Oil and Aesthetics: When will the poets ever shut up?

Oil is a dominant source of energy in the United States, supplying the nation with approximately 40% of its energy needs. … No oil spill is entirely benign. Depending on timing and location, even a relatively minor spill can cause significant harm to individual organisms and entire populations.
— Jonathan L. Ramseur. Oil spills in U.S. coastal waters: background, governance, and issues for Congress. CRS, April 30, 2010. [PDF – 383 KB]

Once stable, oiled birds go through a series of tub washes alternating between baths with a one percent solution of … dishwashing liquid and clean water. The wash time varies depending on the amount of oil, and the size of the bird, but on average it takes two people 45 minutes and 300 gallons of water to do a thorough washing.
IBRRC: How oil affects birds. June 3, 2010.

Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale! Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonor! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation! Yea, woe to him who as the great Pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway!
–Herman Melville. Moby Dick, or, the Whale (1851).

A popular narrative in recent Western aesthetics holds that the horrors of the Second World War stupefied the artistic sensibilities of 20th century. It came in several flavors (including: beauty is dead, progress is dead, God is dead, meaning is dead, and order is dead), but was premised, by and large, by the problem of evil. In other words, whatever deity it was that the artist had once worshiped, it was no longer worthy of admiration. Without a god to praise, without an aesthetic ideal, without a cause, the poets fell apart or fell into a noisy silence. (“Noisy” in that poets seldom shut up. If they have nothing to say, they babble on, honing their craft, singing: nothing to sing.) This was, the story goes, the end of the modern, the beginning of postmodern.

Clearly, I do not subscribe. First, evil demands more than silence in response; ceding resistance to passivity and chaos is neither clever nor artful. Second, as I’ve said, no one really ever shuts up anyway–the author without authority is, nonetheless, a loud mouth. Finally, my God is not dead and: “He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out'” (Luke 19:40 NRSV. oremus Bible Browser).

Nevertheless, the times justify a longing for silence; the refusal to sing, may become the song of resistance beside the rivers of Babylon. And, at times, sin’s deep reach screams into the fibers of our personal and social existence. Realizing personal inadequacies, the poet might honestly join Donald Davie: “I held my tongue, and also / I discontinued my journals / … / … my calling: / it commits me to squawking / and running off at the mouth ” (“The Thirty-ninth Psalm, Adapted”. Collected Poems, pg 382).

In any case, to speak is to implicate one’s self. And sometimes to speak is to realize just how deep the foul roots of greed and lethargy grow into the human soul. The oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico is inking over the ocean in a great slick of poems. The “Deepwater Horizon” well holds all the rhymes anyone with ears should care to hear. Readers, where would we be today without our oil? What would our world be without the wretched convenience of “modern” transportation? Where would our sources of income go? And all the food we have eaten? The distances we travel for family and career? Our educations and even our books? What would be of nearly all or our ease and leisure?

Each and every word we have written and read is now rising, in great, reeking gallons in the Gulf. If there was ever a time to hold our tongues, it is now.


One response to “Oil and Aesthetics: When will the poets ever shut up?

  1. Pingback: Public Grief is a Rare Beast | Commonly

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