(Speech given before poetry society on 26 September 1981.)
Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata. How many of you know what those words mean? How many of you are familiar with the poem from which they are taken? The words mean give, involvement, and control. They are taken from T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Wasteland.”
I chose to begin this brief talk with those words because they symbolize what I believe is the holy trinity of poetry. To give, to seek involvement, and to control the forces which mold and shape our poetic expression as we try to enlighten present day humanity. That is my belief of what poetry should be about.
There are a lot of good poets today. Unfortunately, there are no great ones. There are no Eliots, Pouds, Plaths, or Whitmans among us. The experiment of the San Francisco poets has failed. The violence of the Northern poets has waned, and the hope of the Southern poets has “Gone With the Wind.”
We live in an age of poetic sterility. An age best known for the lack of creative expression rather than creative genius. What Eliot said about “Hollow Men” could just as well have been directed to the poets of our day:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices when
We whisper together
are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar.
Shape without form, shade without color,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
We have not learned to give — only to take. Consequently, meetings and other poetry gatherings go unattended unless we are able to take home a prize. We do not give of our time and talent unless we can take fees and charges.
We lack involvement in the struggles of humanity. We are surface dwellers. We see neither “out far nor in deep.” We shut ourselves away from the world — content to write cute little phrases directed toward winning contests. We are afraid to touch and to be touched — to enter the public baths of human existence.
We need to “Dig Into the World” as Alan Alda challenged in a recent commencement address where he said:
Life is absurd and meaningless — unless you make
something of it … You can use the skills of your profession
[to] dig into the world and push it into better shape.
Our poetry should speak to the things which confound humanity in humanity’s daily affairs. Our verse should capturre the spirit f the times and should comment on what it means to be human and humane. Life is exploding about is and we — the muses of the universe — should record that explosion for our children and their children. We should not only record, however, we should interpret and instruct.
I do not suggest that we should return to sentimentalism and didacticism. As we attempt to speak to today’s people we should simultaneously control our expression and sharpen our art to avoid the violent poetry of the sixties and the sentimental verse which followed those turbulent years. We ought to control our passion so that others might use us as examples in controlling their’s. For our art, despite the diverse nature of its practitioners, is a controlled median of expression.
We must capture the fire of the world and refine the blaze in the incinerator of wisdom and justice, and then reduce the blaze to paper without extinguishing it. I am hopeful that we can do so without the searing results of Ginsberg, Giovanni, and others.
Data, Dayadhvam, Damyata. Give, involvement, control. The holy trinity of poetry. Pledge your allegiance to them and they will serve you well. Finally, I join Alan Alda in challenging each of us to:
Be brave enough to live life creatively. The creative is the
place where noone else has been. You have to leave the
city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your in-
tuition. You can’t get there by bus, only by hard work and
risk and by not quite knowing what you’re doing. What
you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover will
And once you know who you are, you can help others discover who they are. For after all, the mission of poets is to lead humanity out of the dark woods unto the rose garden of enlightenment.