How a few choice words can change worlds within and without
• by Geoff Olson
• The world appears to be on a knife-edge again, with leaders from Tel Aviv to Tehran playing out idiotic games of brinkmanship better suited to pre-war Europe than the whistle-blowing world of WikiLeaks and Anonymous. To write about poetry in this context may seem faintly ridiculous. And with the planet threatening to blossom into a final exchange of nuclear weapons – or at least a global explosion of resistance to the banksters and robber barons – poetry seems like a pretty insipid thing. What are Wordsworth’s daffodils or Rumi’s singing reed next to a ballistic missile with multiple warheads, or even a riot cop’s truncheon? Not much, it seems.
But can poetry actually change the world for the better, in its own fugitive, hard-to-quantify way?
Unlike journalism, old poems have a way of staying fresh. W.B. Yeats’ short poem The Second Coming seems just as appropriate now as when it was written in 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War. With its mysterious imagery of “some rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem,” this old standby of English lit classes conjures up a terrible future brewing in the birthplace of Christ. It also offers the most concise description of collective cynicism ever penned, perfect for the age of Fox News and neutered progressivism: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”
Yeats managed a living from herding words, but he was a rare bird. According to one estimate, a Canadian author who manages to sell over 700 volumes of verse can be considered a successful poet. Clearly, rhyme doesn’t pay. T.S. Eliot kept his day job at the bank, Wallace Stevens sold insurance and Ogden Nash once observed, “Poets aren’t very useful. / Because they aren’t consumeful or very produceful.”
Today, we tend to think of poets as quaint figures, wandering lonely as a cloud from their day jobs to the open mike. We normally don’t think of their efforts as world changing or life altering, although we give grudging respect to a few dead, white versifiers (mostly Shakespeare and a few romantic poets). Yet poetry has its place in the world, even if it’s shoehorned into tweets.
Personally, I can’t exactly say poetry changed my life, but there was a time when it definitely helped me cope. A little over a decade ago, I fell into a deep depression that lasted about a year. There were days were I would sit for hours on the couch, doing nothing but staring at the floor. During this purgatorial period, the opening passage from Dante’s Inferno became a touchstone for me.
“Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straight forward pathway had been lost.”
I would often listen to an album by singer Marianne Faithfull that opened with this recitation of Dante and ended with lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Hearing her nicotine-ravaged voice recite this college curriculum verse, I found a strange sense of solace, knowing my suffering was not unique. Although I had little interest in the company of others at the time, and even less in my own, I felt less alone listening to this recitation of mythically charged words.
Like many others, I had admired a few well-known poems from my college days, in the same way you admire delicate museum pieces protected behind glass. But these words were like a salve I could apply to a wound. I believe I escaped from clinical depression partly with the help of poetry, which came without a doctor’s prescription or negative side effects.
British novelist Jeanette Winterson tells of a similar effect from a single line of poetry she read when she was 16-years-old. She was in a library looking for a book for her adoptive mother, who was a fan of murder mysteries. She selected T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. “So I opened it and discovered it was written in verse,” she told Eleanor Wachtel on the CBC Radio series, Writers & Company. “ The first thing I read was a line in it where Eliot says ‘This is one moment, but know that another will pierce you with a sudden painful joy.’ And it made me cry because I was having a terrible time. I had fallen in love with a girl… It was like a message in a bottle… I didn’t know who this T. S. Eliot person was… It seemed a powerful message to me and something I could hold on to.” This was Winterson’s beginning as a writer.
In the beginning was the word, according to the Bible. To the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece, the “Logos” – a word connoting language, speech or reason – was the divine animating principle that pervaded the Universe. The Roman poet Lucretius had a different idea. In his long poem, On the Nature of Things, he rejected the idea of a universe controlled by gods and proposed instead that matter is made up of tiny particles in constant motion, colliding and combining to weave the world around us. Amazingly, atomic theory originated from the most unlikely source: a ream of verse by an ancient poet.
Lucretius was widely read after his rediscovery during the Renaissance and his ideas contributed to the Enlightenment’s clockwork model of the universe – an idea of great power until its deconstruction at the hands of Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg in the 20th century. And once again, the poets preceded the scientists. The romantic poets of the 19th century didn’t just reject determinism; they also refuted the utilitarian viewpoint of human beings as replaceable factory widgets. In the late 1800s, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake were among the first to write against social injustice, with the latter poetically slamming child labour and the “satanic mills” of the industrial revolution.
“Poetry is tremendously influential,” notes respected British moral philosopher Mary Midgley in an interview in The Guardian. “…Some scientist dismissed Shelley as a beautiful but ineffectual angel standing in the void in vain or something, but, in fact, that revolutionary stuff was enormously influential. His conception of society and how it required equality and how bad it was, and his kind of atheism were very impressive stuff.”
“Writers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” Shelley insisted. To put it another way, scribblers are sensitive seismographic instruments. They anticipate seismic social trends long before the journalists, politicians and policy makers. And for their part, political leaders have often appealed to poetry to give mythic power to their initiatives. The opening lines of the American Declaration of Independence were written in iambic pentameter:
We hold these truths to be self-evident:
That all men are created equal,
That they are endowed by their Creator
with certain inalienable rights;
that among these are life, liberty
and the pursuit of happiness.
Similarly, Martin Luther King Jr.’s enormously influential and stirring “I Have a Dream” speech succeeded because its poetic structure was of a piece with King’s delivery. The Baptist minister’s electrifying call for equality, which drew its prophetic power from the language of the Gospels, became engrained into the consciousness of the civil rights movement and mainstream society.
