The Nature of College by James Farrell


The Poetics of Conscience

Sometimes poetry captures reality better than prose. Here’s an excerpt from Hayden Carruth’s poem “California,” written for Adrienne Rich:

We drove among hills, redwood and eucalyptus,
dense growth, the richness and ramifying intricacy
of the world’s loveliness, and asked
what would be left
for our grandchildren, already born, when they are
as old as we? No longer do we
need an insane president to end us
by pushing a button. People
need only go on living as they are, without change,
the complacent and hard-eyed

For me, the poem works by juxtaposition. I love the way it reminds us of the lushness and loveliness of the world, which we so often overlook (except, of course, at scenic overlooks). I love the way it juxtaposes the present and the future, and makes the future familial by reminding us of our grandchildren, already alive. And I like the way it links apocalypse to the routines of everyday life, reminding us that we turn the keys and press the buttons that run (and ruin) the world by remote control.

Earlier in the poem, Carruth tells us that Tolstoi said

the purpose of poetry is to provoke
feeling in the reader, to “infect” the reader,
he said,—and so to induce a change,
a change of conscience
that may lead to a change in the world, that will
lead to a change in the world!

Does poetry do that for you? How does this poem change your conscience or change your world? What other poems alter your conscience-ness?