Adam Dickinson in e-conversation with Nnorom Azuonye continued from previous page
NA: But surely, somewhere between those who believe in poetry's powers of prescription, education and efficacy versus its creativity, intuition and transcendence, poetry must be resolving issues.
AD: My belief is that poetry does not offer "solutions"; it does not participate in the prescriptive economy of system in this way. What poetry offers is a different way of thinking, it offers potential; it offers us a way of questioning our relationships. This is where all politics must begin. Emmanuel Levinas distinguishes ethics from morality by saying that morality is the systematic code that delineates the good and the bad - it tells you what to do. Ethics, on the other hand, is the relationship with the other that precedes any systematic closure; it is the pure potential of your relationship with the other (person, in the case of Levinas, but let's think wilderness in the case of McKay). I think poetry is more like ethics and less like morality. Poetry does not tell you what "the good" is because that requires a certain kind of materialist, totalized thinking. Rather, the "solution" poetry might offer is a reorientation toward the question of "the good." Politics, if it is to be ethical, must be less prescriptive (because people and things do not fit neatly into boxes) and more responsive to its relationship with that/those that resist definition (because none of us are reducible to linguistic thinking).
NA: Going by what you just said, I don't know whether it is you agreeing with Nelson Mandela or vice versa when he says that, " Poetry cannot block a bullet or still a sjambok, but it can bear witness to brutality--thereby cultivating a flower in a graveyard."
AD: I agree with what Nelson Mandela has said; however, I would chose to emphasize the cultivated flower not simply as another focus for witnessing, but as the active expression of another way of thinking. Poetry is active by asking us to think otherwise. It's not simply that poetry bears witness, but that it provokes non-systematic thinking.
NA: Can you be persuaded that a poem might be a life form growing in its own emotion and intelligence during the course of its interaction with human life forms?
AD: Is poetry a living thing? I must admit to being a bit tentative with these kinds of claims. In my studies of environmental literary criticism I have often encountered arguments that claim poems are trees, are forms of life and energy transfer. While these are metaphorical approaches, I do not think they are approaches that are conscious of themselves as metaphors. The analogies are too tidy, too fervent. I see poems as expressions of being alive, of being in resonant connection to the world. A poem is a kind of relationship.
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