THE RELATIONSHIP between ethics and aesthetics has preoccupied me off and on since the summer of my eighteenth year. It was 1965, and I’d just returned from several months working as a volunteer in the civil rights movement in Mississippi and Alabama. I spent the majority of my time in jails. My reasons for driving alone the twelve hundred miles from my home in upstate New York to the deep South were complicated, but they involved a choice on my part, and so I’ll say they were at least partly a matter of practical or applied ethics.
My political idealism was entangled with the issues surrounding institutionalized racism in America at that time. I felt strongly enough about these things to risk my life in the flamboyant yet serious way available to my generation. But I was deeply shaken by my experiences—by the police beatings in Mississippi, by my abduction at gunpoint by vigilantes in Alabama and subsequent solitary confinement in a jail in a rural town that had only recently witnessed the murder of a civil rights volunteer and would witness another a month after I was released.
Unnerved to the verge of mental collapse, I turned my back on political activism. I was only peripherally involved in the later resistance to the Vietnam War. Instead, I decided to devote my energies entirely to the artist’s path—to become a lyric poet, my first and deepest ambition and one I’ve spent almost half a century pursuing. But ethics on an artist’s path—that’s a complicated story. How can a dedication to beauty—which is essential to poetry, even if we can’t define it—also be an ethical project?
Most of my prose writing over the past forty years has been about the survival value of lyric poetry. I’ve focused on the individual—on how the reading and writing of lyric poetry could help a person attain psychological stability and existential dignity. Yet I’ve never quite shaken the sense that there is also significant ethical potential in the lyric. Maybe I carry the residual biases of my generation or a nostalgia for my youthful idealism, but I’ve always favored attitudes that resist the status quo, especially when it seems to affront the dignity and rights of the individual. Although I left political activism before I was twenty, I have remained preoccupied with the possibility of a morality of aesthetics.
What I’ve found is not a foolproof ethics; it’s not universal or particularly logical. Quite the contrary, it emerges from individuals who discover that, by giving their own passionate endorsement through their art, they have the power to bestow meaning on people and things in the world. The ethos that emerges from these subjective states is an intimate one, but it has significant force. And it has what I regard as a significant social purpose: to supplement and subvert the dominant morality of its given culture. The ethics of lyric is certainly not a complete morality, but without it as an ideal, life is a bleak prospect. It is an ethos of love that focuses on the power of the individual to bestow meaning on another person by declaring that person to be beautiful. Such an ethos, which I’ll call lyric culture, can be an anchor for the individual: it holds us to the particular and intimate. It protects us from the seductions of awe at collective power. It gives courage to those who would resist a morality of the majority that tyrannizes the powerless.
I take ethics to be that branch of philosophy that concerns itself with moral choice, with right and wrong and how to act. It has a long history in many cultures. Although people have thought about art for thousands of years, aesthetics is a late-developing branch of philosophy. It deals in questions of the beautiful: what is the nature of beauty and what is its function in the scheme of things?
The type of poetry that most interests me is something I’ll call the personal lyric: a poem or song about experience, frequently but not always featuring an “I.” Such a poem will probably blend feelings, thoughts, and memories with the physical environment and events taking place in the world. I consider it to be the most basic form of poetry, and a human birthright. Any person living now, no matter where, has the option of hearing or even composing a song or poem that expresses his or her experience. And not only is the lyric poem or song everywhere on the planet at this moment; so far as we can know, it has been omnipresent in history—a rather impressive presence.
The personal lyric is everywhere and always because it helps people survive. It is uniquely qualified to dramatize two primary experiences we all encounter: there is a lot of disorder and randomness or accident in the world, and we need and are reassured by a certain amount of order and pattern. When a poet experiences disorder, she turns her experience into words. She turns “world into word”—the fundamental poetic decision.
