The nation yearns for poetry in politics
By MICHAEL J. FARRELL
"The rock cries out today, you may stand upon me, but do not hide your face." The winged words of Maya Angelou created a throb of exaltation across the land during the inauguration of President William Jefferson Clinton in January 1993:
Then Maya Angelou went back to her quiet life, Clinton went back to politics, and the Muse flew frantically in search of a fix over the big, bustling, rich, poor, mean, generous but not very poetic United States.
For a country that has everything, this one has strikingly little lyricism. A soaring word like "spirit" falls with a dull thud out on the campaign trail. A poetic concept such as freedom is recited with most intensity by militia members, gravel in their voices, in places with names like Ruby Ridge. There is something very democratic about this, a leveling, as there is about the U.S. poet laureate, a new one every year, or 30 in 30 years, marking each one with the stamp of mediocrity rather than issuing an odd one with the lifetime challenge to towering genius.
The trouble with poetry is real life, which has no time to slow down for verse. Pity the campaign manager who suggests, "It's the poetry, stupid." He would be out of there faster than the recent Dick Morris. "We're going to give them (that's us) a tax cut," Bob Dole says. We're going to save Medicare, Bill Clinton responds. So far, so good. They're supposed to promise the sun and moon. On the heels of their hefty promises come the "negative attacks" and "character issues," politics as we know it, all the way to the bottom.
Bringing poetry to bear on politics seems the most hopeless tack on earth, and the fact that they ever run into each other in the public square is a small miracle that -- who knows? -- could lead to a bigger one.
The only other occasion on which poetry got such a high hearing as Angelou's was when Robert Frost recited a poem at John F. Kennedy's inauguration. Apart from the magic of lost Camelot and our nostalgia for the New Frontier and other such mythologies, it seems fair to say that poetry became Kennedy, whatever else one may say about him, better than any recent U.S. president. He invited the Muse to the White House for various glittering occasions. Some might say this was his wife, Jackie, having an eye and ear for style, but yet it was the Kennedy White House.
Kennedy went farther and took poetry on the road. On Oct. 26, 1963, he traveled to Amherst College to pay tribute to Frost. In the USA, Kennedy said then, "our heroes have customarily run to men of large accomplishments. But today this college and country honors a man whose contribution was not to our size but to our spirit, not to our political beliefs but to our insight, not to our self-esteem but to our self-comprehension."
This speech went beyond tribute to Frost, to the bright, insubstantial but indispensable role of poetry, by whatever name, in the lives of people: "Our national strength matters, but the spirit that informs and controls our strength matters just as much." This sounds abstract, but Kennedy went on to spell it out: "When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment."
Perhaps it is unfair to ask what the reaction would be were Clinton or Dole to take one evening out of their two-year-long, or longer, campaigns to give a speech like that. It would be a sensation. But it could never happen. Never mind that they could find speech writers, as Kennedy probably did, to put the fine words together; such a speech would be against their grain, would not express who they are. And that in turn raises questions about the kinds of leaders we want and get.
Yet we do want poetry by whatever name. In this year's pre-election doldrums the country cries out for a candidate or even a single speech that will set on fire our personal and communal aspirations, that instead of offering us tax bribes and other political pap, challenges us to greatness, or, short of that, coaxes us to hope.
A few days after JFK's speech, the New York Post ran an editorial that began: "Long after President Kennedy's speeches on Berlin, taxes, Laos and the like have been forgotten, his address at Amherst College honoring Robert Frost and through him all poets and artists will be read, studied and admired."
No subsequent politician learned the lesson from this: that people care; that it might even pay off politically. The Post editorial ended: "If the precepts of this noble speech become the guidelines of American society, we are indeed entering not the decline, as some pessimists proclaim, but the golden age of American civilization."
This promise, sadly, was soon cut short, and a different lesson learned. A few days later, John Kennedy was killed.
In a brief editorial that won a Pulitzer prize in 1923, William Allen White encouraged "an anxious friend" not to fear because "This nation will survive, this state will prosper, the orderly business of life will go forward if only men can speak in whatever way given to them to utter what their hearts hold." It is probably putting too great an onus on fate to suggest it prompted Kennedy, in one of his last speeches, to sing out so clearly what his heart held. Yet this year's electorate surely hankers to hear a similar, "final," go-for-broke declaration from the candidates. What a wonder such speeches could be!
In a mild irony, in this year when politics are more prosaic than usual, poetry seems to be enjoying a little renaissance. For the second year in a row, a poet won the Nobel prize for literature. Many new poets are finding ever more willing publishers, an indication that there are interested readers in the land.
Religious poetry is part of this upsurge. A headline in ReligionBookLine, which keeps an eye on trends, announces, "As poetry enjoys a revival, spiritually themed poetry finds eager readers." One could argue that the spirituality and poetry overlap before flying off to the same high destiny.
What gradually emerges, however, is the reluctance of nearly everyone to define poetry. "We'll know it when we see it," seems a reasonable response. But if we're expecting poetry from politicians, we're presumably prepared to settle for less than the sublime: not so much iambic pentameter as an attitude to life. Bob Dole is no Robert Frost, but no one has a right to rule out the darndest, daringest Dole imagination waiting to find its expression.
Said Kennedy at Amherst: "If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, make them aware that our nation falls short of its highest potential."
The poet as critic follows a hallowed tradition. The old Soviet Union, even at its most dire, let some poets at least get away with sentiments for which other citizens would soon be languishing in Siberia. In ancient Ireland, the file, who was poet and philosopher, sat next to the king and had permission, at least on good days, to tell it like it was.
Wiser heads, in other words, seemed to suspect that there was a power in poetry that ordinary politics could never match. "Let others write a nation's laws if I could write its songs," Thomas Jefferson supposedly said. The songs go deeper, have more power to persuade.
Thus poet and novelist Fred Chappell, interviewed by Publishers Weekly (Sept. 30), beguilingly describes poetry as "the noblest secular endeavor that the human mind undertakes. If you get up in the morning and write poetry, your IQ rises 15 points for the whole day. Get up in the morning and write fiction, your mind slows down a little bit."
Sure, it's a biased opinion, but many yearning citizens would leap to endorse it.
"Beauty will save the world," Dostoevsky once said. It is a sentiment old as the ancient Greeks. Alexander Solzhenitsyn took it as his text for his Nobel lecture in 1970, one the Soviet Union did not allow him to deliver. He wrote of the roles of truth, goodness and beauty in making our lives whole and happy. But, he goes on, if "the too blatant, too direct stems of truth and goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through -- then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of beauty will push through and soar to that very same place, and in so doing will fulfill the work of all three."
If that happens, of course, it won't be as neat as Solzhenitsyn wrote it. This is earth and life is messy. A poem would be a pitiful political platform in 1996, because it could never offer the specifics that ensure a decent life and the leisure to listen to poetry in the first place -- though in this vagueness the poem would be in good company with the politicians.
"All you are doing and saying is to America dangled mirages," Walt Whitman wrote in an 1860 poem titled "To A President." Time passes but little changes. Yes, life is messy. But people do want, in their deep internal selves, the poem or the vision or the spirit of the blinding or consoling insight, and what so many hearts are so eager for must be capable of being achieved somehow, sooner or later. It's only natural.
Michael Farrell is NCR's senior editor.
National Catholic Reporter, November 1, 1996