Despair And Poetic Inspiration Why continue to live after Dachau?
By James Strecker
A day at Dachau inspires poetry into existence and a memorial forever.
Sometimes the inspiration for a poem may also give one reason to stop writing altogether.
For example, after a visit to Dachau concentration camp in 1969, a visit during which the numb and sickly air around us seemed ready to vomit itself, I did feel I had to write about the place in some way.
Sunday In Dachau, therefore, refers to "lampshades tattooed," to restaurant patrons nearby who "know they're drinking blood" and to the hypocritical innocence of their prayer that "smells of Sunday school." It's pretty straight-ahead stuff that allows the reader to stand back a bit.
A Historian Considers His Lunch, included here, is more ambitious. I try to seduce the reader, one supposedly aware of the horrors of genocide, into involvement by using an easy-going account filled with absurdity, irony, and ambiguity.
One subtext here is that chickens and humans are interchangeable victims in an efficient "system" wherein no life matters. The lightness of tone and horror of subject intertwined are intended to twist the reader's brain out of complacency.
But if you put the blunt horrors of torture, rape, mass sadism, and slow murder on display at Dachau beside the artifice of poetry, poetry must blush for its self-indulgence. Horrors like this, even if known second hand, overwhelm a writer into despair. They chip away at one's desire to live.
If a day at Dachau compelled several poems into existence, reading a book on animal experiments, while flying to Vancouver several years later, inspired a whole collection of poems on human cruelty to animals.
In Slaughter Of The Innocent, Hans Ruesch relentlessly details hundreds of unbelievably cruel experiments on animals and exposes vivisection as a scientific fraud which few question. It's perhaps the most potently disturbing book I've ever read and, as a result, my book of poems it helped inspire took only six weeks to write.
And to what end? To realize once again, on page after page, that humanity is an inherently cruel species that finds all manner of reasons -- be they academic, religious, or guy-in-the-street -- to justify its pointless deeds? To admit that we get off on cruelty and that it might be best if we didn't exist at all?
Several years ago, as a guest speaker to a group of journalism students, I offered the following observation: "People are full of shit. You are full of shit, I am full of shit, and so is everyone else. Knowing this will save you a lot of trouble." I meant no cutesy cynicism here.
I simply meant that ego, deception, craving for power, cowardice, hunger for amusement and superficiality are some of the ingredients that bring us to a boil as a species.
Therefore, we should regard human motives, utterances and writing, even if they be poetic, as potential hooey. After all, we often do not really look for truth; we try to survive, keep sane and not be bored, no matter what it takes.
Still we must ask what we would be as a species if, without exception, inarticulateness, cliché and creative rigor mortis alone defined our essence? What would we be if we did not struggle to blend our inherent creative impulses and the world as it is into a new expression of understanding?
Only the lesser part of what we are is the answer, the part that accepts genocide and vivisection without horror, without despair, without question, and without a word.
James Strecker is the author or editor of two dozen books and CD-ROMs. His collaborators as a poet include artist Harold Town, in the books Black on jazz and Pas De Vingt on ballet, photographer Bill Smith, and composers Barend Schipper and Wolfgang Bottenberg. He is also a journalist and a human development consultant. He is currently writing a book on creativity and is seeking a publisher for his book for writers. http://www.jamesstrecker.com/js.htm email: email@example.com