I’m immersing myself in the violent world of a century ago—reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August about the summer of 1914 when the world sped headlong into war, reading Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth (Yes, gentle reader! There will be a Pulitzer novel update post soon!) which, despite its setting in 1930, is very much consumed with the question of what led to the Great War of 1914-1918 and what it meant—and then of course at the same time, because I am alive and human and I want to learn about what it means to be those things, I am reading news online about the violent world around me, both close to home and far from it. The death of passengers in a Malaysian airplane, the death of so many, including so many innocents, in the Middle East as Gaza erupts in blood, and the deaths of young people on the streets of Chicago in the violence that each summer brings and we seem unable to diminish, despite our efforts (I will not call them “best”: I don’t think we’ve given an effort worthy of that adjective yet). And Friday comes and I’m supposed to select a poem that says something about something.
I’ve been looking at the poetry of 1914. A lot of it is from August and later, the world changed by war, and I’ll get to them. Many of them are exquisitely moving. But for now I’m thinking of exactly a century ago, as the peoples of Europe held their breath in the long July that stretched between Ferdinand’s death in Sarajevo and the German army’s assault through the Low Countries. So I don’t want to use the poems of war yet, and then on the other hand all these things on my mind make it hard for me to take the easy way out and pick up a short poem from one of Robert Frost’s collections, say, that appeared in 1914. So you get “Poem of the End”.
“Poem of the End” appeared in 1914, or so my sources claim—some say it came out in 1913, but in either case I think it captures the mood I’m grappling with, and the tension of that Europe just before the war began. It’s the work of a Russian poet named Vasilisk Gnedov, a futurist and experimental poet who pushed a lot of boundaries. He published a collection entitled Death to Art, a series of poems that get progressively shorter and shorter. You’re probably wondering by now why I’m blathering on about this when I normally just give you the text of the poem. Well, the last poem in Death to Art is simply the title, “Poem of the End”, and a blank page.
If this reminds you of other famous works—maybe music lovers will especially think of John Cage’s 4’33”—I think that’s fair. But I think there’s also something distinctive about this work. When Gnedov performed it, supposedly he would simply walk on stage, announce the title, make a gesture with his hand, pause for some length of time, and then sit down. Different observers recorded the gesture differently, so it’s not clear to me if the gesture was intended to be difficult to interpret, or if Gnedov simply changed it for different performances. Each description makes it sound somewhat violent—a hand thrust suddenly up over the face and then dashed away from it, or a hand making a slashing motion first one way and then another, etc.—and deliberate.
This may be silly poetic posturing, of course, the kind of performance art that gets mocked more than it ever actually gets undertaken by a performance artist. You may think it very silly for me to offer it to you today, and I may be. But something about “Poem of the End” spoke to me tonight. If I may attempt to interpret Gnedov, or at least to make him speak to how I feel today and how the world looks, both in his time of 1914 and ours of 2014, here’s what I see. I see a poet acknowledging that there is a boundary to what our words can encompass and address. There is a threshold beyond which it’s hard to see what art can do, other than to stand before us in silence and ask us to examine what is left when the words fall away. A quiet man, poised on a stage, moves with suddenness and then nothing follows—we expect to be given some meaning to engage with, and instead find ourselves left with only our thoughts and the context around us that we’ve been ignoring in order to attend to our art. Is it cheeky to print a blank “Poem of the End”? Of course it is. But what other poem will suffice to show us what an ending means?
I hope that the world is full of more beginnings tonight than endings, of more hope than despair. But there is no denying that these past days and weeks have seen too many voices silenced forever, unfairly and before their time. Gnedov offers us this gift tonight—a space without words into which perhaps those voices can speak. May we listen well.