From the Mississippi Review, symposium on contemporary poetry & poetic vision, 1990
Every poem has a vision: sometimes clear, sometimes occluded. Whitman says, 'We are in every particle beautiful. I am longing for you.' Dickinson says, 'This is the edge of the great dark place. Here is a map.' Neruda: 'Here is the body of my lover, here the body of my country.' Akhmatova: 'Look on my people's sorrow.'
Every month I see hundreds of poems written in this country at this moment. Here is some of what they say: I am tired. I am alone. This hurts me. For a few moments I see. I don't know what is happening around me and no one will explain. I am happy, I swear it. I believe in nothing. I am awake and dancing. I have lost something without which I can't live; I don't understand what it is or where to look for it. Sometimes I lie and sometimes I tell the truth and sometimes I can't tell the difference between them.
We are living in a time of almost unassimilably rapid and far-reaching change, affecting every aspect of our lives, every connection to every other living being on the planet. There is more daily evidence to bolster the case of both hope and despair than any of us can hold. The language we in the United States share and build from is heavy with both life and lies; words like 'freedom' and 'patriot' are bloodied and distorted, 'casualties' and 'suspected guerillas' with the blood in them hidden, words of greeting and blessing and parting spoken by machines or hollowed into the shilling between seller and sold. As the language foundries of the poor neighborhoods of Los Angeles and New York, of immigrant households, gay bars, elementary schools and the floor of the commodities exchange pour vividness into our stream of words, censorship dams it; this shadow falls everywhere we pause to speak or write.
As I write this it is more clear than it has ever been in my lifetime that we are citizens of an empire. The quality of our lives depends on the losses of others. By the time this is printed we may be waging yet another war to keep that true. Historian William Appleman Williams, recently dead, said, "Therein lies the true tragedy. The way that empire as a way of life kills the imagination." If part of poetic vision is to see what is true and tell it, then our task as poets in the United States is doubly difficult: to resist not only the ordinary reluctance of language to yield its mysteries, but also our particular training in not seeing and not speaking of our country's obsession with accumulation and its terrible consequences.
Can a poem be 'technically brilliant' and without vision? To my mind, this is impossible; to build something new with language is to see and say something new, because language will not be divided from its meanings, from all the mouths it passes through, from its commonness. In our time, many things we thought were divided forever are joining: Haitian leaders and the aspirations of their people, Nelson Mandela and the public road, East and West Germans, our car exhaust and the planet's life span, our garbage and the land on which we live. For me, the joining includes the design of any made thing with its function in the world from which it comes. For me, 'technical brilliance' can no longer describe a hydrogen bomb or a battle plan or a building sealed from all weathers or a clever poem with nothing to say. Here is the technical brilliance I am these days striving for, from a friend of a friend who returned from the 1980s trip to Nicaragua:
"Near the end of the trip I met the director of an adult literacy project, just back from the funeral of one of his teachers who had been taken off a bus and killed by Contras. But he didn't talk to us about that. He told us only that the heart of the American people was surely as great as the heart of the Nicaraguan people and that if we wanted to help Nicaragua we should go home and find the heart of our people."