Like many, I’ve been increasingly stressed, depressed and upset over our current social and political environment. (I’ll get to how poetry can help us be more centered, calm, and effective in just a moment.)
But first, here is my question:
How can I help address the darkness and turmoil of our current social and political climate without resorting to useless complaining, vitriol, cynicism and bitterness?
Let me give this question a whirl, by starting with three micro stories:
- Just days ago, a total stranger at a film festival reception after a movie screening, said to me that she had openly wept while hearing Senator Collins say she was voting yes to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
- Several days later at the same festival, a friend waiting for a film about the singer-activist Holly Near, said she had resorted to special breathing exercises for worry and anxiety while walking to help her cope with the darkness of our times.
- Also recently, a Japanese-American woman in a local bookstore looked up at my wife while reading a new biography about Ruth Bader Ginsburg with tears in her eyes. An unspoken but unmistakable fierce meaning flashed instantly between them. “What times we live in,” said each to the other.
Are these three stories representative of the world? I do not know. Is this the most unscientific of all surveys you will read about today? Probably. Still, in addition to these events, when I read a quote this morning in an essay by Lissa Harris, I was deeply moved. I think of these lines as a kind of prose poem.
Pick a woman in your life. Any woman. Odds are, if you look at her right now, you’ll see it in her face: the brittleness. The weary rage. The way the laughter coming out of her mouth never quite makes it to her eyes. –Lissa Harris
In the midst of this, a short poem has been trying to emerge for nearly a month. My experiences with strangers and friends alike, plus this essay and quote by Lissa Harris gave my muse the needed nudge. Here is the poem:
“We Don’t Give In. But Want Peace.”
All our lives we’ve learned just the right amount of fear for survival.
Watching our anger turn inward… evolve into sadness, then despair.
But what new rage centers the mind and hones the courage?
Maybe it was the strangers who openly wept and told their story?
Those who raised their voices, while letting go every last ounce
of that old easy hope, and all on the day that Senator spoke.
To the not-so-honorable, who closed their hearts and doors:
We are not mad at what you have done,
but stand at a clear distance, far beyond that now,
as we watch you steer toward disaster.
Blown by craven winds of power,
things are falling apart, and the center cannot hold.
“We don’t give in. But want peace.”
Said the poet Tomas Tranströmer.
So let’s all want justice too, and just as much.
Let’s raise a little hell, even as we lower some heaven.
Please listen. We will say this only once:
Look out at the ramparts; see the steadfast light of our campfires,
our broken and calm hearts, our unwavering resolve forged in steel.
We. Will. Not. Negotiate.
By Dale Biron
Is this piece too doctrinaire? Perhaps. Is it shrill? I hope not. What was I trying for? Nothing, I was simply writing what, for me is real, as the words made their choices.
I’ve invoked several paradoxes. Like bringing hell and heaven together. Like saying I will not fight (in any traditional sense) while also saying I will not give up or run.
Oddly the right kind of rage can be helpful? And yes, when asking for justice, there is no room for equivocation, hedging, or negotiation . That we have already tried.
In times like these, poetry has a unique role to play in both the interior and exterior world of politics. That is, with the world itself as well as the interior world within our minds and hearts.
Poetry is the perfect antidote to the crazy-making, reality-denying lies of those trying to Gaslight our world and us in it. That is, poetry helps us stay sane in times of insanity. The right poem can help us clarify and hear our own voice more clearly. If it is the right poem, we feel as if it is coming from inside our own body.
Poetry helps us stay focused, engaged and effective especially in times of depressing and scary political and social darkness and regression? Any poem is a miracle, however great poetry is a beautiful and difficult early warning system, a fierce truth teller, as well as a healing salve and call to action!
Remember these strangely comforting words of poet Christopher Fry as we are invited to paradoxically feel gratitude for having the opportunity to show up in wiser and more powerful and empowered ways. Fry has great faith in us all.
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.
Lastly, in just a few weeks, I will be doing a talk at the Marin JCC in San Rafael, CA. (Just before the election) its entitled Poetry In A Time of Social & Political Turmoil. If you live in or near the San Francisco Bay Area, I would like to invite you to the event. It will be on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018, from 1pm until 2:30pm. To register call (415) 444–8000.