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Quotes on the Function of Poetry in General


Before we delve into the specific poems we have chosen for the course, we present the following ideas and thoughts on the nature and function of poetry that will help us to deal with the course materials. The men and women that penned these ideas will be names, certainly familiar to some, all from the world of literature, and should reverberate with us as we progress in the course.

  • “A poem must finally be seen as a formal structure which releases into the silences it creates a force of contained emotional perception beyond the power of statement” (John Ciardi, How does a Poem Mean, part 3, p. 1007).

  • T. S. Eliot said at his Nobel Prize reception (1948): “Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves”.

  • “One day we’ll look back and see Jewish History as a blip, an aberration, and what will matter then is what has always mattered: Jewish Memory. And there in the realm of memory, which will always be irreconcilable with history, Jewish literature still holds out hope of having some influence” (Nicole Krauss, Forest Dark, p. 126).

  • “Poetry is not cultural resistance to genocide but resistance to cultural genocide” (Lawrence Langer, Admitting the Holocaust, p. 61).

  • “It is a matter here of the essential inadequacy of documentary evidence. It almost never has the power to give us the depths of a human being. For this purpose, the dramatist or the poet are more appropriate than the historian or psychologist” (Primo Levi, Moments of Reprieve, pp. 99-100).

  • “The historical, by its nature, tends to accent the unfolding of events while indicating social and political trends. Art, on the other hand, has always sought out the individual and his inner [world], and from that, it tries to understand the [outside] world. Art, perhaps only art, is the last defense against the banal, the commonplace and the irrelevant, and, to take it even further, the last defense against simplicity” (Aharon Appelfeld, Speech on the eve of Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day, 1997, Yad Vashem).

Concluding this step on the function of poetry in general, I’m happy to pepper the serious discussion above with the last lines of a short poem by Wisława Szymborska entitled ‘Some People like Poetry’ (Poems New and Collected, p. 227). After stating that many answers to this question have been offered over time she ends her poem with the following:

But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that

Like a redemptive handrail

We find these lines beautiful in their modesty, from a Nobel Prize winner of Literature. But here in this course, we will attempt to contradict Szymborska with examples of poems that do illuminate for those of us born after the Holocaust, aspects of an inhuman-human history.

Questions on the quotes above:

  • Which quote penetrates you more than the others? Explain your choice.
  • The last two quotes come from Holocaust survivors. Do you discern a different emphasis in their statements from the others? If so, can you formulate the difference?
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Poetry and the Holocaust

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