Poetry and Utopia

New York Street.jpg

Mitchell Funk/Getty Images

Pedestrians and traffic on New York’s Fifth Avenue

In 1972, I found myself on a panel whose subject was the poetry of the future. It was at the Struga Poetry Festival in Macedonia. I wasn’t scheduled to participate, but the American poet who was supposed to, W.S. Merwin, begged me to take his place, since he wanted to visit some monastery with his girlfriend. Being older, much more famous, and immensely admired by me, he couldn’t be refused and I went to the morning panel without any idea of what I was going to say. To my horror, the other panelists had come well-prepared, reading either from copious notes or as in the case of a poet from the Soviet Union, from a lengthy typewritten text that confidently predicted a golden age of poetry in a world turned Communist and living in harmony for the first time in human history.

My turn came next, though I was in near-comatose condition from uninterrupted drinking, smoking and talking since my arrival to the festival after a twenty-hour long journey from San Francisco with barely any sleep. Nevertheless, roused back to life by the drivel of the previous speaker, I said that predicting the future of poetry is a total waste of time, because poetry has not changed fundamentally in the last twenty-five centuries and I doubted it would do so in the next hundred years. Since that was all the energy I had, I fell silent and didn’t open my mouth again for the rest of the session. As for my fellow-panelists, I have no memory of any of them responding to anything I said as they continued arguing with each other about the future of poetry.

What I said that day was as much of a surprise to me as it must have been to the other people in the room, for I was then known as a surrealist poet, someone who routinely proclaimed a belief in the avant-garde. I and my friends were like those old-time Marxists who were sure that they understood the laws of history. We were convinced that abstract painting was an advance over figurative painting, that free verse was superior to meter and rhyme. To me, novelty was an essential requirement in the arts, and it still is. I agreed with Wallace Stevens, who wrote that man

Lives in a fluid, not on solid rock.
The solid was an age, a period
With appropriate, largely English Furniture
Policed by a hope of Christmas.

For him, history was a process in which no idea of reality is final and poetry was a part of that progressive metamorphosis of reality. A poet worth reading lives in the present, which keeps changing continuously into something else. What worked yesterday in poetry won’t work today, so a poet has no choice but to find means to confront the times he lives in. What doesn’t change, however, is that we are still what we were centuries ago, minds reading themselves for clues to the meaning of their existence, astonished now and then to be alive, while being acutely aware of their own mortality.

I came to understand what I said that day in Struga many years later when I was standing, one lovely May afternoon, on the corner of 5th Avenue and 42nd Street in New York City, waiting for a friend who was late. It was five o’clock, the hour when the offices empty and thousands of people fill the streets on their way to catch a subway or a train. I had spent the previous hour in a bookstore in the neighborhood that was famous for stocking up on the latest literary magazines and poetry books, turning the pages and reading a poem here and there. Waiting at the busy intersection, it suddenly occurred to me that if the old Greek poetess, Sappho, could see what I’m seeing now, she would not only understand nothing, but she would be terrified out of her wits. If, on the other hand, she could read the poems that I had just been reading, she would nod with recognition, since, like her own, many of these new poems spoke directly of the sufferings and joys of one human being. Suspicious of every variety of official truth, they brazenly proclaimed their own, while troubled and unsure of what the person whose life they were describing amounts to. This voice, which Sappho would recognize, has continued to speak to us quietly in poems since the beginning of lyric poetry.

My aversion to utopian thinking comes from growing up under Communism in Yugoslavia. Photographs of Marx, Stalin, and Marshal Tito hung over the blackboard in my schoolroom, the three of them gazing confidently into the future. Our teachers told us how fortunate we were to be living in a society that is going to be a model for the rest of humanity for thousands of years to come. I was inoculated against any such belief at home by a grandmother who brought me up and who had lived through two world wars, Austrian and German occupations, and a civil war, and who could recall every misfortune our family had met with going back a century. She, like my mother, expected nothing good of the future—only more misery, more bombs falling, and more suffering. Neither one of them believed in life after death, though they were descendants of a long line of priests. They’d call on God to witness when they heard bad news, cross themselves when we had a stroke of luck, and light candles in church for the dead, but would regard you with pity if you asked them if they believed in heaven or hell.


“Poetry dwells in a perpetual utopia of its own,” wrote William Hazlitt, the great British essayist of the Romantic Period. Despite everything I’ve been saying, I think he has a point. In relation to the future, a poem is like a note sealed in a bottle and thrown into the sea. Writing one is an act of immense, near-irrational hope that an image, a metaphor, some lines of verse and the voice embodied in them will have a long, posthumous life. “The poem wants to reach an Other, it needs this Other,” Paul Celan has said. And it happens sometimes.

A young man in a small town in Patagonia or in Kansas reads an ancient Chinese poet in a book he borrowed from the library and falls in love with a poem, which he reads to himself over and over again as the summer night is falling. With each reading he brings the voice of the dead poet to life. For one unforgettable moment, he steps out of his own cramped self and enters the lives of unknown men and women, seeing the world through their eyes, feeling what they once felt and thinking what they once thought. If poetry is not the most utopian project ever devised by human beings, I don’t know what is.

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in