Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say, ‘It is in me, and shall out.’ Stand there, baulked and dumb,stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until, at last, rage draw out ofthee that dream-power which every night shows thee is thine own. (Emerson, 1844)
DREAM POWER: PRELUDE TO A NATIONAL HOLIDAY OCCASIONED BY POETRY: WHAT IS NEEDED FOR LEADERSHIP OF A GREATER SOCIETY AND RESILIENT WORLD? Today we’ll hear the likes of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, and the poets that made his day and nights, Edgar Allen Poe, Bobby Burns, and those Thoreau inspired, Gandhi, Tolstoy, Havel, and King’s Lincolnesque Biblical cadences of “I have a dream.”
Welcome to our Poetry Slow Down, your think for yourself radio station of radiomonterey.com,Radio for the Open Mind, with team Sozarzar and Producer Zappa Johns, Mr. Z, I’m your host, Professor Barbara Mossberg, taking to the air to make waves in the name of the difference words make—poetry makes—in these days of economic stress and headline news of mayhem across all cultures and geographies, tragedy and strife in every section of the newspaper,bombings, kidnappings, wars, atrocities, fraud, shootings, unsafe schools and streets and even football fields everywhere–is poetry any kind of relevance for us today? Is it a luxury we cannotafford?
I reflect that these questions were asked—all right, Plato just outright outflanked poets and prohibited them from The Republic, but after that, in 1821, we had an Englishman, Thomas Lovejoy Peacock, declare poetry as useless.
I raise this with you Poetry Slow Down, as our nation has a national holiday tomorrow, Martin Luther King day—think of it, a holiday with banks and schools and post offices and law firms and the stock market all closed, shut down for a man not even elected president or any other kind of public office— Leadership of every kind, on the football field, in candidate forums, in elected office, in companies and institutions, and organizations, is in the headline news, and I’m just sayin’ that in fact, poetry is not just relevant, it belongs at the table, inextricably related to how many leaders come to be leaders in the first place, how they practice the art of leadership so successfully that they are re-elected president of the U.S., stamped onto our daily currency and used for wishing in fountains, and the topic of best-selling and prize-winning books and movies, and a whole national holiday is organized around them.
So our show today is on the role of poetry in leadership! . . . the role of poetry in the work of Martin Luther King, and in other leaders who have changed our world with the power of poetry—Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Winston Churchill—and very much focused on civil rights, what each of these celebrated leaders have in common—What is the connection between leadership and the reading and writing of poetry, fancy language, focused language, a time out from the world’s fray and fraught strife and injuries to the spirit, from the daily commerce and agitations and stress, to listen to a skylark, to see the sky, behold a rainbow, respect a tree, consider the plight of a fellow human being, the fate of the human race, notions of right and wrong: with a certain form and rhythm, to make language music: what does this have to do with human rights and leadership?
William Carlos Williams, a physician would go home from his day job bringing life to the worldto what he considered his real job: saving lives—by writing poetry. What? Yes, he said, poetryis “despised and difficult,” yet, “my heart rouses to bring you news that concerns you andconcerns many men. It is difficult to get the news (in such despised and difficult form) yet mendie miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” That’s a pretty large claim for poetry:life and death! And in today’s economic times, isn’t poetry a luxury we can’t afford? Is poetry even relevant to us today?
That question was asked in 1821, almost 200 years ago, when the United States was still evolving as a country, when there was slavery and women couldn’t inherit property or run for office and to be a native was to be exiled in your own land, and wilderness could be destroyed willy nilly and to be wild was a death sentence, and California wasn’t a state and the Monterey region was transferring from Spanish colonial authority to Mexican authority, civic places on the West Coast and throughout the U.S. were not even established yet, but the role of poetry was a matter of national interest in Europe—was it relevant? Thomas Love Peacock wrote that poetry had become valueless and redundant in an age of science and technology (!), and that intelligent people should give up their literary pursuits to put their good minds to better use.
Percy Bysshe replied “In Defense of Poetry.” Shelley makes the case that it is imagination, thepoet’s gift, that enables us to recognize beauty, harmony, and order in our world. Thistransformative ability enables us to be inspired to work to our fullest humanity on behalf ofearth and each other to create great civilizations. “Poets are the unacknowledged legislatorsof the world.”
In the next decade, the U.S.’s own Ralph Waldo Emerson called for “The Poet” who couldactually build a demoralized American culture into one that inspired greatness and innovationin every aspect of our lives. It was a poet, he argues, who is needed to give our nation a senseof unifying purpose. We needed a poet to inspire us, to help us believe in ourselves, and what isat stake in our work to build and nourish and sustain our communities. It is a poet who canmake us feel that we matter utterly to our world, who can tamp down that sense that EmilyDickinson described as “I’m Nobody—who are you? Are you Nobody too?” Walt Whitman, HenryDavid Thoreau, and Emily Dickinson, among others, answered Emerson’s call to be America’spoet. And from their writings, in the 1840s and 1850s up through the 1890’s, we see how civicsand arts, conscience and creativity, leadership and quality of life, environment and business,can come together in a harmonious blend, American transforming itself through the words ofpoets, with laws that express our highest human ideals for peace and safety and prosperity.We can look at equal rights, preservation of our water, land, earth’s creatures, the safety of our work places, resulting from poets expressing conscience and consciousness, rousing us to our better and best natures.
We will connect Shelley’s Skylark and Poe’s Raven, as poets seek truth from the natural world.
Better than all measures
Of delightful sound,
Better than all treasures
That in books are found,
Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!
Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow
The world should listen then, as I am listening now. (from To a Skylark)
In “In Defense of Poetry,” Shelley argues, “Poetry . . . transmutes all that it touches, and every form moving within the radiance of its presence is changed by wondrous sympathy to an incarnation of the spirit which it breathes: its secret alchemy turns to potable gold the poisonous waters which flow from death through life; it strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty, which is the spirit of its forms.”
In 1841, Emerson, “The Poet” ends with an invocation to our country’s poet– our leaders of civil and human and environmental rights imagined by the country’s founders–
Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say, ‘It is in me, and shall out.’ Stand there, baulked and dumb,stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until, at last, rage draw out ofthee that dream-power which every night shows thee is thine own.
And the reward for such a poet, so risking a safe and social life, is specific: “. . . that the ideal shall be real to thee . . . Wherever snow falls, or water flows, or birds fly, wherever day and night meet in twilight, wherever the blue heaven is hung by clouds, or sown with stars, wherever are forms with transparent boundaries, wherever are outlets into celestial space, wherever is danger, and awe, and love, there is Beauty, plenteous as rain, shed for thee, and though thou shouldest walk the world over, thou shalt not be able to find a condition inopportune or ignoble.”
The ideal, the world of the imagination, what can be dreamed: this is real to leaders, whom we celebrate tomorrow, the role of words in the human mind for something noble.
POETRY SLOW DOWN
Dr. Barbara Mossberg
Produced by Zappa Johns
January 17 2016
© Barbara Mossberg 2016