Generally, I score optimistic on the life-outlook meter. But after three years of the orange madman helming our mothership, it’s hard to whip up even a soupcon of positivity. As we whirl around the sun at Trumpian whim, anything seems possible – and all of it negative.
Like most of us, I feel powerless on this carnival ride. I worry about nuclear North Korea and World War III breaking out in the Middle East. But if Jared can’t fix it, who can? I guarantee you, the Ayatollah isn’t taking my phone calls.
It doesn’t help that our public discourse has taken on the aspects of toxic sewage slime. The blame for this lies, partly, with talk radio and social media sites that have emboldened people to abandon civilized dialog and spew their pugilistic, profanity-laden tribal passions. But even more blame should be heaped at the feet of our madman-in-chief who takes pleasure in whipping up the hate, racism, and the general godawfulness that his devotees used to keep among themselves.
If only there were an antidote to snark, a neutralizer of artistry and grace that would celebrate community and feed our souls. It may sound crazy, but could infusions of poetry provide us some immunity against despair?
This possibility occurred to me after reading a blurb by Austin poet, Robin Cravey – written long before the Trump regime and these seasons of our discontent. On the back cover of his book, Diverging, he writes,
A culture lost between aimless materialism and empty religion is one failed by its poets. Human culture is self-awareness in the universe. Poetry is self-awareness in culture. Poetry is also universal awareness in the self. It closes the circle.
You may wonder, perhaps, what happens when this circle is closed? I wondered, too. Could it be a cessation of angst and the existential fears that render us incomplete, anxious, and susceptible to fear-based intolerance?
In fact, I had been reading more poetry after a presenter at a summer writing retreat had made a strong case for it improving our prose. I tried it at bedtime and almost immediately noticed my awareness shifting away from the potholes of daily life. By simile, metaphor, meter, assonance, and alliteration, a new lens was focusing me on the marvels of life, the emotional responses to wonder, and our shared tenancy on the planet with all its living creatures. Even brief poetic immersion induced a sense gratitude and reverence that I don’t often experience without a magnificent sunset involved. Might that work for others? Could we begin tweeting, if tweet we must, in the key of Awe?
Closing the circle also suggested a reconnection with our earliest selves who were fed a steady diet of rhythm and verse along with mother’s milk. Rock-a-bye, baby, soothed us, Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man… , called us to play, and Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle . . . delighted our budding imaginations. Did we wonder why everything didn’t rhyme like Jack and Jill going up a hill or Little Miss Muffet sitting on her tuffet? Only the most precocious among us cared what a tuffet might be – it was enough that it rhymed with Muffet.
Then our young minds moved on from the nursery with an owl and a pussycat who went to sea . . . and danced by the light of the moon. Dr. Seuss was a perennial friend. With misty eyes we might have read Poe’s Annabel Lee, the maiden who “. . . lived with no other thought than to love and be loved by me.” Or we might have thrilled to Rudyard Kipling’s manly verse, Gunga Din, or Robert Service’s Yukon foray in The Cremation of Sam McGee. In English classes, we found Emily Dickinson contemplating Death stopping by and Robert Frost stopping in the woods with miles to go before he slept.
But, soon thereafter, many of us abandoned poetry – maybe we wanted it to be rhymed instead of metered. Free verse was hard to embrace because aside from O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo? it didn’t enchant us or whet our appetite for more. Eliot’s Waste Land and Joyce’s Ulysses, seemingly written in Enigma code, frustrated us.
We are older and wiser now, and, no doubt, hungrier for connection, be it with the universe or our inner selves. No spoiler alert here: we won’t find it on Twitter and Facebook. Might we return to our early love of verse and discover kindred spirits in the images and expressions of the universal so intricately wrought by the likes of Mary Oliver, Walt Whitman, and H.W. Longfellow, to name a few? Is poetry really dead to us?
Some contend that poetry is alive and well because we have rap music. But rap songs are not pieces of great artistry for the simple reason that they are not written to be. Rather, the words merely serve an external beat. While the lyrics possess musicality (repetition, assonance, alliteration), that musicality is incomplete without the beat and notes of the music.
And when was the last time your spirit soared to rap song? Compare Tupac’s verse (“If you make it through the night, there’s a brighter day/everything will be alright if ya hold on …”) to Maya Angelou’s poem that we heard her intone at President Clinton’s inauguration:
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out and upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here, on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
With hope –
Such words inspire and remind us that we are not adrift, stranded in a morass of our primitive and most brutish natures. We are beings who have courage, grace, and hope. We co-exist with our brother- and sister-travelers, sharing the same existential reality, its inherent fears, and our need for hope and compassion. Cravey sums it up in the last stanza of “Kinship,” a poem from Diverging:
I feel therefore I am
kin to every feeling being
I love therefore I am
committed to speak up against hate
I act therefore I am
free to change the world
I am therefore I believe
every living one has the right to be
During the last 1,111 days, I’ve often felt less kin and more stranger in my own land, a refugee from the state of decency, occupying a territory governed by divisiveness. I need more than just another story of murders and detectives to take residence in my head. I’ve found that poetry has the power to transport my awareness to another level of existence, where labels like democrats, republicans, socialists, and concepts like racism, hypocrisy, and bigotry are meaningless. In this heightened state, I find hope . . . hope for a restoration of our country’s ideals, hope for a healthier planet, and hope for the rediscovery of civility as the guiding principle of our discourse. So, Ms. Oliver, Mr. Frost, Mr Auden, Ms. Alexander, be my bedfellows, stir my soul with your words and help me face, with hope, the miles to go before I sleep.
Hey, diddle diddle . . . let’s take the antivenom, let’s close the circle.