A recent advertising flyer from the clothes designer Eileen Fisher has the picture of a woman leaping, accompanied by the line Power Moves You. Where will it take you? An insightful article in the London Review of Books for 22 February of this year by Pankaj Mishra, writing about Ta-Nehisi Coates and, more broadly, the Obama era, carries the sentence, “The intractable continuities of institutional brute power should be plain to see.” As the 21st century moves rapidly to the close of its second decade, I have been thinking about power: gun power, man power, star power, techno-power. These days, when I dwell on a word I seem to need to look at its etymology, to see if I can untangle, or expand, its meaning:
power (n.) c. 1300, “ability; ability to act or do; strength, vigor, might,” especially in battle; “efficacy; control, mastery, lordship, dominion; legal power or authority; authorization; military force, an army,” from Anglo-French pouair, Old French povoir, noun use of the infinitive, “to be able,” earlier podir (9c.), from Vulgar Latin *potere, from Latin potis “powerful” (from PIE root *poti- “powerful; lord”).
Power. It seems somewhere along the line the idea of ability attached itself to the idea of strength, and then to control or mastery and then to blind force. It’s a sad continuum with a gloomy end point, one with which we humans seem now to be permanently contaminated, or condemned. We are condemned to want power. Nietzsche’s The Will to Power was published in 1901, so this is not new news, it just seems to have in recent years become the preoccupation of our discourse around national identity, gender and race, around technology, celebrity and art: how we think the world. Power is the name of the game; its misuse and abuse have underwritten the multiple inequities—cheatings and beatings—from which we suffer. The universalizing we is as uncomfortable as the individualizing I. With whom do I identify? Which we is mine?
I think one reason I decided to become a poet is because I knew, even then, as the moment of modernism waned, that poetry in America would not be included in calculations of perceived power, as part of ongoing public discourse. It would be ephemeral at best, decorative at worst; it would be given lip service. Maybe I had an inkling that the original definition of power was ability, and that if one were to become a poet whose work had some conviction, one would need to get some know-how. Power in poetry might be linked to an incremental life-long process of discovery, rather than to force. Receptivity over assertion. Care for language over authority in its use. This comparison game begins to sound a bit prideful and defensive, like the spoils of the wounded heart. I never really loved him, she tells herself, after he goes off with the famous young novelist. Power. Powerlessness. Could one choose to be not powerful, to turn away from this signal value, deliberately, and not feel bewildered, omitted from the animated conversation of the world? So many astonishingly gifted persons writing and publishing (see above), and a few rare books of poetry rising into public consciousness. And then, there is the pageless, limitless screen.
As we see now every day, the abuse and misuse of language corrupts and corrodes the complex syntax of our mutual human enterprise, our good will conscripted into episodes of polemical screed and critique, our democratic imagination impoverished by the vocabulary of commerce and strategic self-interest. Poems are not strategies, but ways to discover how language might think what we feel and feel what we think, possibly knit together objective and subjective realms into articulate forms, in the hopes of discovering harmonic (or dissonant) integrities among the reckless noise and rubble of our times.
It turns out that for poets language itself is the site of powerful fascination. All the poets I have known and loved share this signal trait, an inexhaustible interest in and encounter with how words make meaning happen, beyond the daily news, beyond our politics, our fables, stories and opinions. Poetry is on the periphery, where you can see better than from the center and poets invariably align themselves with those persons who have not chosen to be powerless; we stand with them, we belong to them. And so we claim a certain privilege, a chosen powerlessness, and in that choice, we perhaps shift, ever so slightly, the mesmeric and grim power that power has over all of us. We resist; we turn away, in order to confront. We are ambitious in and for our art’s poverty. We have no cultural capital to spend. We have, instead, an invaluable freedom. That’s one why.