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In A Dark Time, The Eye Begins To See… How Poetry Helps Us Name, Claim and Change our Politics

Is this essay for you? Here’s how to decide. These words are especially dedicated to the politically depressed, dejected and dispirited… otherwise known as many of my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances in 2018.

Of course, I can’t read your mind, but if you could read my thoughts and feelings, you would find a strange combination of anxiety, fear and hope brewing just below the surface. For now, at least at this writing, my hope is winning by the smallest margin.

So while my small and fragile hope is ascendant, let me serve up (to us both) a few new tools for political clarity, motivation, and change. And yes they are poetry-based!

But first, let me check in on a few coordinates to see the degree to which our spirits may be kindred. I claim no pipeline to the truth and yet, I do fiercely claim these points below:

  1. To sustain our democracy and thrive as free and equal citizens, we need to support political movements first and political parties Great movements engage hearts and heads and aren’t put off by terrible odds and dire setbacks.
  2. Traditional labels like liberal and conservative are increasingly meaningless concepts. Let’s speak in clear, understandable ways about what’s right and wrong, based on transparently revealing our beliefs, values, and assumptions.
  3. There is nothing strange or exotic about merging politics with poetry. Great movements have always had powerful, clear, aspirational stories at their core. And what are great poems, if not great stories without the boring parts?
  4. What political movement deserves our passion and support? Try one of these issues: Reduce systemic wealth disparity; Reform campaign finance laws; Provide equal gender pay and protect women’s health and reproductive rights; Provide affordable health care for all; Root out systemic racism. Lift the poor; Support sound science; Protect the world environment; Rebuild public infrastructure; Reform the prison system; Reform banking; Reform immigration; Protect LGBT rights; Protect worker’s rights and the right to organize; Provide good public education and affordable college; Provide sane gun laws; End the US dependence on a war economy; No one above the law; Support the arts at all levels of society.

Of course, there are many ways to accomplish these goals. Forget all the easy slogans. We need to know the beliefs, values, and assumptions up underneath any plan offered, to determine for ourselves its worth and odds of success. Still with me? OK, let’s go.

A friend looking tired and dejected recently said to me, “Our politics and society are coming unglued, aren’t they.” He paused, looked down and continued. “Using our own social media, Russians poured gasoline on the fire of every political and social dispute we have in this country, engaging, enraging and unleashing our lower angels.”

Of course, as a nation, we were already bleeding, but they did everything possible to turn it into a full-out hemorrhage. (And the harsh bleeding continues…) He went on to describe lost sleep and the stress of watching too much news, even though in moth-to-flamefashion, he confessed being glued to the screen night after night.

“I know it’s not good for me,” he said, “but ignoring things seems dangerous, plus I feel an overwhelming need to simply understand what’s happening.”

Standing with my friend, I nodded in agreement. I remembered the words of the late poet, William Stafford when he said, “The greatest ownership of all is to look around and understand…” Stafford was right, especially now.

I tried to stay calm and centered with my friend, knowing how easily worry on worry can amplify itself. But as we talked, my own fears began to grow. My fears about rampant and ongoing attacks on our press, country and justice system, plus all the issues we are losing ground on, in the list outlined above.

Of course, we want to believe our fears are exaggerated. Surely this 240 plus year experiment in US democracy will survive. After all, haven’t we been through worse?

The honest answer is “yes” in many ways we have, but “no” in other important ways we have not. And besides, there is no fail-safe litmus test for denial is there? How many past nations have missed the glaring warning signs of emerging demagoguery, nationalism, and authoritarianism? Do you see what I mean? So what can we do?

Step back.

The first thing to do is step back. In fact, let’s not do anything, at least not immediately. Rather, let’s reconnect with and become fully our selves again. Let’s get clear on our goals, values, and beliefs. Let’s do this so we can effectively respond and not fecklessly react to one piece of cascading craziness after another in the news, meant only to distract us. Only then can we act from a place of true power and equanimity.

But what about poetry? Where does it fit into this picture? As we’ll see, poetry is the perfect tool to name, claim and ultimately change our politics

Good poetry is language at its most intense, brief, and emotionally honest. Poetry allows us to fire up and engage our mind with ideas, while simultaneously touching and moving our hearts with emotion. Of course, we know that engaging both the heart and the head is the only way to create sustained motivation and action.

FIRST WE MUST NAME IT…

Nearly 100 years ago, just after the devastation of WWI, William Butler Yeats put it this way in a portion of his famous poem, “The Second Coming.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Do you relate? Did the poet hit the mark? Has he named our circumstances clearly and understandably? Does it remind us of the incredibly critical stakes in play? Are we also reminded how dangerous it is to place our civic and political lives and duties on autopilot? That is, can we tune out, simply showing up to occasionally vote?

