A Portrait of the Artist as Activist: “in the sunlit prison of the American dream”
Standing in Starbucks a few days ago, just a couple weeks after I discovered honey in the sweetener and creamer station, I was peeling open a packet of honey when three lines came to me:
we rape the bees
because they are sweet
because we can
My poet-self writes this way; lines come to me, and I usually type them into Notes on my iPhone and email that to myself to work on when I have time.
Driving to my university office, I rehearsed those lines over and over, priming myself for the rest of the poem to appear — to reveal itself to me.
As a poet, I am often asking myself and the lines that come: What is this about?
I have preferred honey over processed sugar as a sweetener for about three decades, but over the last year, I discovered that among vegans, eating honey is a serious debate; many vegans do not eat honey.
It is a matter of consent.
And while some find veganism an easy target of ridicule, I see such commitments as powerful contexts of living one’s ethical and political beliefs.
Bees and honey, then, were buzzing in my unconsciousness as a political and ethical dilemma — one further complicated by my own sense that I wanted to write about worker bees as a metaphor for workers in the time of Trump.
The tension, however, became how to write a poem that remained a poem while it seemed to call out to be a political statement.
My foundational poetic muse is e.e. cummings, but my single poetic standard is Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” a magical diamond of a poem. Concision and precision, undeniable as a paper cut (like William Carlos Williams in “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This Is Just To Say”).
The final version of we rape the bees (because we can), I hope, fulfilled that goal by focusing on sound (I chose the soft “s” as a whisper to the hard “z” associated with bees), wordplay (“trump,” “unjust desserts”), essential but vivid images (“golden lips and sticky fingers”), and the briefest of allusions (only “enslaved” as I resisted how to pack the poem with both slavery and the Japanese Internment).
A good poem, I think, even if it demands to be a political poem, becomes good by all that the poet chooses to leave out as the poet strips the billowing ideas down to the least possible words.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel,” wrote James Baldwin in “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” “having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women.”
Baldwin engages in this essays that tension between art and politics/activism, arguing, “It is this power of revelation which is the business of the novelist, this journey toward a more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims.”
Choosing fidelity to art over politics and activism, Baldwin rejects the protest novel:
But unless one’s ideal of society is a race of neatly analyzed, hard-working ciphers, one can hardly claim for the protest novels the lofty purpose they claim for themselves or share the present optimism concerning them. They emerge for what they are: a mirror of our confusion, dishonesty, panic, trapped and immobilized in the sunlit prison of the American dream.
The missionary zeal of activism erases both the core values of the artist and the intent of that zeal — and then Baldwin reminds us:
It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality.
Turning at the end to Richard Wright’s Native Son, Baldwin concludes:
The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.
“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats)
“In the latter half of the twentieth century, two visionary books cast their shadows over our futures,” explains Margaret Atwood, whose The Handmaid’s Tale has been rejuvenated with the rise of Trump.
While strongly associated with George Orwell, see her essays on “Writing Utopia” and “George Orwell: Some Personal Connections,” Atwood turns from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to another classic dystopian work:
The other was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), which proposed a different and softer form of totalitarianism — one of conformity achieved through engineered, bottle-grown babies and hypnotic persuasion rather than through brutality; of boundless consumption that keeps the wheels of production turning and of officially enforced promiscuity that does away with sexual frustration; of a pre-ordained caste system ranging from a highly intelligent managerial class to a subgroup of dim-witted serfs programmed to love their menial work; and of soma, a drug that confers instant bliss with no side effects.
Then adds, “Which template would win, we wondered?…Would it be possible for both of these futures — the hard and the soft — to exist at the same time, in the same place? And what would that be like?”
Unlike the protest novel, could we find in dystopian science fiction a satisfying merging of art and politics/activism?
While Milan Kundera’s novels, notably The Unbearable Lightness of Being, seek to dramatize the philosophical and the political, Atwood’s dystopian works — from The Handmaid’s Tale to her MaddAddam Trilogy — are grounded in, as Atwood explains, history, not what she fabricates but what has already happened.
Atwood’s fiction is fiction in that she reconstructs human behavior while also infusing her dystopias with speculation, the logical extrapolations of actual human behavior.
“It was Huxley’s genius to present us to ourselves in all our ambiguity,” Atwood understands: “Alone among the animals, we suffer from the future perfect tense.”
The artist is a human driven to create, that urge welling up inside like a fresh batch of honey never aware of any intensions toward sweetness.
This, I think, we must not deny, for if we do, we deny ourselves.