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A New Force For Truth: How poetry can save us

We are entering a new more truth-centered era in our professional and political lives. And no, I’m not on mind-altering drugs. I have been savoring some mind-altering poems. And now seeing these poems in a fresh new light, I can appreciate more deeply, their ability to change minds, hearts and eventually whole nations and worlds.

“No! No!” I hear you shout. “How can more truth be at hand when truth seems to be in retreat everywhere we look and untruths are multiplying with such ferocity?”

Yes, of course, I admit my vision is counterintuitive. However once unleashed, the power of evolutionary language is irresistible. Because it is really the power of our newly forming story that is fueling this evolution.

But first, let’s acknowledge where we are. (And no, it is not pretty…)

  • “All presidents lie. Richard Nixon said he was not a crook, yet he orchestrated the most shamelessly crooked act in the modern presidency. Ronald Reagan said he wasn’t aware of the Iran-Contra deal; there’s evidence he was. Bill Clinton said he did not have sex with that woman; he did, or close enough. Lying in politics transcends political party and era. It is, in some ways, an inherent part of the profession of politicking. But Donald Trump is in a different category. The sheer frequency, spontaneity and seeming irrelevance of his lies have no precedent.”         –Maria Konnikova, Politico
  • “The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that trust in the U.S. has suffered the largest-ever-recorded drop in the survey’s history among the general population. Trust among the general population fell nine points to 43, placing it in the lower quarter of the 28-market Trust Index. Trust among the informed public in the U.S. imploded, plunging 23 points to 45, making it now the lowest of the 28 markets surveyed, below Russia and South Africa.”   –Summary From The Report

Of course, who could blame us for being discouraged? And yet, despite these and other depressing developments, there are also some inspiring and hopeful signs as well. Clear signs that have me believe the great tide of events before us is changing.

But first, let’s be clear about the kind of truth we’re talking about. I don’t mean THE TRUTH. Actually, if someone tells me they’ve found such absolute truth, my instinct is to grab my wallet and run.

No, what I’m talking about is a sincere, open-minded ethic of searching for what is true. This also means nurturing an awareness of those first tender shoots of truth, as they emerge, the ones barely breaking ground.

Specifically, I’m thinking of the truth being spoken and lived by the high school students from Marjory Stonemason Douglas High School in Parkland Florida. And subsequently the tens of thousands of young (and now increasingly older) people who have been deeply influenced and inspired as well.

After the horrible mass shooting at their school, these are the students who’ve heard one too many times, the tired old excuses, obfuscations, omissions and straight out lies about even moderate levels of gun regulation in our country.

Now, from the terrible ashes of this tragedy comes something both unpredictable and miraculous. Simply following this story, hearing these young and courageous students we are deeply moved.

We soon discover even the most pessimistic, frozen, cynical parts of ourselves beginning to crack and thaw giving way to new hope and possibilities.

And that’s not all. There is another hopeful and complementary force in this emerging trend back to the creation of a more truth-centered world. A force that has deep and abiding respect for the truth. A force that has a built-in detector for BS, propaganda and flat-out lies.

This force is great poetry. And the initial poems in this movement are the very speeches of these courageous young students. Remember poetry can be properly thought of as any words written or spoken that require us to stop and pay careful attention. That’s it, plain and simple.

Consider that every great and sustained movement has been accompanied by poetic speech. For example:

“We are not afraid of you, we will not be silenced by anything you have to say. We are here, our voices are loud, and we’re not stopping until change happens.”  –Tanzil Philip, a sophomore

“This movement, created by students, led by students, is based on emotion. It is based on passion and it is based on pain. Our biggest flaws—our tendency to be a bit too aggressive, our tendency to lash out, things that you expect from a normal teenager—these are our strengths. The only reason that we’ve gotten so far is that we are not afraid of losing money, we’re not afraid of getting reelected or not getting reelected, we have nothing to lose. The only thing we have to gain at this point is our safety.” –Delaney Tarr, a senior

In fact, these are found poems from the mouths of the amazing and courageous young people of Parkland Florida. Their words and deeds move us deeply. And now that our hearts and minds are blown wide open, why stop?

Just like these passionate young students, let’s not stop speaking the poetic truth. Let’s not stop connecting our hearts and minds with our actions. Let’s not stop speaking truthfully and poetically about what matters to us.

And while we’re on a roll and focused on such poetic language, let’s realize that such language is all around us just waiting to shift, motivate and inspire us.