In so doing, she removes experience to another level of reality, where she is free to order those words into the dense linguistic patterning we call poetry or song. Its very density allows lyric poetry to handle the most intense kinds of experiential disorder: suffering, death, despair, even madness, as well as the passions, in particular grief and intense love (which the Greeks tended to classify as a form of madness). The lyric that results is a dramatizing of experience that manifests a particular, individualized version of these two basic truths: the reality of disorder (good or bad) and the human need for some form of order. When the poet moves her disorder outside herself by turning it into words and then ordering it, she is re-stabilizing herself after being destabilized by experience. She thereby masters an existential situation—joy or despair, trauma or love—that had threatened to master her.
If you yourself can’t make a poem or song about your disorder (but you can, you should), you can instead benefit from someone else’s poem. Their poem can help you make sense of your experience. First, you must take the poem into your own being by accepting what I call the “lyric invitation.” This is the invitation to the reader or listener to identify with the speaker or singer—to become the singer so that her victory over chaos and silence is your victory also.
We hear the lyric invitation stated explicitly by Whitman at the very beginning of his “Song of Myself”:
I celebrate myself and sing myself
and what I assume you shall assume
for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you….
About seventy years after Whitman, William Carlos Williams writes:
In the imagination, we are from henceforth (so long as you read) locked in a fraternal embrace, the classic caress of author and reader. We are one. Whenever I say “I” I mean also, “you.” And so, together, as one, we shall begin.
Writing the lyric helps the poet to live. Hearing the right lyric poem or song helps the listener who identifies with it to live. Such a vital engagement might take place years, or even centuries, after a poem was written. Poems written fifteen hundred years ago in China have changed my life. When we find the right poem (or it finds us), we feel a deep shock of recognition, a sense that “here is someone speaking my experience, making sense of it.” The poet Stanley Kunitz says of the lyric that it is “the voice of the solitary who makes others less alone.”
Still, I doubt these admirable qualities of personal lyric are social or ethical in the ordinary sense of the terms. The intimacy of the poet writing her poem, or the individual reader engaging a poem—that isn’t the territory of ethics, but of personal survival. Important, but not a social event on the scale that could carry the weight of ethics.
I want to shift now to the poet who seems to me to have first consciously braided together ethics and aesthetics in lyric poetry, the first nameable poet to have articulated the moral ambitions of what I am calling lyric culture. She is the Greek poet Sappho, writing in the seventh-century BCE on the island of Lesbos. Plato would later call her “the tenth muse,” even as he banished her poems and those of all poets from his ideal city.
Sappho, who took hold of the empowering potential of the newly developed Greek alphabet and used it not only to liberate herself (as all lyric poets might be said to do), but to challenge the value system in which she was born and raised.
When I first read her poems as a sophomore in college, I found an incipient ethos that has guided me ever since. Two fragments in particular affected me deeply, and still do: fragment 16 and fragment 132.
Here is the opening stanza of fragment 16, which consists of three stanzas and which many scholars believe to be a complete poem:
Some say an army marching, or a raiding fleet
Under sail, or cavalry charging
Is the most beautiful sight on this black earth,
But I say whatever one loves most is beautiful.
In the final stanza of this same fragment, Sappho nominates her own notion of what is beautiful:
[…which] has reminded me now of Anactoria
who is not here, and how I would rather (by far) see
her walk and the bright sparkle of her face
than (a horde of) Lydian chariots and armed infantry….
When Sappho says: “Whatever one loves most is beautiful,” she champions the power of individual subjectivity to create meaning (i.e. beauty). When she particularizes her own idea of what is beautiful, she mentions a person by name: Anactoria, the way she walks, the way she smiles.
She sets love above military force and the awe of violent power (raiding fleets, charging cavalry, the marching ranks of armored men—all going off to fight, kill, pillage, enslave, and rape). She sets the individual above the collective and what it values.
In my opinion, Sappho’s fragment 16 is the founding document of lyric culture. Lyric culture is an ethos that challenges the collective values I call the “overculture.” I’d add that I personally suspect that a strict and unquestioning adherence to overcultural values almost always leads to oppressive uses of power, whether we are talking about fifth-century Athens or Jim-Crow America. To me, lyric culture is there to subvert the overculture—to save us from the overculture and the overculture from itself.
