Finding Poetry in Other Lives: James Baldwin on Shakespeare, Language as a Tool of Love, and the Poet’s Responsibility to a Divided Society
By Maria Popova
“You have to tell your own story simultaneously as you hear and respond to the stories of others,” the poet Elizabeth Alexander wrote in contemplating power, possibility, and language as a tool of transformation. A year later, she became the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration when she welcomed Barack Obama to the presidency with her poem “Praise Song for the Day.”
But where do we turn when the day is unpraisable? When we can’t find the kinds of words that Ursula K. Le Guin celebrated as able to “transform both speaker and hearer, [to] feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it”? When we can no longer respond but merely react to the stories of others, and can no longer sing?
Leonard Cohen, the great poet of redemption, called for “a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation or a call-to-arms or a defense” in considering what is needed for healing the divides that rip democracy asunder. How to do that is what James Baldwin(August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) explored a generation earlier in a spectacular and acutely timely 1964 essay titled “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” found in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (public library) — the indispensable anthology that gave us Baldwin on the artist’s role in society.
Every writer in the English language, I should imagine, has at some point hated Shakespeare, has turned away from that monstrous achievement with a kind of sick envy. In my most anti-English days I condemned him as a chauvinist (“this England” indeed!) and because I felt it so bitterly anomalous that a black man should be forced to deal with the English language at all — should be forced to assault the English language in order to be able to speak — I condemned him as one of the authors and architects of my oppression.
Leaning on the scale of life-sobered hindsight with which one weighs the hubrises of one’s youth, Baldwin notes that he “was young and missed the point entirely.” He recounts the moment in which the point revealed itself to him:
I still remember my shock when I finally heard these lines from the murder scene in Julius Caesar. The assassins are washing their hands in Caesar’s blood. Cassius says:
Stoop then, and wash. — How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
In a passage of piercing prescience given the political situation in America today, Baldwin reflects on the revelation of this verse:
What I suddenly heard, for the first time, was manifold. It was the voice of lonely, dedicated, deluded Cassius, whose life had never been real for me before — I suddenly seemed to know what this moment meant to him. But beneath and beyond that voice I also heard a note yet more rigorous and impersonal — and contemporary: that “lofty scene,” in all its blood and necessary folly, its blind and necessary pain, was thrown into a perspective which has never left my mind. Just so, indeed, is the heedless State overthrown by men, who, in order to overthrow it, have had to achieve a desperate single-mindedness. And this single-mindedness, which we think of (why?) as ennobling, also operates, and much more surely, to distort and diminish a man — to distort and diminish us all, even, or perhaps especially, those whose needs and whose energy made the overthrow of the State inevitable, necessary, and just.
Once one has begun to suspect this much about the world — once one has begun to suspect, that is, that one is not, and never will be, innocent, for the reason that no one is — some of the self-protective veils between oneself and reality begin to fall away.
With an eye to the two “mighty witnesses” of his life in language — his black ancestors, “who evolved the sorrow songs, the blues, and jazz, and created an entirely new idiom in an overwhelmingly hostile place,” and Shakespeare, whom he calls “the last bawdy writer in the English language” — Baldwin considers how language can become a tool of love and a curative force for our alienation from the world’s otherness:
My quarrel with the English language has been that the language reflected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter in quite another way. If the language was not my own, it might be the fault of the language; but it might also be my fault. Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test.
What I began to see — especially since, as I say, I was living and speaking in French — is that it is experience which shapes a language; and it is language which controls an experience.
In a passage that calls to mind Leonard Cohen’s notion of “a revelation in the heart,” Baldwin adds:
My relationship, then, to the language of Shakespeare revealed itself as nothing less than my relationship to myself and my past. Under this light, this revelation, both myself and my past began slowly to open, perhaps the way a flower opens at morning, but more probably the way an atrophied muscle begins to function, or frozen fingers to thaw.
With this, Baldwin returns to Shakespeare as a lens on the ultimate purpose of the poet as a vehicle for love and mutual understanding in a society woven of otherness — a purpose all the more vital and vitalizing in our troubled and troubling times:
The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love — by knowing, which is not the same thing as understanding, that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him. It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it. I think it is simply that he walked his streets and saw them, and tried not to lie about what he saw: his public streets and his private streets, which are always so mysteriously and inexorably connected; but he trusted that connection. And, though I, and many of us, have bitterly bewailed (and will again) the lot of an American writer — to be part of a people who have ears to hear and hear not, who have eyes to see and see not — I am sure that Shakespeare did the same. Only, he saw, as I think we must, that the people who produce the poet are not responsible to him: he is responsible to them.
That is why he is called a poet. And his responsibility, which is also his joy and his strength and his life, is to defeat all labels and complicate all battles by insisting on the human riddle, to bear witness, as long as breath is in him, to that mighty, unnameable, transfiguring force which lives in the soul of man, and to aspire to do his work so well that when the breath has left him, the people — all people! — who search in the rubble for a sign or a witness will be able to find him there.
Complement this particular portion of Baldwin’s increasingly timely and necessary The Cross of Redemption with Carl Sagan on moving beyond us vs. them and Jeanette Winterson on language and how art creates a sanctified space for the human spirit, then revisit Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to her society, what it means to be truly empowered, and his forgotten, astonishingly timely conversation with Margaret Mead about identity, race, power, and forgiveness.
Published November 11, 2016