Poetry and Politics, again

Mark Strand recently read his poetry on campus at BYU. In the question and answer session, he made a stunning remark that is worth consideration. He wondered out loud what kind of a different world we would have if heads of state gave some time to poetry in their lives. This is a topic that has garnered the attention of some of Western civilization’s greatest thinkers, of course, and is a debate as old as that between Plato and Aristotle. I won’t pretend to rehash all of that here. What struck me in particular was that he identified poetry’s value as an expression of the inner life of human existence. All people have inner lives, he noted, but not everyone has an “articulated inner life.” Two people can love each other intensely, he said wryly, but they can only say “I love you” over and over again staring into each other’s eyes for so long before things get a little boring and divorce becomes necessary. His assumption, then, is that something about the exchange of articulations and representations of one’s inner life with another allows relationships to be sustained in the long term. Presumably this is because an articulated inner life allows us to see the fully human and considerably deep dimensions of our experience. The lack of recognition for our mutual humanity, he insisted, is precisely what drives conflict on a personal level but also in the larger civic sphere.

I don’t know very many anecdotes about heads of state and poetry, other than the fact that Lincoln was himself a master poet, that Robert Frost once recited a poem at JFK’s inauguration, and that Barack Obama was once seen carrying a copy of Derek Walcott’s poetry in his hand, a fact that had no small effect on Walcott’s sense of satisfaction. I remember when I interviewed Walcott, just months after 9/11 and just blocks away from Ground Zero, and he was incensed that in a nation such as ours with as many great poets as we have had, we could think of nothing more than having Hollywood stars making pleas on television to raise money. At the very least, he said, they could have read a few lines from Emily Dickinson, just to provide the occasion the dignity and humanity it deserved.

I have mentioned before the argument of the great Mexican poet, Octavio Paz, regarding poetry and democracy. He notes that markets do not know how to make decisions because they are free of values and predilections, and yet we have abdicated our own deliberations about values and given that authority to markets in the name of our own presumed freedom. Poetry, he says, is a caretaker of values and the deliberations about them, and the fact that poetry’s energy comes from the tensions of metaphor, from the awkward but beautiful relationships between unlike things that all metaphors create, becomes for him the source of society’s greatest potential. If we could learn to think more in metaphors, if we could learn to not only tolerate but embrace meaning in contradiction and difference, we could forge a kind of community that would be revolutionary in its embrace of humanity and in its harmony with the earth. This theory had no small influence on my thinking in my book, New World Poetics.

These are hopelessly romantic musings about poetry, of course, the old dream that poetry could someday be the acknowledged legislator of the world, the ruler of kings and presidents. I admit to liking this romance and hoping for leaders who speak in ways that recognize the mystery and humanity and depth of all human subjects. Nothing could be more important to our public discourse at this time, it seems to me, than this.

I conclude with a poem I quite like by W.S. Merwin that I think captures the irony of political power when it is oblivious to the complexity of life around it.

The Gardens of Versailles

At what moment can it be said to occur

the grand stillness of this symmetry

whose horizons become the horizon

and whose designer’s name seem to be Ours


even when the designer has long since

vanished and the king his master whom

they called The Sun in his day is nobody again

here are the avenues of light reflected


and magnified and here the form’s vast claim

to have been true forever as the law

of a universe in which nothing appears

to change and there was nothing before this


except defects of Nature and a waste of marshes

a lake a chaos of birds and wild things

a river making its undirected

way it was always the water that was


motion even while thirty six thousand men

and six thousand horses for more than three

decades diverted it into a thousand

fountains and when all those men and horses


had gone the water flowed on and the sound

of water falling echoes in the dream

the dream of water in which the avenues

all of them are the river on its own way



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