Consider this amazing poem called Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye from my new book, Poetry For The Leader Inside You… A Search and Rescue Mission For The Heart And Soul. It’s the kind of poem we can love on many levels. We love its art, images, metaphors, emotion, ideas, and yes its truth speaking.

In fact, all the portable principles we need to unleash a new more truth-loving era are contained in this poem and others like it.

As you read the poem, think of it as a story-guide for our times. Then we’ll examine the core principles it shares with other great poems:

Kindness

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.

 

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

 

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

it is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you every where

like a shadow or a friend.

–Naomi Shihab Nye

5 Unmistakable Signs of Truth-Telling By Great Poems

  1. Everything is connected: A great poem, like Nye’s Kindness, doesn’t simply tell us we’re connected to everything else, it shows us. That connection goes for everyone and everything. For example, environmentally we once believed there was a place called away where we could harmlessly throw unwanted things. That was a lie. Nothing can be thrown away. All is connected.
  2. Successful lives require one-part plumbing and one-part poetry: A great poem models this. A great poem does not force us to choose between head and heart. A great poem has gifts for both. It reinforces and shows us how we can integrate the logical, linear, strategic (plumbing) part of us with the creative, intuitive, emotional (poetic) part of us.
  3. Anxiety, difficulty and loss are part of the game: A great poem understands the moment we shun the fierce and difficult parts of life, we will have also cut ourselves off from feeling and experiencing the beautiful, loving and sublime parts of our life. It is a lie to say only one or the other exists.
  4. Myths are our truest teaching stories, allowing us to describe and navigate the world: The proper idea of a myth is being reclaimed. It doesn’t mean a story that’s untrue. It’s just the opposite. Our lived-myths are actually the best stories, images and metaphors we have for navigating this world. Notice how Nye’s poem, Kindness provides a beautiful map for our happiness and success.
  5. Gratitude is the foundational practice for success: Great poems understand that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy. Such poems encourage us to look through the powerful, truthful lens of life as a gift. And, of course with those times where we can honestly not feel gratitude due to difficulty, hurt or loss, we can be grateful for the opportunity to grow, heal and meet our difficulty with greater strength, resilience and self-compassion.

Yes, these are difficult times we are going through. A time where challenges with truthfulness seem to come at us from every direction. And yet, it is also true that great poems can help. Great poems can help because paradoxically they are not trying to help.

Instead of lying about these 5 domains of life (by omission or commission) great poems honor and include them.

They can help us experience more truthful images, narratives and myths. They can help us build our presence and awareness, allowing us to more consciously choose the images and metaphors we allow to guide and inform our lives. Which is why the most truth-toxic despots always go after the great poetry and poets first. (But only if we let them!)

Great poems can help us feel things more fully by allowing us to marinate in deeper more integrated levels of truth. In short, they help us by fulfilling the 5 domains of great poetry described above.

Also, there is at least one hopeful part of the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer Report previously referenced. It’s that people are now searching for new, more reliable sources of information and news. That is good news. After all, the poet Ezra Pound said, “Poetry is the news that stays news.”

Lastly, here is one more hopeful thing to consider. Over my 25 years plus of enjoying, studying, coaching, teaching with and about poetry, I’ve been delighted by this particular truth, so relevant to our conversation today. The truth is that once our hearts are touched, moved and deeply inspired by great poetry, we become even more open and ready to be moved again and again.

Poetry uniquely exercises our emotional and imaginative muscles. And when we’re moved in such deep and profound ways, our feet cannot hold back. That’s when we find ourselves taking courageous actions we may never have imagined we would take. These being, poetic, wise and integrity-based steps and actions that affirm and support life and aliveness. And what could be truer than that!

 

Dale Biron is one of only a handful of poets who has presented and taught in both educational and corporate settings. He believes poetry is deeply practical because it does not try to be. Bucking tradition, Dale presents poetry in entertaining and engaging ways that seek to ignite the mind, unleash the imagination and touch the heart and soul.  He’s presented at many venues throughout the west, including TEDx Marin, The Herbst Theatre and OLLI Dominican University. He served on the board of the Marin Poetry Center and was past poetry editor for A Network for Grateful Living. Dale’s latest prose book is entitled, Poetry for the Leader Inside You: A Search and Rescue Mission for the Heart and Soul and was published just last month.

 

“Kindness” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, copyright © 1995. Reprinted with the permission of Far Corner Books.

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