Robert Wrigley: Allowable Error

A treasure from the AWP. Robert Wrigley reflects on the political in poetry across three wars.

Wislawa Szymborska, who died this past February 1st, at the age of 88, won the Nobel Prize in 1996. She insisted no one was more surprised by this than she was. Newspapers all over the world reported her “embarrassment” at the attention brought to her by the Prize. The humility seemed then, and still seems, genuine.

Szymborska’s poems are, as they say, “plain spoken,” and also continually charged with a sly irony that manages to be both rueful and insouciant. She was 16 when the German army invaded Poland in 1939. She came of age in the era of Auschwitz and the Warsaw uprising, and after the end of World War II, Poland, as you know, was dominated by a totalitarian government, installed by the Soviet Union, for much of the next half century. Her first book was deemed unworthy of publication by government censors in 1949. It was reported (by those censors) that the book did not live up to socialist needs and that it was “too obscure” for the people’s standards. That was probably the last time anyone ever judged Ms. Szymborska’s poems to be “too obscure.” She was a child of her age, and it was most certainly a political one.

Her poem, “Children of Our Age” is, it seems, an overtly political poem, though it is also a poem that states that fact with her trademark irony and rue. She was once asked by an interviewer why she didn’t write more overtly political poems, and her response delights me: “Because I have a trash can,” she replied.

As a poet, I have always had an uneasy relationship with overtly political poems. I had committed myself to the life of poetry in 1971. I was twenty years old; I’d been drafted into the army and, after basic and advanced training, applied for discharge on the grounds of conscientious objection. For the last five months of my military “career,” I was attached to an army company known as “Special Training Detachment,” although the training I received in that company was nothing the army would have approved of. My fellow soldiers in STD (an acronym not meaning in those days what it means today) were all like me: either COs trying to get out of the military by legitimate means, or they were something known as “212s,” men deemed “unfit for military service”: a few gays, a sociopath or two, and some guys who might be charitably described as “thugs.” There was one guy, whose name I can’t remember, who one night recited from memory Edwin Muir’s poem “The Horses,” a post-apocalyptic narrative fable. I’d never heard anyone say a poem aloud before, and it was probably that recitation that moved me, more than anything else, toward the possibility of a writing life.

In other words, it seems to me now that, early on, I aspired to write poems that addressed my age, and as Szymborska makes clear, they’re all political. The problem is that you somehow have to be a poet first, then a partisan. The reason most (not all, but most) of the plenitude of poems written throughout the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in opposition to the war in Vietnam have been forgotten, is that they were, and are, forgettable. They were propaganda; they preached to a devoted choir; and more often than not, while they may have aspired to the condition of literature, they did not attain it.

A fair question to ask at this point is, what on earth is the condition of literature? Well, let me saunter out onto this thinnest of ice with an anvil under each arm, and say this: the condition of literature of which I speak, as far as I can tell, is attained in a poem, when how one says something is of equal value and significance to what it is one says. One brings to the page an aesthetic, a poetics, and one uses that aesthetic to confront a political issue. One does not compromise one’s literary and poetic values, and one does not shy away from the complexities of the political situation. One welcomes complexity and one maintains one’s commitment to one’s aesthetic.

For me, this has to do with responsibility. A poet’s primary responsibility is—must be—to the poem itself, to the art: the what one says must, in fact, be subservient to the how one says it, and if one maintains the determination to make a statement of political significance that is aesthetically vital, one might achieve the condition of literature. And the responsibility of literature is to tell a truth that cannot be said any other way. This last point seems indisputable to me.

The poem of my own I’m about to read was written over a period of months, from late 2006 through mid-2007. It began as a meditation on the word “tolerance,” as an engineering term. In the engineering world, “tolerance” is the amount of space between two moving parts of a machine. The smaller the space, the more finely machined the parts must be. A BMW engine is machined to the finest possible tolerances; a Yugo’s, not so much. I had thought the poem might be about human relationships. I live in a state that has an unfortunate reputation for intolerance; it is not nearly so intolerant as its reputation suggests, but that reputation is out there and for many of those of us who are citizens of Idaho, it is hateful and embarrassing. I had thought the poem’s political urge was in that direction, but as I worked things began to happen that surprised me, and the poem began to move in a different direction.

It was in January, 2007, that the Bush administration began what was at first called “A New Way Forward,” then quickly became vernacularized as “the troop surge.” By then we all knew what an IED was; we all knew about “stop-loss policy” and “extended tours.” It was one morning, early in 2007, that I googled the phrase “tolerance in engineering,” and trolling through page after page of the typically otherwise useless information google gathers, I came across the website of LTI, Liberating Technologies, Incorporated, a company—a very good one, it seems—in the business of manufacturing prosthetic limbs, and the poem turned completely toward the war in Iraq. A passage from LTI’s website, describing an artificial arm, even made it into the poem. In late 2008, a fact-checker at the magazine I published it in emailed me a couple of weeks before the poem ran to ask if I knew those lines (they’re in quotes, for heaven’s sake) came verbatim from LTI’s site. Uh-huh, I replied.

Finally, I will also say that I sat on the poem for quite a while. I believed in it, but I only half-trusted it in some way—primarily because it was overtly political. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing worse than sitting down at the desk to work and actually having something to say. Generally-speaking, ax-grinding does not make for quality poetry. This poem felt different, however; it had surprised me and I had surprised myself in the writing of it. Its original title was “Allowable Error,” another definition of engineering tolerance being “the limits of allowable error.” This too pleased me.

Just before I finally sent it off into the world, I changed the title to “Exxon.” That was, it seemed to me then and still does, really, the poem’s most significant risk. It might seem to suggest that the poem, like the war, was and is about oil, but I maintain that it, the poem, is not. Or rather that it is about much more than that. Most importantly, for me, at least, Exxon is simply the brand of gas station that appears at the poem’s end. It’s part of the poem’s setting. Of course the poem’s about oil, at some level, but I’ve always believed it is, more than anything else, about responsibility.


Behold the amazing artificial arm, a machine
eerily similar to the arm it replaced, machined
to exacting tolerances, as its engineers say,
to “the limits of allowable error.”
Think of the hand in the glove, the piston
in the cylinder, the cartridge in the chamber
of an arm: a weapon, that is, a firearm,
to say it more primitively, more exactingly,

more ceremonially, and with more appropriate awe. [Read more here]

Read a poems by Szymborska on Little Star here (more in Little Star #2).
Read a poem by Robert Wrigley on Little Star here. Poems by Robert Wrigley appear in Little Star #1 and Little Star #2. His most recent book is Beautiful Country.
Coincidentally, Jenny Holzer projected “Children of Our Age” onto the wall of Tribune Tower in Chicago, just up the road from Wrigley’s lecture, as part of her Projection for Chicago series with Szymborska’s poems in 2008. More about it, with links to Szymborska’s work, here.

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3 Responses to Robert Wrigley: Allowable Error

  1. I’m struck by many things here. The humility, the bravery to engage, the skill to be able to speak so clearly. And tolerance as a technical term: I have previously fallen in love with building terms like “bellying out” and “making good.”
    Thank you.

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  3. Ron De Maris says:

    The Greatest AntiWar poems of the late 20th century are both by Robert Lowell:”For The Union Dead” (on the Civil War and Boston’s rejection of the heroism of James Gould Shaw when the city protested school busing for blacks and, the greatest protest on Vietnam and its suceeding “little wars”:
    “Waking Early Sunday Morning”.Lowell should have won The Nobel Prize on those 2 poems alone.