Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Poet Knows


Po Chui. W.B. Yeats. Pablo Neruda. Vaclev Havel. A few of the world’s poets who also were statesmen and served in the political arena. Politics and poetry are at opposite ends of the playing field, but the game gets interesting when they meet and think about how to move the ball down the field together.

We depend upon news analysts and commentators to tell us what’s going on, but the poet often knows without having to be on the spot reporting. That’s because everything that  happens and will happen already has happened. The names and faces and details will change according to circumstances, but it all lives inside the human breast. The poet is the one who knows the route into the secret corners of the human soul, has travelled there and been willing to do the work to report back.

I just re-read one of my favorite poems by William Stafford written decades ago (titled A Ritual to Read to Each Other) and was stunned how the words carried a new weight and meaning to explain exactly what we just have done. In the prose language of the journalist, we can say we’ve experienced a failure of people with markedly different experiences to talk with each other, we’ve mindlessly allowed a bad story we’ve inherited to continue unchecked and picked the wrong person who will lead us away from the promise of our better selves. But how much better Stafford says it:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
And I don’t know the kind of person you are
A pattern that others made may prevail in the world
And following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

Read that out loud. Several times over. But there’s more.

In my blog, “Who Let the Dogs Out?” I talked about that thin layer of civility that keeps our darkest impulses at bay, keeps our childish bullying and wounded and whiny and mean-spirited selves tempered by responsible adults holding the boundaries. In my letter to someone on the other side of the fence, I wondered at his casual shrug that accepted such a dangerous choice. And here’s Stafford:

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
A shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

Like many, I was aghast at what passed for debate and the willingness of the media and citizens alike to know that this was unacceptable, but not say it out loud. I felt the anger and hatred and cruelty behind lowering the bar to a level never before seen in public discourse. And the sense that the circus, fun in its place (the park), is dangerous when the elephants (Republicans) move it on to the stage of our  national discourse: 

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
But if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and the root of all cruelty
To know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

Can we make a billboard of those last two lines to read each day on the way to work?
And the third line in the next stanza?

What to do? No one answer, but Stafford’s advice is sound:

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
A remote important region in all who talk;
Though we could fool each other, we should consider.
Lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
The signals we give—yes or no or maybe—
should be clear; The darkness around us is deep.

The poet knows. But I don’t believe one will be selected for the upcoming cabinet.

May we awaken with renewed vigor and determination to bring light into the darkness. 

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