This valuation of a single individual, Anactoria, by the poet is contrasted with the values of the surrounding male-dominated Greek world, for whom images of violence and destructive power are the essence of beauty and meaning. Sappho sets herself against this, and in so doing, she proclaims the notion that aesthetics is based in passionate subjectivity, and that the lyric self has the power to bestow meaning on things, persons, and creatures.
Sappho does it again in fragment 132: “I have a daughter, Kleis, / golden as a flower. / To me she’s worth more / than all the gold in Lydia.”
I’ll pause to point out that in Homer, individual women do not receive names unless they are the wives or concubines of heroes. They have no significance, no value—why bother to name them? Needless to say, Homer gives us endless lists of male warriors’ names. But Sappho’s namings quietly challenge Homeric assumptions. By the simple act of naming Kleis and Anactoria, she becomes the champion of a different set of values: of intimacy, tenderness, passion; of the particular and human embodiments of meaning.
I’ve stressed how important I think it is that Sappho gives the individual the power to make meaning. But I’d also stress the danger of becoming locked into an intimate dyad, where a loving couple cuts itself off from the world, making their own private realm. If we took Sappho too seriously, we might easily become trapped in the kind of cocoon that has John Donne tell the sun itself to go away, along with anyone and everyone else who would bother his lover and him. The beloved-self dyad is the starting point of lyric meaning (remember, the beloved can be a place or creature as well as a person), but if it is also the endpoint of meaning, you risk solipsism or narcissism—which is no place to go for ethics.
What will keep Sappho’s passionate eros from becoming nothing more than a sealed cocoon? What might take it from the aesthetic (“beautiful”) into the social and ethical?
For me, the turning point happens with the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher Adam Smith. Smith, in his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, saves us from solipsism by stressing what he calls “sympathy” and what we today would call “identification” or “empathy.”
Donne has told us that “no man is an island,” but Smith would say otherwise. He would say that in fact that is one of our chief problems: we are each of us little body-islands, separate selves closed in by our senses. What connects self to other? he asks. What can help us transcend our senses?
Smith opens his book with a remarkable and stark scene of our separate selves. A man is being tortured before our very eyes:
Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations…. By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him….
We can transcend our bodily senses and the isolation they impose through an act of imagination as sympathy or identification. What poet wouldn’t be gratified and flattered to hear Smith attribute such an important role to imagination? After all, imagination is something poets specialize in, and Smith’s thinking makes imagination and identification the bases of moral feeling, of how we connect to each other.
Walt Whitman is the American poet who took this sympathy or sympathetic identification furthest and dramatizes it most eloquently and memorably in his poems.
In his important preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitman speaks of “pride and sympathy” as the two pillars of the poet’s consciousness. He insists that the poet must move flexibly between these two poles: pride, which centers in the self’s own physical and psychic being, and sympathy, which uses the imagination to enter into the being of another. “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels,” he writes in “Song of Myself,” section 33. “I myself become the wounded person. / My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.” Elsewhere he writes, “who walks a furlong without sympathy / walks to his own funeral dressed in his shroud.”
How far into the ethical sphere can Whitman extend his sympathetic identification? His original plan for his collection Leaves of Grass called for the book to culminate with the poem “I Sing the Body Electric.” In that poem, he enacts his sympathetic identification by imagining a slave auction, during which he elbows aside the auctioneer so that he can take over and get the true value for the slaves: that true value of course is infinite, because the other is as beautiful and intrinsically perfect as the self. Ethics and aesthetics fuse in a memorable denunciation of racism and slavery.
Whitman wanted to end Leaves of Grass with an extremity of sympathy, just as he had begun it with the extremity of pride, in “Song of Myself.” Just before he conjures the auction scene, he states directly the ethos of lyric that values so highly the individual person:
The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred,
No matter who it is, it is sacred—is it the meanest one in the laborers’ gang?
Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf?
Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the well-off, just as much
Each has his or her place in the procession.
Then the poem abruptly places us at the auction. Whitman pushes aside the auctioneer and takes over, talking up the merchandise. It is savage satire. Remember, this is six or so years before the Civil War; the American overculture still officially endorses slavery:
A man’s body at auction….
I help the auctioneer, the sloven does not half know his business.
Gentlemen look on this curious creature,
Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it,
For it the globe lay preparing quintillions of years without one
___animal or plant,
For it the revolving cycles truly and steadily roll’d.
In that head the all-baffling brain,
In it and below it the makings of the attributes of heroes.
Whitman’s poem enunciates the mystic stance of someone like William Blake, who declares at the end of “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”: “For everything that lives is holy.” But Whitman has particularized this claim, brought it down into the bodies we live in: the body of the self and the body of the other, be that other a man or woman, slave or stevedore, prostitute or president. The passionate intimacy of lyric ethics is unafraid to challenge collective social values in its quest for meaning. Thus I like to imagine that the ethos of the civil rights movement subverted the dominant value system of the South and much of the country in the mid-twentieth century, where racial discrimination was institutionalized and legitimized by laws.
Still, I would be the first to admit that a lyric ethics is not the whole story. If the self is selfish, then its ethics will be. If the self is able to value others (through empathy and identification), then its ethical perspective may well transcend self-interest. It’s not a perfect ethical project, but it is an essential one. Lyric culture encourages us to resist collective opinions and oppressions, and to speak up through art. It gives us a place and a means to create memorable articulations of alternate values. Failing to do so, we abdicate one of the genuine powers by which love and idealizing imagination create meaning and value. It is this power to declare someone or something beautiful that is at the heart of lyric ethics.
Thus we have Emily Dickinson, in one of her very last letters, rewriting the scene in Genesis where an angel challenges and wrestles Jacob. In the Bible, they wrestle all night and near dawn the angel asks to be freed and Jacob agrees in exchange for a blessing (which is his new name, “Israel”). In Dickinson’s feisty rewrite, Jacob is a poet as well as an athlete, and he boldly claims the right to bless the angel, not the other way around:
Audacity of Bliss, said Jacob to the Angel “I will not let thee go except I bless thee.”—Pugilist and Poet, Jacob was correct.
In a sense, Dickinson is giving us another version of Sappho: we can yield to awe at the angel, or the military might of huge armies, or we can resist and say: my power to love and bless is a value-making energy. It is out of this surplus of love, this “audacity of bliss” that we bless and value and declare things precious; that we say to life, to experience: “I will not let thee go except I bless thee.” We can say of what we love what Sappho said of Kleis: “to me she’s worth all the gold in Lydia.” Indeed, we must say that individuals matter; we must choose Anactoria and Kleis over gold and power and massive violence.
I’m tempted here to create a stylistic symmetry by returning to the autobiographical stance with which I began, to offer some testimony about what I personally find beautiful. But I’d rather urge the principle itself, rather have readers consider what they find beautiful. If someone were curious as to what I love most, I would suggest that it can be found in the poems I have written, especially those from the past ten years.
And it may well be that my quest to locate a social morality in the lyric is not entirely successful or persuasive. If the strongest claims I can make for it are that it unsettles our inherited overculture’s values, perhaps that’s not enough. Who knows whether, in my forty years of thinking about this topic, I’ve grown much beyond the attitudes and instincts of my youth?
I’d like to think that all those years of reading and thinking and living and writing would have resulted in my being able to construct a more sophisticated argument, and yet I see myself at eighteen proudly wearing one of the small pins printed with civil-rights slogans I cherished—“One Man, One Vote” or “Freedom Now”—and I almost laugh out loud as I realize that another slogan from the long-ago sixties of my youth—another pithiness on a pin—epitomizes the ethos of the lyric culture I would urge for consideration: “Make Love, Not War.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.