"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Friday, April 26, 2013

Why Poetry Matters (Sunday, April 14, 2013)

Poets seem a rather winsome group, in the popular mind at least; a bit on the anemic and frail side. Stuck up in their heads. They’re often a bit whiny and self pitying, and oh so self-absorbed and introspective (in a society which seems to have little place for introspection). I don’t know; they seem kind of European. (That’s about the worst epithet you can hurl at someone these days.) “An effete bunch of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” Anybody remember who said that? [Spiro Agnew]. He wasn’t talking about poets, per se. But he could have been.

 “Poetry makes nothing happen,” W.H. Auden wrote in his poetic eulogy on the death of William Butler Yeats. It cannot change the weather, or the temperament of men and women or nations. “It is difficult to get the news from poems,” wrote William Carlos Williams, another poet. Poetry might seem detached and isolated, kind of ivory-towerish, cut off from the real world of business and corporations and buying and selling and war-making and sports and things that (supposedly) “really matter” in the “real world”.  “There is nothing political about [poetry],”  Laura Bush once said, when the political furor over the invasion of Iraq caused her to cancel a White House conference on poetry.

No, “Poetry makes nothing happen…” “It is difficult to get the news from poems,” as William Carlos Williams wrote, the news of the day—war, war, and more war, usually, in our days, or his— seems to be so much more with us, so much more critical and important.

But then, Williams went on:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably each day
for lack
of what is found there.

“Poetry makes nothing happen,” wrote W.H. Auden. But the remainder of his poem is an ode to the timelessness and the enduring truth of Yeats’s voice. Poetry may make nothing happen, but it abides and survives and speaks on and lives when the ways of the corporate executives and politicians and the war makers and even sports stars and celebrities of our day have passed away, and have passed from memory.

Poets, of course, never speak with a single voice.  Rather, they speak with their own genuine, God-given, Spirit-inspired voices, and encourage all of us to do the same. They may well speak a word of truth to those in power, or a word of affliction to those who are too comfortable. Or, they may speak a word of comfort to those who have been afflicted for too long. They see with their own eyes, and reflect their own genuine experience through our common human lens.

The best poetry is that which is birthed most directly from genuine human experience. For example, there’s no doubt that the deepest and most genuine poetry against war comes from those who have seen war:

Wilfred Owen was the son of a railway worker who was born in Shropshire in the English midlands in 1896. He hoped to enter the University of London, but after failing to win a scholarship he found work as a teacher of English in the Berlitz School in Bordeaux. Although he had previously thought of himself as a pacifist, in October 1915 he enlisted in the Artists' Rifles and joined the Manchester Regiment in France in January, 1917. While in France, Owen began writing poems about his war experiences.

Life on the Western Front was bitter indeed. In the summer of 1917, during the Battle of the Somme, a shell landed just two yards away from Owen and he was forced to spend several days trapped in a bomb crater with the mangled corpse of a fellow officer before assistance could pull him out. Following this experience, Owen was diagnosed with shell-shock, and was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital where he met the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who encouraged him to keep on writing, as did another writer at the hospital, Robert Graves. Over the next several months, out of the horror and pain he had experienced, and the futility of the conflict in which he was engaged, Owen wrote a series of war poems, including “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spoke and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him.
Behold, A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Owen then hurled his own experience of the hell of war against Cicero’s facile pronouncement—“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”—“Sweet and beautiful it is to die for one’s country.”

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!--An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

There was no beauty, and certainly no sweetness, in war, Owen knew-- as only one who had experienced the hell of war firsthand could know. (Owen was later “cured” of his shell shock, and sent back to the Front, and was killed on the fields of France in November of 1919, during the last week of the Great War. He was 26 years old when he died.)

“Poetry makes nothing happen…” Wars go on. More young men—and women—and children—will die. New tyrants will rise. There will be the endless struggle for power and position and wealth and resources.

Yet Owens’s voice sings deeper and stronger in his death. His hopes may be unfulfilled, but his vision abides. And that is why poetry matters—

Poets pull our eyes away from the mundane and this-worldly to that which is within, and beyond. They challenge us to be the full men and women we would be, if we allowed the Spirit (call that Spirit by what name you will, or call it by no name if you prefer) to transform our beings, and move within us, and move with us.

Poets tell us to turn off the television set—stop listening to the radio— stop reading the newspaper—put the Smartphone away-- at least for little while—and to listen instead, intently, to the voice within. They remind us not to let others do our listening and thinking and feeling for us, but to find our own voice, and to honor own our own experience. In times like these, they remind us not to be swayed by mass opinion, mass marketing, mass thought—but to use our own inner powers of discernment to find our own truth.

Poets remind us that we are not alone. Through the depth of their reflections on their own lives, they reflect our own lives back to us. We sense in their words the uniqueness of their work, the uniqueness of our lives from one another—but the universality of the range of emotions—from deep love to deep rage-- which make us human. Poetry frees us, sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly,  from the small cell of our selfhood. It invites us to join with all the living, to connect with one another (with all creation) in the dance of life.

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably each day
for lack
of what is found there.
Without poetry—indeed, without all of the arts—our spirits would wither and die. We would be no more than cogs in some great inhuman machine. We would squander our humanity and curse our Creator.

Such is the news of the day. We don’t need poetry to read the signs of such times.

But with the poets among us (and the poet within each of us) untrammeled and unafraid to speak—no longer marginalized in the towers of academia, nor domesticized to parade forth as wall decorations at this or that public conference or soiree—we may yet avoid the madness of these times—and finally learn the blessing of our being here with one another.

The great Sufi poet Rumi once wrote:

Love has built its house,
Poetry is its frame…

May we each seek to live truthfully the poetry of our lives, so that we might become good builders of the edifice of tomorrow, an edifice of love. 

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