The Possibility of Poetry and Western Civilization

Theodor Adorno’s assertion that “After Auschwitz poetry is no longer possible” is one that, if taken literally, is easy to refute. As a Creative Writing major, I would know. I have gone to several undergraduate and graduate poetry readings this semester alone and have spent countless hours reading post-WWII poetry in English classes. Yet the blatant incorrectness in Adorno’s statement indicates that he means what he says in a figurative sense. His argument is that, since a poem is a work of art, beauty embodied in writing, it cannot exist anymore due to the horrendous offenses during the Holocaust. Adorno’s lack of faith in poetry reflects his lack of faith in Western Civilization. Civilization, like poetry, was to be a thing of beauty that would uplift the world and make it a better place to live, but instead it produced utter despair in the form of death camps. Nevertheless, I refute Adorno’s figurative claim as well, because poetry still lives on as a method of rebuilding Western society and contemplating on its past errors. Yes, the Holocaust is undeniably part of Western Civilization’s history, but so are the attempts of the West after the Second World War to reconstruct the fallen society. We see this in poetry with Holocaust as a theme.

One such poem is Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” Written in 1962, this poem compares the narrator’s father to a Nazi: “I have always been scared of you / With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledegoo. / And your neat mustache / And your Aryan eye, bright blue. / Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You—”[1] Here the narrator labels her father as someone to fear by comparing him to a participant in the misogynistic Nazi regime—pilot of a Nazi fighter plane, bearer of a Hitler mustache, possessor of the Third Reich-adored trait of blue eyes, and driver of a German tank. On the other hand, she describes herself as an oppressed daughter to a member of the oppressed race: “An engine, an engine / Chuffing me off like a Jew / A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen. / I began to talk like a Jew. / I may be a bit of a Jew.” She envisions herself as a Jew being transported by her father’s cruelty to a concentration camp—the same location Adorno uses as proof that poetry can no longer exist. That Plath uses it in her poetry proves that Auschwitz is a reason that poetry can exist; she uses it as a way to reflect history on her own life experience, even though she herself was not Jewish by blood or religion. In doing so, she damns the oppression her father used on her as well as the oppression Western Society practiced on Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, cripples, and many other scapegoat groups.

Adorno’s opinion that poetry can no longer exist is flawed because it does not identify poetry in its correct definition. He limits poetry to being just a self-celebratory product that justifies every aspect of society. While some poetry might prove Adorno’s case, Plath’s poem rails against the harmfulness of overbearing fathers and political regimes. He also seems to limit the definition of Western civilization to being a bunch of racist white men who would throw all Jews and others into concentration camps if they could, which is simply not the case. While it is true that one product of capitalism and nationalism is Auschwitz, another product is the humanitarian efforts of American GIs to save the malnourished Jews abandoned in concentration camps at the conclusion of World War II. To ignore the noble efforts of those who fought against the corrupt efforts of the Nazi regime is to perceive an incomplete picture of Western Civilization.

Poetry, like society manifests itself in more than one form. Although it can exist as a celebration of society, it can also serve as a critique of that same society, as seen in “Daddy.” Nothing that happens can be viewed as separate from civilization, be it negative or positive, so it is unacceptable to view the Holocaust as an aberration from the everyday or a mere freak occurrence, and it is unacceptable to disregard the existence of humanitarianism in Western society. Both the art of poetry and beneficial factors of society have existed for centuries, exist now, and will continue to exist. They cannot be dismissed by casual, unfounded statements from philosophers who want to use one dismal event to cast judgment on an entire civilization.

[1] Plath, Slyvia. “Daddy.” The Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. Boston: Thompson, 2006. 234-237.