Of course, even if you feel resonance and motivation with the poem, (as I do) we can’t stop there. Naming is the first critical step. Now we must claim it as well.

And by this claiming, we must begin to own both the circumstances and our own participation in their creation. Yes, I know it feels counterintuitive. “What me,” we ask? “Yes, all of us.” In fact, we must fight with commitment and passion, without resorting to the bitterness and blame of our own lower angels. That is if we want to maintain our center and power, actually creating the changes we most want to see!

(Of course, operating in this way of powerfully centered equanimity is not easy. And yet, this is clearly what my 15 years of practicing the martial art of Aikido taught me.)

SECOND WE MUST CLAIM IT…

To claim our situation fully, we need to turn our normal way of seeing challenges on its head. Again, let’s turn to the powerful language of poetry. Notice how the poet, Christopher Fry, holds the difficulties right alongside the underlying opportunity.

A Sleep of Prisoners

Dark and cold we may be, but this

Is no winter now. The frozen misery

Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;

The thunder is the thunder of the floes,

The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.

Thank God our time is now when wrong

Comes up to face us everywhere,

Never to leave us till we take

The longest stride of soul we ever took.

Affairs are now soul size.

The enterprise

Is exploration into God.

Where are you making for? It takes

So many thousand years to wake,

But will you wake for pity’s sake!

Yes, our times and circumstances are dark and cold as the poet describes. And yet, let us fully claim them together. “Thank God our time is now when wrong / Comes up to face us everywhere…”

As we see, these are soul size times and affairs we now face. But as the poet clearly says, we were meant for these times. Now just as we could not stop at “naming it” we must also not stop at “claiming it” either.

THIRD WE MUST CHANGE IT…

So now in mustering up the strength and conviction to “change it” we turn to poet, William Stafford for some powerful words that get to the heart of our challenges.

NOTE: This is a poem that is included in my latest book, “Poetry For The Leader Inside You… A Search and Rescue Mission For The Heart and Soul” published by Blue Light Press and 1st World Publishing.

A Ritual To Read To Each Other 

If you don’t know the kind of person I am

and I don’t know the kind of person you are

a pattern that others made may prevail in the world

and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

 

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,

a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break

sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood

storming out to play through the broken dyke.

 

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,

but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,

I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty

to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

 

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,

a remote important region in all who talk:

though we could fool each other, we should consider–

lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

 

For it is important that awake people be awake,

or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;

the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–

should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

What did you think of this poem? Did it move you? Are we in danger of “missing our star?” And have you ever experienced a situation where you, “knew what was occurring, but did not recognize the fact.” I certainly have. And I do not want these times to become one of those times where I do not speak-up or act-up when needed.

For me, this poem tells a story that is real, emotional and aspirational. It’s meant to build a bridge from our head to our heart and ultimately to engage our hands (and feet) in skillful action. Did any of that happen for you?

Also, notice how this poem does not let us off the hook. We’re all responsible. Of course, there will never be real change if we expect it all to happen out there, somewhere else and with someone else… anyone other than ourselves. Rather we must be the first to make and be that change we want to see.

WHAT’S NEXT?

The good news about poems? The best ones are brief, portable and powerful. As we’ve discussed, well-selected poems are highly skilled and effective at connecting our head, heart, and ultimately our hands. When poems work best, they work by shifting both our thinking and our emotions to keep us inspired and in action.

You can create your own special poetry-based political first-aid kit with these and other poems you find inspiring and helpful. Poems that help you remember what’s critical in life and in politics, restore your hope when its flagging from depressing news, support your growth and self-understanding when things seem to no longer make sense, help you grieve the inevitable setbacks and losses within any worthwhile political movement, re-balance yourself when you get carried away engaging with too much social media and news, and finally to feel a sense of gratefulness any time, but especially in these difficult times.

The task ahead will neither be quick or easy. I believe the current POTUS is a symptom of our political and social ills, not the core problem. And the core problem belongs to us all. Therefore, we will need effective, hopeful, heart-filled political and social movements to move forward in life-affirming, rightful, and progressive ways.

So keep reading poetry that informs, engages and inspires you. Join, start, or revive the political movement of your choice. Don’t abandon political parties, rather demand that they support and follow worthwhile political movements. The kind of movements that work toward the goals listed above and others you believe are essential.

Lastly, please and always, keep the faith. Stay inspired. Act skillfully. Love lavishly.

 

 

William Stafford, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” Copyright © 1960, 1998, 2014 by William Stafford and the Estate of William Stafford. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org

Christopher Fry, “A Sleep of Prisoners” excerpt from a 1951 play in the public domain

William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming” excerpt from a 1919 poem in the public domain

 

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