THIS BLOG IS NO LONGER OPERATIONAL. PLEASE ENJOY WHAT IS HERE, AND DO LEAVE A COMMENT IF YOU WISH. NORTH CAROLINA'S NEW POET LAUREATE IS CATHY SMITH BOWERS. SHE WILL SOON HAVE HER OWN WEBSITE THROUGH THE NORTH CAROLINA ARTS COUNCIL SITE. I WILL BE SHIFTING MY ATTENTION TO HERE, WHERE I AM, (SEE SIDEBAR)USING IT TO DRAW ATTENTION TO WRITERS WHOSE WORK DESERVES ATTENTION. I INVITE YOU TO VISIT ME THERE. For a video of the installation ceremony, please go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xAk6fOzaNE.
Go to http://www.yourdailypoem.com/, managed with finesse by Jayne Jaudon Ferrer, who says, "Our intent is to make visitors to Your Daily Poem aware of the joy and diversity of poetry."
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Prodigious Honesties: A Test for all the Candidates
This is a replay of a "Language Matters" column I wrote two years ago. I updated it a bit.
The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley declared poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” These days we snicker at such an inflated claim for poets, or for any other voices claiming that language used well and with poetic intensity matters at all. And yet, what can we say of the real “legislators” of our world? Their world of spin and double-talk? Now that another election is upon us, the t.v. ads, the debates, and the bumper stickers, I’m left, yet again, wondering what qualities a leader worthy of our nation should embody.
This is a difficult question to answer. We exist surrounded by television, cell phones, computers, ipods, and palm pilots, all sending signals that can either confound or instruct. We watch the images of men and women on the screen professing this or that value or policy. How can we tell if they are worthy of our respect, not to mention our vote?
I think I have found a way, thanks to a recent speech by former University of Chicago President Don Randel. He begins his speech by quoting noted poet Richard Wilbur, whose poem “Clearness” begins this way: “There is a poignancy in all things clear,/In the stare of the deer, in the ring of a hammer in the morning./Seeing a bucket of perfectly lucid water/We fall to imagining prodigious honesties.” Mr. Randel then laments that we live in an age of “prodigious dishonesties,” but his solution does not require more classes with “ethics” in the title. “Perhaps,” he declares,” we should require everyone to study poetry.”
He concludes his speech with a revolutionary idea! One that might help us focus our attention more accurately on the men and women whose faces we see in the media: “The next time you see a face on the front page of the newspaper... you might ask yourself whether the subject reads much poetry.”
I don’t think it’s asking too much that our leaders read poetry, that they be able to speak our language clearly and precisely, nor do I think it is asking too much of them to be well-read in the texts that our canon of great literature has given us. After all they contribute, as Mr. Randel observes, to our understanding of what it means to be a human being and how we ought to behave in relation to one another.
When we have leaders who proclaim that they read nothing much at all, what does that say about them? And about us? When those candidates who do value education, literary culture, and artistic achievements are called "elitists," what does that suggest about our values?
I suggest that as Election Day bears down upon us, we apply Dr. Randel’s litmus test to all the candidates asking for our votes. Or dare we? Might we come away disappointed that no one, not a single solitary one, would pass muster?
If so, we face a future worse than any of us could imagine, one in which language is used not to draw our attention back to those “prodigious honesties” that the poet expresses, but to deceive, confuse, and seduce us into supporting policies that will ultimately undermine and silence our own voices. Then the word “democracy” will have been robbed of all meaning.
I've lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina since 1968, though I'm a native of SW Georgia. My paternal grandmother was born in the Blue Ridge, and I grew up wanting to live here. Where I am.
I've published five collections of poetry, the most recent 4 being with LSU Press, and have published poetry in magazines ranging from The Atlantic Monthly to Appalachian Heritage. But I also hike, bang pots and pans around in my kitchen, and love several dogs who leave fur all over my carpets. I write poetry because it's my way of singing back to the world both within and without.