Poetry & Ethics: Writing About Others

“The effect of literature on its readers is never easy to trace. Is the representation of evil itself evil, or can the representation create an understanding of evil and thus an aversion to it? The debate is as old as Plato and Aristotle…” Prof. Natasha Saj’e 

Any gathering of writers usually hosts a lively debate about whose work is good, bad, overvalued, etc. These judgments are mostly aesthetic, as I have argued elsewhere, with “quality” denoting formal complexity or experimentation and linguistic texture. It is less common for poets to debate the ethics of a poem, although in one example, Carolyn Forché’s poem “The Colonel,”1 the speaker visits an El Salvadoran colonel who shows her the dried ears of his victims, and that poem created controversy: Some readers argue that Forché’s “witnessing” was necessary to make the world cognizant of the atrocity, while others argue that the speaker exploits the cruelty described while being protected from it. The ethics of fiction have been studied in depth by Wayne Booth (The Company We Keep) and Martha Nussbaum (Love’s Knowledge).2 In poetry, Helen Vendler has treated the increased intimacy and ethical issues that arise when a poet writes to another entity—God in the case of George Herbert, future readers for Walt Whitman, and historical figures for John Ashbery3—and Robert Langbaum has studied the dramatic monologue, in which a poet speaks through other people4; in what follows, I examine poems in which the poet writes about other people. Transactions between writer and reader are like transactions with real people, and that is why they matter. Moreover, because of poetry’s intimacy—the readers of a poem are simultaneously addressee and speaker—I believe that some poems about others create an ethical disjunction for their readers.

Ethics is the systematic endeavor to understand moral concepts and justify moral theories and principles. Concerned with what “ought to be,” ethics seeks to effect change. I discuss, here, the ethical principles raised by poems about human beings that are not personae of the poet. The subject deserves a more complex treatment than what follows, yet I am compelled to at least begin a discussion. In one sense, poetry itself is an exercise in othering, in trying to understand something or someone foreign from oneself. How poets achieve that othering, that is, their avenues or methods concerns me here. My examples are not meant as a proscription against writing about other human beings; on the contrary, extending one’s vision beyond the self is important to good writing. Poetry should expand our sense of what it means to be human.

The ethics of literature involve nothing less than changing oneself and the world. Wayne Booth argues that the ethics of narrative (he includes poems in his definition of narrative, but doesn’t use them as examples) are reciprocal, and he includes not only deliberate lies or debased vision, but the effects on the tellers themselves.5 In other words, the writer of unethical literature feels its effects along with the reader. Booth also argues that ethics is central to any discussion of literature, and that writers have always been concerned with their effects on readers as well as on themselves. Keats, for example, in addition to his famous parallel of beauty and truth, worries about poems that have “too palpable a design” on their readers. Matthew Arnold writes, “the right function of poetry is to animate, to console, to rejoice—in one word, to strengthen. This function modern poetry seldom fulfills. It has thought, fancy, ingenuity; it often makes us admire the author’s powers, sometimes interests us, sometimes instructs us, occasionally puzzles us, but in general leaves our poor humanity as rueful and broken-backed, to say the very least, as it found it.”6 Since the 19th century, the subject of ethics and literature has been relatively neglected because of the separation of aesthetics and morality. The idea that art should be evaluated only in formal terms, a notion that found fruition in the fin de siècle “art for art’s sake” movement, lingers. In 1924, I.A. Richards notes, “morals have often been treated, especially in recent times, as a side-issue for criticism, from which the special concern of the critic must be carefully separated.”7 Yet, Wayne Booth shows that even—especially—Oscar Wilde’s claims for the amorality of art show a hyperawareness of the effects of art on readers and viewers, itself a highly ethical stance.

The effect of literature on its readers is never easy to trace. Is the representation of evil itself evil, or can the representation create an understanding of evil and thus an aversion to it? The debate is as old as Plato and Aristotle, with Plato arguing that mimesis undermines human stability, and Aristotle arguing that it can be an agent of learning. One can’t assume a direct line between the representation and the reader’s action; that is, reading a book about murder doesn’t make the reader commit one. Moreover, a distinction should be drawn between children and adults: children might imitate what they see without questioning; most adults will not. Yet, of course, what we absorb does affect us, albeit in ways difficult to trace. In my particular concern with a poet’s representation of human beings, I have found Kant’s “Formula of the End in Itself” useful: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means but always at the same time as an end.”8 Treating a person as an end as well as a means requires seeing the effects of one’s behavior on that person. It is okay to use people when they consent to being used, as for example through their jobs, but not when they cannot consent, as when they are deceived or when they are unaware, which is the case in poems. The reader senses the unethical use, regardless of whether the person described is real, living, dead, or imaginary, and this reaction contributes to the poem’s success or failure. My argument is similar to that of Berys Gaut, who believes that “manifesting ethically admirable attitudes counts towards the aesthetic merit of a work, and manifesting ethically reprehensible attitudes counts against its aesthetic merit.”9 I believe an “ethically admirable attitude” (not using other people to make a poem) contributes to a poem’s success because it forces the poet to delve more deeply into the problems raised. In other words, a poet’s attitude toward a human subject includes knowledge and the push to a new insight. An “ethically admirable attitude” is not necessarily a positive attitude; indeed, as I shall show, whether the speaker is approving or disapproving of the subject has nothing to do with the poem’s success. Moreover, all writing begins in ignorance and separation; the writer is trying to know someone else, trying to understand someone else’s point of view through the act of writing. My point is that the finished poem’s success can be measured by the thoroughness of the poet’s understanding, or sometimes the admission of failure.