After the First World War, the poems of Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon not only voiced a generational horror of the insanity of war, but they also found their way into classroom curricula in the English-speaking world. Percolating in the minds of young students, they undoubtedly had an influence on the pacifist movement and even the sixties revolution. W.B. Yeats’ 1919 poem, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, records the last thoughts of a man whose sense of duty lies outside the officially drawn lines of battle:
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor…
The airman’s people will remain poor no matter what the war’s outcome, Yeats implies, with the victors always being the rich. In a similar vein, Randall Jarrell’s The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner has stuck in my mind ever since I first encountered it in high school. This five-line 1945 poem concerns the death of a gunner in a World War II American bomber aircraft:
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
This is hard stuff, without a trace of sentimentality. So it’s no surprise the relationship of poets to powerbrokers has often been ambivalent. In February 2003, then First Lady Laura Bush cancelled her symposium on “Poetry and the American Voice” after she discovered that some of the poets on her guest list refused to attend a protest against the impending war on Iraq.
In November of last year, Robert Hass, former Poet Laureate of the United States, was present at Occupy Berkeley when Alameda County deputy sheriffs “in Darth Vader riot gear” pushed his wife to the ground and clubbed Hass. “One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O’Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest,” Hass recalled in an essay for the New York Times. The incident led to at least one memorable protest sign – “Beat Poets, not beat poets.”
In other parts of the world, poets have long had the ear of the people and the nervous attention of leaders. The Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was a diplomat and a senator. In Cuba, you will find few statues of Fidel Castro, but you’ll find plenty dedicated to José Martí, the 19th century Havana-born poet whose writings and political struggle were enormously influential in the Cuban struggle for independence.
“In France, Paul Éluard, René Char and Robert Desnos wrote dissenting poetry while fighting for the Résistance,” notes poet Rachel Galvin. “In Italy, Quasimodo and Cesare Pavese were repressed for denouncing the regime under which they lived, as were Russian and Polish poets such as Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Wislawa Szymborska and Czeslaw Milosz.”
“Contemporary Middle Eastern poets such as Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Nizar Qabbani, Adonis, Ghazi al-Gosaibi and Mahmoud Darwish have embraced the idea of committed literature, or a literature engagée, as Sartre termed it.”
And, of course, poetry has long accompanied music. John Lennon’s piece of chanting doggerel, Give Peace a Chance, has been a protest standard for years and his Imagine is still rotated on AM radio like it’s just another boy-meets-girl bauble, when it’s actually a radical hymn to a world freed of possessions, borders and religious dogma. Throughout the sixties to the present, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and a host of other poetic singersongwriters also expanded the protestor’s time-specific complaints into calls for universal justice.
Even the Irish nationalist Yeats has become a resource for singer/songwriters a half-century after his death – not what you’d expect of a man who was tone-deaf. Both Sinéad O’Connor and U2 have cribbed lines from Yeats in their compositions, although when Van Morrison converted Crazy Jane on God in its entirety into song, the W. B. Yeats estate refused permission, resulting in the destruction of the first pressings of Morrison’s 1985 album, A Sense of Wonder. (Yeats’ family believed the master’s compositions should only be set to classical music.)
For some reason, The Waterboys had more success with Yeats than the “Belfast Cowboy” did. Waterboys singer/songwriter Mike Scott has referenced Yeats throughout his song catalogue and in November of 2011 he went the whole hog with a superb reworking of the poet’s verse in An Appointment With Mr. Yeats. “September 1913 was written about 100 years ago about the money-grabbing clergy of the day and the bourgeoisie who were very unsympathetic to the plight of the Dublin workers,” said Scott in an online interview, discussing his remaking of one particular poem. “If Yeats were around today, I think he would have found much fuel for a similar emotive fire.”
The closest spiritual comparison to Yeats on bookstore shelves today is a hot-selling 13th- century Persian mystic, born in the eastern part of the Ancient Persian Empire, in what is now Afghanistan. To say Jelaluddin Rumi was prolific is putting it mildly. One of his works consists of 24,000 verses, making him an inexhaustible resource for his chief translator, the American poet Coleman Barks.
Rumi drew little distinction between love for another, love for the world and love for the universal force behind the realm of appearances. The Sufi poet’s words offer a counterweight to the popular image of the fanatical Islamicist, and his expansive idea of the divine offers a challenge to a western culture addicted to dualisms: good/evil, freedom/slavery, God/Satan, inner/outer and democracy/any place without a McDonalds. Rumi writes of a creator who traffics in paradox and the inversion of values that happens when people are convinced of their own righteousness:
God has allowed some magical reversal to occur,
so that you see the scorpion pit
as an object of desire,
and all the beautiful expanse around it,
as dangerous and swarming with snakes.
This is how strange your fear of death
and emptiness is, and how perverse
the attachment to what you want.
Although it’s unlikely any Persian poets will end up on the reading list of West Point cadets, a 2002 Time magazine article pegged Rumi as the greatest selling poet in the US at the time (a quick check on Amazon shows a sales rank of 2,457 for The Essential Rumi, compared to 57,424 for The Poetry of Robert Frost). And as I noted above, Yeats is having a second life in a rock n’ roll format. Rap artists like the Afro-Peruvian Immortal Technique are widening their genre to fuse class analysis with scathing word play. There’s even a poetic angle to the Occupy movement with its ‘mike check’ routine, which pushes speakers toward the rhythm and cadence of verse.
As long as there are human beings communicating their truths of soul, self and social justice, poetry will continue to work its subterranean way through human hearts. Let’s hope that sonnets prevail over insanity.
photo © Vyacheslav Bukhal