|I edited the image from this article http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/boston-massacre-article-1.1317652|
Whereas art is the experience of a thing and poetry is the essence of art because it uses language, poetry seems to be the primary method for handling trauma because it forces us to deal with the derivation of fact (experience) through our own constructed and evolved tool (language). Poetry is the tool for looking into the abyss and as trauma and tragedy expose us to the abyss, it is the poet's job in trauma to pull back away from it.
Another way to look at the abyss is to consider it the realm of the absurd. In that we have a difficult time reconciling that we can know nothing about the meaning of life, therein lies the abyss, an unending drop into the quest for some kind of greater meaning. As we know, there are three ways of handling the absurd, simply, religion, suicide or, most paradoxically in time of tragedy, acceptance of the absurd. This is to say that one must accept not only the existence of the abyss on its own terms but also accept that it is nearly impossible to combat, leaving us with the other two readily available options.
Religion and suicide are easy forms of denial, a fourth but seemingly unfocussed on approach to the absurd. Why Camus did not note our ability to blow things off and ignore them is beyond me. Perhaps religion can be seen as a blindness towards the existence of an abyss but religious faith implies that one has seen into the abyss rather than avoided thinking about it. You could say that most humans take none of the three routes Camus gives us and simply exist without long-term consideration of abyssal studies. Perhaps religion's true goal is to indoctrinate at an early enough age that the absurd never becomes a factor.
Regardless, if one is aware that life is absurd, the three possibilities make sense, the first two more so (out of ease, really) and despite our feelings on them, can we blame others for being unable to accept the absurd? It seems that insanity can be the outcome of looking into the abyss and not being able to pull back out of it, but it is an involuntary decision. Religion, it can be said, is involuntary as well: one does not choose to believe, one simply believes. While all faiths suggest choice is the manner by which one arrives at religion, it seems that the fanatic has no choice but to be pulled into religion and do the bidding of those who control that aspect of religion for them. It seems that this is one form of terrorism.
Tragedy and the traumas that inevitably follow are the moment in which we are faced with the absurdity of life and the abyss simultaneously. "Why me?" people are inclined to ask, whether or not they are the direct victim of a tragic event or if they are affected by it indirectly (loss of a loved one or perhaps the witness to a tragedy). This is, of course, life's absurdity, that anything bad could happen at any moment and that ultimately, life has a way of continuing, assuming that is the path chosen. When faced with the abyss, there must be some moment in which the routes are either rationalization, accepting that there is no reason this happened to the victim, or for the mind to be incapable of understanding why. Long-term, it seems the subconscious is the one unable to rationalize and accept the absurdity of the situation, causing systemic issues after the event. Even if we are able to say to ourselves "There is nothing I could have done," it appears as though the subconscious is less forgiving of trauma, choosing to replay the event or look for markers in other activities or symbols of the tragedy and bringing the trauma boiling back to the surface. Obviously a psychologist or psychiatrist is much more capable of discussing how we process trauma, consciously or subconsciously.
If it is the poet who is to pull us back away from the abyss, then it is because poetry exposes the absurd because it does not have to contain statements or explanations. Poetry is allowed to avoid direct comment and gives us, as mentioned, the derivation, or the measure of change. While writing already provides the way of thinking through complex thoughts, it is in poetry where language is pressed beyond this and must strive for more than the retelling of event or concept. It is poetry that has the ability to obfuscate event and force focus to experience. When Mark Nowak went to the Ford plant in St. Paul, Minnesota to have laid-off workers share their experience of being laid off, they did so through poems because it was poetry that allowed them to express their emotions in a more complex manner. While they could have simply (or maybe it is not so simple?) expressed anger or sadness, it was through the act of writing poems that the workers were able to relieve the tension that their personal trauma created. In the case of the workers, we knew their story but we could not know the experience without poetry.
So in larger tragedies (there is no good way to word this), those that more directly influence a whole community versus a public within it, poetry continues to be a way to respond to those events. Whatever our personal beliefs, Amiri Baraka's "Somebody Blew Up America" is a response to tragedy through poetry. Obviously it makes some sense for the poet to turn to their craft when faced with a catastrophic event, but it seems poetry was already at the far end of the journey in Baraka's case. While the tragedy of 9/11 is depersonalized in Baraka's poem, his anger is directed towards the establishment who, in his opinion, allowed the event to occur. Again, while disagreeing with this view, it is a response regardless of its merits as a poem or Baraka as a poet.1
In Baraka's case, poetry is already his outlet, but here it serves a variety of purposes such as political statement, accusation, catharsis, and others. Poetry, in its nature as derivative, is what allows room for tragedy and cataloging of experience versus time-line of event. Surely expression does not have its only outlet in poetic speech but it is in this speech act that layers are expected and provided.
[to be expanded]
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus.
Heidegger, Martin. "...Poetically Man Dwells..."
". What Are Poets For?
1 Perhaps an idea for another time- it was amazing to see a poem be met with criticism in the public, considering poems are, at best, ignored by the public.↩