January 2009


"Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings."

I remember the poet Maya Angelou offering her vision of hope for our country at President Clinton's first inauguration.  It was a touch of grace amid the predictably opulent pomp and circumstance of a presidential inauguration.  I also remember Robert Frost shivering in the January chill as he started to read his new poem ‘Dedication' at the inauguration of President Kennedy.  The eighty-six year old sage saw in the youthful president a refreshing expression of poetry and reality. Frost spoke of:

"... young ambition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play. A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday's the beginning hour."

But the poet was old on that January day and in the glare of sun and ice and snow he couldn't see the freshly typed words.  The poem was new to him and not yet familiar; he wasn't sure how it should read.  His tone stumbled and his voice gave up. And then with splendid command he recited an older work he knew perfectly ‘The Gift Outright':

"Something we were withholding made us weak.
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender."

I don't know if poetry is typically part of an inauguration, these are the only two I remember but I'll be looking for a poet when President Obama takes the Oath of Office. Robert Frost and Maya Angelou went back to their peaceful lives, Kennedy and Clinton went back to politics, and the Muse still roams our big, bustling, rich, poor, selfish, generous but not very poetic country.  If only the nation and her leaders could pick up where the poets leave off. 

The trouble with poetry and politics is that real life gets in the way. We have no time to slow down for verse. Imagine a politician who suggests, "It's the poetry, stupid" or "I'm going to give everyone an across the board poetry break."  First we have to save Medicare and Social Security, guarantee health coverage, bailout Wall Street and Motown, win a few wars, fix the credit crisis, repave the nation, develop new, clean and affordable sources of energy, and so on and on. But that's all well and good, politicians are supposed to promise the sun the moon and the stars. On the heels of their hefty promises come politics as we know it, all the way to the bottom.

Bringing poetry to bear on politics seems a hopeless tack and that they ever run into each other in the public square is a small miracle that -- who knows -- could lead to a bigger one.

On a visit to Amherst College, President Kennedy paid tribute to Robert Frost and 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."

We do want poetry by whatever name. In this year's campaign we searched for something to set on fire our personal and communal aspirations, that instead of offering us tax bribes and other political pap, challenged us to greatness, or, short of that, coaxed us to hope.

Hopefully our new leaders take a lesson from this: that people really do care; and that can even pay off politically. After President Kennedy's speech at Amherst, an editorial noted: "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."

As creatures who worship a God who became one of us, we are not strangers to the power of poetry.  Poetry is in our nature.  Our entire Liturgical experience is poetic.  We could not begin to express the mystery of life and the meaning of our existence without the art of verse.  Every church service, every hymn, every prayer, every holy text asks us to move past where we are and encounter something new, fresh and different. Poetry and the images it evokes is part of who we are. One could argue that when we worship spirituality and poetry overlap before flying off to the same high destiny.

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."

There is 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.

"Beauty will save the world," Dostoevsky once said. Alexander Solzhenitsyn took it as his text for his Nobel lecture. 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. "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.  On Inauguration Day, I'll be praying for our new President and his promise of a new beginning and I'll be listening for some poetry. 

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