Guilt as the Root of All Poetry


Emotions and feelings. They are like the gasoline and oil of that engine we call creativity. Take guilt, for instance. A powerful motivator. A source of bitter reflection. And not the type of thing a fugitive from conscience wants chasing after him.

Below are two war-related poems with guilt as their tap root. It’s the contrast of life in a peaceful, affluent society (say, America’s) juxtaposed with wars raging in other parts of the world.

Especially wars where America (or maybe your country?) holds “interests.” Especially wars where your tax dollars helped birth bombs that drop on innocent civilians. You as the midwife of misery.

The easiest solution in such situations? Put on blinders and make like Old Dobbs the Horse plodding through a field of daisies and bee buzz. What you don’t see or hear or experience won’t kill you, after all. And what power do you have to stop it, anyway?

Pose that question to Gandhi.

In the mean time, for your Sunday consideration, I offer these two cool poems as evidence, both tracing the same fissure of guilt — the first by a Ukrainian-born American citizen, the second by a Canadian.


We Lived Happily During the War
by Ilya Kaminsky

And when they bombed other people’s houses, we

but not enough, we opposed them but not

enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America

was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.

I took a chair outside and watched the sun.

In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.


It Is Dangerous To Read Newspapers
by Margaret Atwood

While I was building neat
castles in the sandbox,
the hasty pits were
filling with bulldozed corpses

and 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.


Reading these prove once again the power of poetry. And of emotions — the way they can cause detonations to happen not only on the ground, but in the conscience.


2 thoughts on “Guilt as the Root of All Poetry

  1. carter7878

    Ken, I really like the strange under-statedness of the first poem. I don’t like the Atwood poem, which exemplifies the danger of guilt-driven verse: the speaker sounds self-important and self-involved. Here’s a guilt (not about war, but about homelessness) poem I just wrote (if you want me to stop posting my own poems on your site, please tell me. I’ll stop doing it.)


    Boilerplate for beginners: show,
    don’t tell.  But must I describe
    the homeless guy who lowers himself 
    down beside me on the bench
    outside the Co-op?  He’s generic,
    more dirt than human.  As if
    my father’s ill spirit possesses me,
    I almost snarl “Hey!  I’m eating here,”
    his stink killing my appetite for the bowl
    of organic jackfruit on my lap.  I stand, 
    ashamed, give him a dollar & walk away
    after dumping the paper bowl
    into a trashcan advertising the pleasures
    of our historic shopping district.
    I swore I’d stop writing about liberal guilt
    & about cats too, but I must confess
    last night, I groomed our little black cat
    with my tongue & watched her perpetually
    startled gold eyes widen as I licked her neck
    & then her belly, inhaling her scent.
    In Japan, childless couples can rent 
    a cat by the hour to sniff its belly, which
    smells like the crown of a baby’s head.


    1. Organic jackfruit? (Jack mustn’t live on the east coast.) Licking your little black cat? Cat’s bellies smelling like babies’ fontanels? Who knew? A most unusual poem! Thanks for sharing it with us….


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