Sometimes, the reader of a poem is addressed directly, as “you.” More often, the reader becomes a ventriloquist, inhabiting the point of view and consciousness of the speaker of the poem. This process of ventriloquism can be thrilling, calming, angering—but it is above all mind-expanding, which is why we read poems in the first place. As Octavio Paz says, “between revolution and religion, poetry is the other voice…All poets…hear the other voice. It is their own, someone else’s, no one else’s, no one’s and everyone’s. Nothing distinguishes a poet from other men and women but those moments—rare yet frequent—in which, being themselves, they are other.”10 Some postmodern poetry questions the possibility of anyone controlling language and making it coherent; in other words, individual subjectivity is disintegrated, making it impossible to talk about “characters,” or even “the other voice.” In the poems I examine, however, the poet creates a recognizable individual character (or group of characters) and/or a coherent consciousness through which to speak.

The Ethical Enigma

Ethical difficulty arises when poets write about subjects superficially. Poets must know their subjects better than their best readers. They must know what they don’t know, and they should not assume that their having lived through an experience or having seen it means that they know it well enough to say something new. Many travel poems are diminished by superficial knowledge, as when the poet presumes that “being there” lends automatic authority to the insight, and that his or her seeing something for the first time means that it’s a new sight to everyone else. When the subject is a human being, the resulting poem may be ethically flawed.

Of the four modes of poetry—story, song, argument, and description—description creates the most ethical pitfalls, in part because the poet often neglects to make clear his or her stake in what—or who—is being described. Readers ask, why is this important? Description can range from bland to vicious, depending on the tone—on the poet and/or speaker’s attitude toward the subject. The challenge in any description is to push what is observed into a realm of deeper meaning; whether this is achieved is something we should always ask. Of course, leaving the reader saying, “So what?” is not itself an ethical lapse.

“Ethical difficulty arises when poets write about subjects superficially. Poets must know their subjects better than their best readers. They must know what they don’t know, and they should not assume that their having lived through an experience or having seen it means that they know it well enough to say something new.”

When poets write about themselves (in first or third person or via persona), the distance between speaker and subject is narrow, and an authority frees the poet to explore the negative as well as positive aspects of behavior and character. When the subject is another human being (or group), particularly one different from the speaker’s own, distance and attitude are problematic, raising the questions, “Why is this poet choosing this voice or subject matter?” “What new knowledge does the poet have about this person or group?” And sometimes, “Should the poet ‘allow’ the person to speak for himself or herself?” Yet the use of a dramatic monologue alone does not guarantee a successful poem; even then, the poet must work to do justice to the subject. Put simply, the poet may not “use” other human beings, the poetic equivalent of pointing.

Pedestrian language abounds in poems, but when one is trying to do justice to someone else’s story, the aesthetic trouble is compounded by ethical issues. When the subject is a marginalized group, the issue of appropriation arises. Leslie Marmon Silko writes, “The reason there is so much strong feeling about non-Indian writers writing about Indian subjects is because good Indian writers don’t get published and bad white writers do.” Yet Silko would not deny the right of white writers to treat Indian subjects; in fact, she praises William Heyen’s Crazy Horse in Stillness as “brilliant.”15 Does it matter that Heyen himself is not Indian? No. What matters is learning all one can about a subject, getting the details right, and honoring individual human voices.

When humans are treated as objects, in poems as in life, they are not accorded respect as complex and multifaceted beings. When the poet writes about other people from a third person point of view (usually, but not always, conflated with the poet’s persona), it is easy to objectify. Objectifying a human being means regarding that person as an object, for instance by paying attention only to certain body parts, something feminist scholars raised awareness of by pointing to treatments of women that reduced them, as seen in William Carlos Williams’ poem “Proletarian Portrait.”Readers can debate whether the portrait humanizes or objectifies its subject, whether it is successful in its brevity.


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