I traveled widely in my imagination long before my passport began to thicken with visas, because I had acquired a taste first for French poetry and then for poetry translated from other languages—Chinese, German, Greek, Italian, Polish, Russian, and Spanish. I was drawn to the work of poet-diplomats like the Nobel laureates Gabriela Mistral and her student, Pablo Neruda, George Seferis, Octavio Paz, Czeslaw Milosz, and St.-John Perse, whose poems made visible what binds all human beings from every land: love and loss, bewilderment and awe, our shared knowledge of mortality. There is a deep connection between poetry and diplomacy, and as the director of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP), which the Department of State has supported for more than fifty years, I have the good luck to gauge how each informs the other, expanding the range of literary possibilities available to readers and writers of poetry, promoting the kinds of clarifying discussions integral to diplomacy, and strengthening our powers of empathy: vital meetings can take place within a single line of verse.
It is no accident that the father of English poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer, who undertook a number of diplomatic and military missions for Edward III and Richard II, created in The Canterbury Tales a panorama of human experience, the vision of a writer made the most of what he had seen, heard, and felt. He was a gifted storyteller and satirist, a visionary with a comic streak, the deliverer of bawdy jokes and eschatology. He seemed to know everything. Some of what he learned abroad made its way into his poem—the Knight’s Tale is based on a story by Boccaccio, whom he may have met on a mission to Florence—and he is the first cited author for nearly 2,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, including dagger, magician, patent, and fart.
The exiled Russian Nobel laureate, Joseph Brodsky, challenged students in the graduate seminar I attended to widen our literary lenses, performing close readings of poems by Constantine Cavafy, Czeslaw Milosz, and W. H. Auden—lessons I took to heart. On my visits to Russia as a cultural envoy I have found that students are eager to learn about Brodsky’s time in America. They know his poems by heart, and the stories I tell about him in the classroom, where he was the most brilliant professor I ever had and the most caustic, flesh out the picture of a man revered across the land for the musicality, the moral stance, and the philosophical depths of his writings. In his tenure as the American Poet Laureate he created the model for activism on behalf of poetry, variations of which many subsequent laureates have followed—a fact I like to pass on to Russian audiences. For it was one of Brodsky’s students who established National Poetry Month.
“Note to future historians,” the former Poet Laureate and U.S. Speaker Charles Simic writes: “Don’t read old issues of The New York Times. Read the poets.” This is what we do in the readings, panel discussions, and lectures that we host in the Fall Residency of the IWP. We introduce to American audiences new work by distinguished poets and writers from around the world, most of whom surprise, instruct, and move people from every walk of life, including their fellow writers. No wonder some go on to win the Nobel Prize, like Orhan Pamuk from Turkey and Mo Yan from China. All of the visiting writers make an impression in Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature, and in their travels across America, embodying what is most interesting in their own literary cultures. Simic, for example, edited a selected edition of poems by Tomaž Šalamun, who used his time in the IWP not only to write but to translate his works into English with the help of students and faculty from our Writers’ Workshop. He went on not only to write dozens of books, which have profoundly influenced several generations of American poets, but to become Slovenia’s first Cultural Attaché in New York City. Here is a short poem translated by the Finnish poet, Anselm Hollo:
You catch water with a pin,
the water turns to slush.
You point at the tree with your hand,
the tree burns.
You divide lines with a shadow.
You open the door for love and death.
These are the doors that poetry opens daily in the IWP.
About the Author: Christopher Merrill is the director of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs-supported International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, a 54-years-strong exchange which includes four in-person and online foreign policy-related program components for established and emerging writers. As the program director, Merrill has conducted cultural diplomacy missions on behalf of the State Department to more than fifty countries. For more on Merrill, see his official biography here.