"A Poetry of Essential Service"

Events in New Orleans after Katrina remind us of the truth of John Dos Passos's assertion in his trilogy, U.S.A., that "we are two nations," and have been, perhaps even from the beginning. Those in power do not care about those without power. Writers, musicians, and artists may serve power as much as anyone, but those who have not gone along may galvanize us in ways no one else can. "How much history can be communicated by pressure on a guitar string?" Robert Palmer asks. "More than we will ever know," Greil Marcus answers. The storyteller, singer and artist may become the voice of the people and their response to events is always a needed counterhistory.

In Cleveland, d. a. levy, our sixties poet laureate, titles one of his books, ukanhavyrfuckinciti bak. Cleveland is "the last medieval frontier, where machines have been built "to colonize yrself," he writes. Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders tell us, "My City Was Gone." In "Light of Day," Paul Schrader's film about rock music in Cleveland, Michael Douglas teaches his nephew (Joan Jett's son) a song beginning, "You got no place to go." R. B. Kitaj's painting, "The Erie Shore," shows us a doctor in red-striped Uncle Sam pants and a nurse in a rowboat in polluted Lake Erie, a naked torso of a bound woman at the bottom of the boat.

The poet Pablo Neruda tells the story of a coal miner coming out of the mines in the mountains of Chile, "as if rising from hell," Neruda says, and greeting the poet with the welcome, "I have known you a long time my brother." The folk singer, Victor Jara, imprisoned in a stadium in Santiago after the overthrow of Allende, is told to play his guitar after Pinochet's troops have chopped off his hands, and he does so, singing them down. The writer, singer and artist may not only ask questions of power but also may help sustain us and give ourselves hope in the face of it.

"We don't give advice," the Cleveland band, Devo, says in an interview. "We just offer information/it's important and relevant...it's information people should be aware of...it's what's happening in the world/it's the sound of things falling apart...a need for people to work together rather than to carry on with their individual consumerism and their waste of energy on a planet that is shrinking."

"When someone asks to see my diploma," levy writes, "i point to the sky."

Kitaj's painting, "The Ohio Gang," is a counterforce to Mark Hanna's politically corrupt Ohio Gang of the nineteen twenties. The Black Maid in the painting is, Kitaj writes, "an American tragedy which struck me as a child in Ohio and never ends. She deserves a memorial of her own as big as Lincoln's."

When Charlie Sheen comes out of the bullpen in the ninth inning of the decisive game against the Yankees in "Major League," the song, "Wild Thing" (first played by Joan Jett and the Runaways), accompanies him to the mound and reverberates over Cleveland to those watching the game on television or listening to it on the radio. Earlier, a black youth and a white one high-five one another when they see they are both wearing Wild Thing tee-shirts.

"I'm trying to live my life by an idea," Joan Jett tells her brother, Michael Douglas, in "Light of Day." "Rock and roll is an idea."

Words, Norman O. Brown writes, summarizing Freud, are a halfway house to lost things. The writer brings them back to us. The singer keeps them alive. The artist makes certain we do not forget.

"A poetry of essential service," Eliot Weinberger writes. "A poetry that ratifies the social contract of language. A poetry that describes its world, its history, its cosmos. A poetry of celebration and condemnation of the stuff and the way of the world. Song, narrative, speech: people talking to the gods and to each other."
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Volume 1, Issue 7, Posted 10.16 AM / 27th September 2005.