen stopped a single act of violence. It’s supposed to be mightier than the sword, but the Carruth poem includes a few lines that put that old adage in its place:
Not one breath was restored
To one shattered throat
Mans, womans or childs
What’s the point of poetry, of poets, of protest when, as history shows, none can stop a bullet, a bulldozer, a foreclosure, or any one of the evils that Wendell has watched accumulate over nearly a century of watching. Yes, I think the effects of poetry and of protest must be at the very center of Wendell Berry’s thinking and questioning.
As they should be at ours. For while we may not be poets, we are all bound up in this same problem of individual impotence in the face of real danger. No matter what we choose, it’s never enough. Reduce your carbon footprint? Yes, but it won’t actually cool the planet. Be sure to vote and help others vote? Yes, but gerrymandering and voter suppression will more than undo your efforts. Give more generously? Yes, but who are you leaving out?
We have to find a way to slay the futility that seems to define our small lives. That’s why I believe Wendell finds so much packed into this short poem, and also why he likes it.
First of all, the poem exists. Carruth was asked to write it to lodge a protest, and he did. He did not have to, and judging from what he has to say about protest poetry, we might be surprised that he did so at all. But to speak is to hope, Wendell says. “There is a world of difference between the person who, believing there is no use, says so to himself or to no one, and the person who says it aloud to someone else.”
Speaking, or writing, about despair especially, is an act of hope. A person descending the trail into despair need not mark the way; but to do so is an act of hope. To speak aloud, to write, is to have hope, even if just a little. Especially when it comes to despair, Wendell writes, because in way, hope is defined by despair. We must know sorrow if we would have joy.
The meaning of Carruth’s poem, then, isn’t to be found in its text, which is an embittered lament of lives lost and the poet’s impotence. Rather, the importance of the poem is in how it tells the truth of our very human dilemma, especially now, in what Wendell calls “the most destructive and stupid period in our species history.”
The truth is that when we do despair, are despairing, and are faced with abject futility, we continue to write and speak out in hope. This is in fact what so many people do. Our small acts of personal protest are markers of hope – not toward public or political success, for which there is scant evidence of effect, but of something that is both more modest and more profound: the heart's refusal to acquiesce, no matter what.
“A Poem of Difficult Hope” captures for Wendell what Mr. Berry’s life captures for me – a stubborn and defiant cry against human reduction, despite every pressure to give up, shut up, or conform. “On its face it protests – yet again – the reduction of the world," writes Wendell. "But its source is a profound instinct of resistance against the reduction of the poet and the man who is the poet.”
Hayden Carruth wrote a poem about the futility of poetry because he is a poet. His wholeness of heart, his spirit and the roaring insistence of his humanity are preserved through the making of this poem. By spitting in the eye of futility, he embodied for Wendell, and for us his weary and sometimes despairing companions, the right way and the only way to approach that which we cannot control. You do it anyway. You write it anyway. You believe in it anyway.
“We shall overcome,” goes the spiritual. But what I’m taking from this essay is that until then, and maybe more importantly -- we shall sing, alone and with others, no matter the futility of our song.