I started doing Words for Wednesday years ago when it was fashionable for bloggers to do Wordless Wednesdays. On Wednesdays, instead of writing a post, they’d post pictures of something interesting, or beautiful, or thought provoking. And I love those pictures. A picture can take us out of our left-brained, word-driven, descriptive world and force us to simply confront the visual world in all its complexity and depth.
But I started doing the opposite, posting a poem every Wednesday, because I believe that poetry is vital to a civilized, not to mention a magical, society in ways that our modern world simply ignores. Most people graduate from school asserting that they “don’t like” poetry. Free from the requirement to read poems for a course, they never bother to read another one again.
But, as Victor Anderson wrote, “White magic is poetry.” When poetry works, it does exactly what we say magic does: it changes consciousness at will.
And, so, one thing you can do to resist Trump is to find and enjoy poetry that speaks to you. You can share it with others and you can regularly work it into the lives of the children you know.
Years ago I guest blogged at Eschaton about political poetry:
When the fascist General Milan-Astray stormed into the University of Salamanca to confront the elderly professor and poet-philosopher Miguel de Unamuno over his criticism of Franco and the fascist cause, Unamuno said to him: “At times to be silent is to lie. You will win because you have enough brute force. But you will not convince. For to convince you need to persuade. And in order to persuade you would need what you lack: reason and right.”
The general shouted, “Death to intelligence! Long live death!” and drove the ailing poet out of the university at gunpoint. The poet suffered a heart attack and died within the week.
Here is Unamuno’s poem “Throw Yourself Like Seed.” I’m still working on what I think the last verse is really all about.
Shake off this sadness, and recover your spirit;
Sluggish you will never see the wheel of fate
That brushes your heel as it turns going by,
The man who wants to live is the man in whom life is abundant.
Now you are only giving food to that final pain
Which is slowly winding you in the nets of death,
But to live is to work, and the only thing which lasts
Is the work; start there, turn to the work.
Throw yourself like seed as you walk, and into your own field,
Don’t turn your face for that would be to turn it to death,
And do not let the past weigh down your motion.
Leave what’s alive in the furrow, what’s dead in yourself,
For life does not move in the same way as a group of clouds;
From your work you will be able one day to gather yourself.
Poetry Foundation has an interesting discussion of Pablo Neruda’s history of political poems. Among other accomplishments, he was a supporter of women’s suffrage in South America. What an adventurous life he led!
A clutch of smugglers and bandits helping Neruda escape engaged in a ritual of thanks to an empty cow skull, and they bathed together in thermal waters. Enthralled with Neruda’s stories, the keeper refused his pay. Neruda glimpsed a kind of solidarity in this makeshift troupe of shopworn men who protected one another; their machetes cleared a difficult path and they shared in communal stories and food. When Neruda’s horse lost its footing during the river crossing, a topic he revisits more than once in Grapes and the Wind, the leftist comrades guarded him. He describes the scene in “First Appearance of the Angel”:And there crossing the river,when the waters bentthe horses’ gallops,suddenly a gust of wind strucklike an arrow in my throat,the animal stumbledand the waters at my sidewere like a torrent of needles,the waterfall waiting likea lightning bolt on the rocks,there I looked behind me,and saw for the first time the angel,unshaven, wrinkled,with a pistol and a lasso.the angel guarded me,he walked wingless beside me,the angel of the Central Committee.
In Argentina, Neruda traded his ornithologist’s alias for a borrowed passport, that of Guatemala’s future Nobel laureate, Miguel Angel Asturias, to whom Neruda bore a passing resemblance.
The article doesn’t shy away from Neruda’s failings, but, all in all, it reminds us why facists so hate poetry. It’s worth a read. And so is Neruda’s poem to a chestnut.
Do something subversive: read a poem.
Ode to a Chestnut on the Ground
~ Pablo Neruda
From bristly foliage
complete, polished wood, gleaming mahogany,
as a violin newly
born of the treetops,
offers its sealed-in gifts,
the hidden sweetness
that grew in secret
amid birds and leaves,
a model of form,
kin to wood and flour,
an oval instrument
that holds within it
intact delight, an edible rose.
In the heights you abandoned
the sea-urchin burr
that parted its spines
in the light of the chestnut tree;
through that slit
you glimpsed the world,
bursting with syllables,
the heads of boys
grasses stirring restlessly,
smoke rising, rising.
You made your decision,
chestnut, and leaped to earth,
burnished and ready,
firm and smooth
as the small breasts
of the islands of America.
still stirred, the old
chestnut sighed with the mouths
of a forest of trees,
a red leaf of autumn fell,
resolutely, the hours marched on
across the earth.
Because you are
chestnut tree, autumn, earth,
water, heights, silence
prepared the germ,
the floury density,
the maternal eyelids
that buried will again
open toward the heights
the simple majesty of foliage,
the dark damp plan
of new roots,
the ancient but new dimensions
of another chestnut tree in the earth.
Picture found here.