On Poetry and Politics, or Why We Can’t Seem to Stop Fighting

On Poetry and Politics, or Why We Can’t Seem to Stop Fighting September 15, 2013

In honor of Seamus Heaney’s life so well lived, I revisited one of my favorite essays of his, “The Redress of Poetry.” What Heaney addresses in this essay is the age old question of the role of art in the polis and the role of imagining alternative worlds within the context of lived experience. To what extent does art offer a frivolous and perhaps meaningless alternative reality to the concerns that press hard upon us each day? When, on the other hand, does it offer an alternative world we can imagine as a real possibility and toward which we are thus enabled to strive? Another way of asking this question is: When is poetry political? When should it be? An even deeper question is: Is the highest moral commitment a political one? Or is it some other kind of commitment that would displace political concerns as less significant?

I think this is a timely question because we live in the age of politics, where it seems that everything is reduced to a question of policy and of ideology. We can scarcely talk about current events—whether it be the question of what to do about Syria, how to help the uninsured, or what to make of climate change—without reverting to a conversation about partisan leanings and worldviews, which is really no conversation at all. I have written earlier about my perception of the dangers of political zealotry, even though I also abhor political apathy. Maybe I am too much of an idealist, but I wish for less politicized rhetoric even as I aspire to more honest conversation about and concern for political matters. But the truth is, instead of real dialogue, today it seems that conversations about hot button topics result in a predictable round of jabs and stabs, points we try to win for style. And perhaps social media have only increased the opportunities for people to shadow box with imagined enemies, thrashing out with repeated jabs into the air, while they eschew face-to-face encounters or fail to see people of different opinions as people of good will or possessed with even an ounce of real intelligence. And maybe that is because everyone else is similarly living up to low expectations, people who under normal social circumstances might be more civil or more open to self-doubt but who feel the need to batten down the hatches of dogma and radical certitude with every fiber of their being. Or just as bad, people who are so turned off by the political rhetoric, they simply tune out the world altogether. I have been especially saddened to see this happening within the LDS community, where we seem unable to have sane conversations with people of differing opinions about such things as gay marriage, the status of women in the church, the meaning of patriotism, or such unremarkable issues as the future of Mormon studies. Or some simply fail to care about them at all. Sadly these issues divide us in predictable ways, and their very predictability should tell us that real investigation, honest thinking, and sincere listening are on the wane.

Although I am someone who tends to lean to the left, I must say that I struggle to understand this need to define oneself first and foremost politically. I find that there is something almost indecent about wielding the hard edge of political ideology, about seeing the world as us vs. them, and I believe there is something so profoundly unethical and even unchristian about lifestyles that essentially exclude any meaningful contact and conversation with friends who see the world differently than we do. The truth is, for all the pleasures it affords to vent and rant with politically like-minded friends, I feel far more human, far more compete, when I understand myself as fortuitously situated in a world of difference. And this is perhaps where poetry, and more generally the arts, can play a role.

Finding myself as fortuitously situated in a world of difference is precisely the feeling I have when reading a poem or when I listen to great music. And this is also true, of course, of how I feel when I am in the midst of nature, when I serve others, when I mourn with those who mourn, and when I attempt worship. These are moments when I am pulled to something greater, when I can begin to contemplate a reality that feels bigger and more important than my own lived experience but that also draws me in as a vital and needed member of the human community. Poetry, art, music, love, and service—these things don’t save my soul and they are undoubtedly not enough to save the world, but they teach me that I need imagination in order to live deliberately and meaningfully. Without the work of the poetic imagination, it is hard to imagine something better than what habit and custom and tradition have set in motion. Poetry, says Heaney, is “a working model of inclusive consciousness.” We could do far worse than to be lovers of verse. For one, we could be apathetic, the rest of the world be damned. We could be one of those who only value art for the entertainment it affords. Such people passively consume the present, accept it, even actively move it forward with their tacit approval without scarcely a thought as to its desirability or morality. And their politics are rooted in the desire to protect what they perceive to be their right to continue to be entertained by the world. They want art but art without politics. They prefer the ease of imagining ideals without doing the hard work to make them real. On the other hand, we could be zealots who would hurry along past the museum walls, through the poetry section of the bookstore, eschewing the symphony hall for its perceived advocacy of art for art’s sake and head either straight to the protests and the voting booths. Theirs is a political world without art, but their impatience with art is fundamentally an impatience with the complexity of the human condition.

I refuse to believe that choosing between ardent political conviction and love for human creativity is a zero sum game. It is not an expression of political indifference to say that I am not chiefly a political being. It is not disregard for the urgencies of the present to insist that we take the long and deep view of our brief human moment. For that matter, it does not have to be out of disregard for art or religion that one becomes politically active. Unfortunately, however, because we live in a culture that has so profoundly politicized every question, from what language we speak, what we eat, how we dress, whom we love that we have more or less become convinced that these are mutually exclusive choices; in short, we choose to make the choice between art and life a zero sum game, resulting either in the perception that establishing the right laws and policies are all that matter or that we can focus exclusively on our own gratification with impunity.

So I asked earlier if politics was the highest moral commitment. My answer is no, but my reasoning is counterintuitive. In my mind, the highest moral commitment is to a social ideal whereby present and future generations can flourish spiritually and intellectually and materially. That is no doubt a political question but it doesn’t seem to be achievable first and foremost by political means. Establishing such a society is not only a tremendously difficult task, it is not easy to know what this will entail. To do so at least requires strong commitment to community, broadly defined, and to an ethic of restraint so as to assure the freedom of others to flourish in distant corners of the world and into the distant future. And even as we feel urgency to rush to political means to obtain this reality, we must know enough self-doubt and self-reflection to be able to see when our obstinacy and determination are obstructing the very objective we desire. In short, we need to be as serious about cultivating our imagination and strengthening our faith and longsuffering as we are about practicing the hard work to make the world a better place. We often speak of religious people as “practicing” Christians or “practicing” Jews. I think it is good to remember that we are indeed practicing, trying all the time to get things right, and good practice, as any musician will tell you, involves rehearsing, replaying, recreating, rethinking, revisiting the basics over and over again, especially if we hope to give our deepest convictions their fullest and most valuable expression. In short, a good society will be like a good poem: the result of a dialectic between intense passion and lots of second-guessing and between careful introspection and intent listening to others. In poetry, we call that result a good metaphor. In society, we call it community.


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