It's too bad that President Reagan and Soviet leader Gorbachev aren't exchanging poets along with their politics this week, according to a USC writing teacher.
Then the two superpowers could really talk to each other, said James Ragan, who is also a playwright and poet.
Ragan said he has been haunted by this idea since last summer when he was one of three U.S. poets to participate in the First International Festival of Poetry in Moscow. With the U.S.-Soviet Summit under way in Geneva, he said he finds the idea especially compelling now.
What worries him, Ragan said in an interview, is that Gorbachev and Reagan will find themselves trapped in a morass of misunderstanding due in large part to the decline of language.
"Politics thrives on doublespeak; poetry can't afford to," Ragan said.
Frequent exchanges of poets as happened last summer, Ragan said, might eventually have a spillover effect making political language more direct, honest and open so that there is less "posturing" and "more precise meanings in words."
In short, the poet seemed to be arguing, "Exchange Verse, Not Missiles."
Indeed, Ragan argued, a freer exchange of the arts in general--something that conceivably could emerge from the Geneva conference--could help clear up the political dialogue. "Corruption of words leads to corruption of government," Ragan contended. For instance, recent claims and counterclaims by the United States and Soviet Union over the defection and re-defection of three Soviets, including a top KGB official, were partly exercises in obfuscation, he said. The truth, whatever it was, apparently was the last consideration of both governments, which were more interested in pre-summit propaganda maneuvering, he said.
"The arts as a whole have acted as the one area that essentially cares about truth--a collective truth for a whole society as well as the individual truth and vision of the artist. The arts really do create a cultural peripheral vision, the ability of a culture to see the universality of all things," he said. "In this country, television has limited that peripheral vision to more of a tunnel vision approach."
Accurate, informed use of language in politics and everyday life has taken a severe beating in this country, Ragan said, citing estimates that one-third of Americans are literate or semi-literate.
"This is the 'you know' generation," Ragan said, adding that the phrase "you know" is often used when Americans can't think of the right word.
"We can trace this back to what I'm calling the 'new mediaism,' " he explained. "That comes with the advent of television, computers, computer hacking, all of the new media things that have come into our society. More and more that new mediaism has gotten rid of words on the page. People aren't reading. As a result of not knowing words, not understanding words like we used to, we're going downward (in our ability to understand other people.)"
The poetry festival, which he was invited to attend along with folk singer/poet Bob Dylan and Minnesota poet Robert Bly, impressed Ragan as a gesture toward better international and personal communication, he said. The stage was shared by about 25 poets, including Ernesto Cardenal of Nicaragua, Seamus Heaney of Ireland and Yevgeny Yevtushenko of the Soviet Union.
"We had a group of poets sitting around protecting the word, still trying to understand the word and give it meaning," he said. "This happened at a time when communication is moving toward a nadir in America and a time when communication is moving toward a nadir among countries. So I believe it's important that poets get together yearly, or artists get together yearly."
Plans to Attend
Ragan said he plans to attend the second poetry festival in Moscow next year, partly because he was impressed with the way the first edition was produced. Held in a 10,000-seat arena, the four-hour session was broadcast to 80 million viewers, he said.
The event was billed as non-political, he said, adding that at times he was cautioned by the hosts not to be controversial.
"There were times that the interpreters were protective of me as a poet," said Ragan, who was an opponent of the Vietnam War. "They said, 'Be careful, because in a sense some of your poetry might work against you; it might look like you're going against America because you've got a Russian audience out there.' They (the Soviets) don't totally understand the freedoms that we have as writers in this country to express what we feel about our own government."
Ragan is the author of two volumes of poetry, "In the Talking Hours" (1979) and "Womb-Weary" (to be published next spring), and three plays. He also is a winner of the Emerson Poetry Prize and traveled as a Fulbright fellow to Europe last year on a poetry reading tour.
Ragan wants to keep such exchanges going, even though they may cost him--literally.
Some of his poetry has been translated into Russian and this year a Moscow theater will produce one of his plays, "Comedia," he said. But he isn't likely to ever see a cent in royalties because the Soviets seldom bother with such Western niceties. Moreover, they are known to take liberties with an artist's work, he added, noting that a Soviet production of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" included a character on stage who is only talked about in the original play.