Poetry in an Age of Anxiety


Yesterday, while reading the Sunday New York Times, I came across this article called “America’s New ‘Anxiety’ Disorder”, which alluded to the title of W.H. Auden’s poem, “The Age of Anxiety,” in its first paragraph. Terrorism, the threat of nuclear war, the rise of authoritarian governments and nationalism–these do, indeed, make for a potent brew of angst in today’s world.

It reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s poem, “It Is Dangerous to Read Newspapers,” wherein she implies that reading and knowledge alone are enough to make one complicit. It goes like so:

It Is Dangerous to Read Newspapers – Margaret Atwood

While I was building neat
castles in the sandbox,
the hasty pits were
filling with bulldozed corpsesand as I walked to the school
washed and combed, my feet
stepping on the cracks in the cement
detonated red bombs.Now I am grownup
and literate, and I sit in my chair
as quietly as a fuse

and the jungles are flaming, the under-
brush is charged with soldiers,
the names on the difficult
maps go up in smoke.

I am the cause, I am a stockpile of chemical
toys, my body
is a deadly gadget,
I reach out in love, my hands are guns,
my good intentions are completely lethal.

Even my
passive eyes transmute
everything I look at to the pocked
black and white of a war photo,
can I stop myself

It is dangerous to read newspapers.

Each time I hit a key
on my electric typewriter,
speaking of peaceful trees

another village explodes.

Maybe there’s a bit of “it’s always me” to that poem, our inbred inclination to take on guilt. Or maybe it’s just the frustration that freezes us–the way our helplessness against the world’s ongoing narrative turns us into acquiescent bystanders who rationalize our inability to be agencies of change.
In times like this, you turn to Charles Simic, a man who knows something about war-torn states and growing up in an age of anxiety. In his childhood, anxiety meant bombs raining down on his hometown of Belgrade. It meant flight, chance, the sheer luck of survival. Because of that upbringing during WWII, the darker side of mankind would become an undertone in many of his works.


In the poem “Those Who Clean After,” for instance, one wonders if reading a poem can be as unsettling as reading any newspaper, which brings to the fore the question of whether “dangerous” is good for us or not. See what I mean here:


Those Who Clean After (for Robert Bly)-Charles Simic

Evil things are being done in our name.
Someone scrubs the blood,
As we look away,
Getting the cell ready for another day.
I can’t make out their faces,
Only bucket and mops
Being carried down stone steps
Into the dark basement.
How quietly they hose the floor,
Unfurl the musty old rags
To wipe the hooks on the ceiling.
I hear only the sounds of summer night,
The leaves worried as always
By that nameless something
Which may be lurking out there
Where we used to keep the chickens.




8 thoughts on “Poetry in an Age of Anxiety

  1. Doug

    Twain was right in that humans will always be apprehensive. Poetry informs us and contains fear and paranoia or stress relief which we seem to crave in alternating doses. On the other hand, poems are not newspapers, yet it’s possible for them to bite their tongue when it’s in their cheek, hopefully not enough to produce a salty taste the reader’s mouth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think poems and newspapers can achieve similar results, just in very different ways. Each can explore, reveal and expose, and make one uncomfortable. I’m more fascinated with the way poetry achieves its purposes, though. Legerdemain, almost.


  2. Poems like this one are precisely why Simic is one of my favorites. He can say SO much with so few, otherwise innocuous words.
    A sense of powerlessness in the face of the “News” has recently gotten me into a rather non-productive slump, a “what-goo-is-it-all-anyway” kind of mood, but it is indeed the realization that our poems can “bear witness”–that that is something that I can do–that has allowed me to continue creating as if it matters.
    Thank you for this.


  3. i was considering something in this ball park yesterday: that people are always descrying the current generation as worse than any other as if humanity has no history. It seems more sensible to say that it is a human constant, “damned” as Twain put it.


  4. carter7878

    I think Atwood’s poem is awful. There’s little worse than liberal guilt, a sentiment that somehow makes the speaker’s feelings more important than the horrors being described. Yecchh.


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