When poetry purifies

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We recently celebrated World Poetry Day, which gives poets, both public and private, a day in the sun. It also renews old conversations about why poetry might be important and whether all poems should rhyme.

Main image: Amanda Gorman speaks during the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The first question gained some impetus when Amanda Gorman, the United States Youth Poetry Laureate read her poem ‘The Hill we Climb’ at the inauguration of President Biden. Not only was she young, confident, alive and dressed by Prada, but both the poem itself and the reading of it took the Inauguration to new depth. ‘The Hill we Climb’ was a personal imagining of the urgency, the cost and the importance of unifying the nation. It was Amanda’s dream, but the craft with which she wrote and spoke it made it a universal dream. It invited its hearers to the inauguration not only as a political event but as a human event.

Poetry can do that. Good poems catch the human depth of all our encounters: with ourselves, with the people we love, the world around us, with politics, science and all else. They do it by inviting their writers to explore the depths of their own gifts, and especially the gift of words, of rhythm and sound, of memory and of silence. Amanda Gorman’s poem is notable for its rhythm. The many rhymes, repetitions and the strong emphasis on the last word of each line are reminiscent of rap, a poetic language drawn from the Black American culture that Amanda inherited. From these she crafted her personal statement of hope in hard times spoken in the name of the nation.

'And yet the dawn is ours

before we knew it

Somehow we do it

Somehow we've weathered and witnessed

a nation that isn't broken

but simply unfinished.'

By bringing together the personal and the public the poem ensured that the meaning of the event was held in memory. That is a central business of poetry. The Iliad and La Chanson de Roland, for example, both described memorable conflicts that would now be dismissed as of no more than local interest. Of course, poems about public events do not always meet the mark — among the worst poems of British Poet Laureates have often been those to do with such national events as royal coronations or marriages. In a good poem of the genre, the writer will be deeply involved, skilful, and will describe an event of high significance. The personal and the public must meet in the writing of the poem.

What is lost in the public telling of significant public events is the range and depth of the relationships involved. These include the relationships between persons, places, past and present. The complexity and the delicacy of these relationships, and so the irreducible value of each human being involved in them, are often eradicated when private interests or political power tell events in a grossly simplified way. Good poetry can both clarify and purify the public memory by paying attention to the personal and public depth of events.

This telling of events in a way that respects the public context and personal depth was critical in Stalin’s Russia where the public language was controlled by the terror of the purges in a way that was deeply disrespectful of personal value and of the truth of public relationships.

Much published poetry of the time gilded this telling by meretricious images and bombastic rhetoric. Other poets fought against this bastardisation of poetry. In the prologue to her poem cycle Requiem Anna Akhmatova stated clearly the importance, the dire circumstances and the exigent mission of the poet.

‘During the terrifying Yezhov time I spent seventeen months in Leningrad prison lines. One time, someone thought they recognized me. Then a woman standing behind me, who of course had never heard my name, stirred from the stupor common to us all and asked in my ear (there, everyone whispered), “Can you describe this?” I said, “I can”. Then something like a smile crossed what had once been her face.’

In a few lines Akhmatova describes the agony of the disappearances of relatives during the purges, the proscription of words that communicate, the calling of the poet to describe both the personal and the public reality so that it will be held in public memory.

In such circumstances the importance of poetry lay in its capacity to give a free and rich description in a world where all was controlled and impoverished. Poets had to keep their eyes open and their heart steeled to record new depths of horror. Nadezhda Mandelstam’s two volumes of reminiscences, Hope against Hope and Hope Destroyed tells of her life with the poet Osip Mandelstam until his exile and death under Stalin. At a deeper level it is a saga of her discovery of the depth of public and personal corruption of Russia and a parsing of Osip’s poems that inscribe his mission as poet in such a society.

 

'The poets assume that even if no one reads the poem, the care invested in remembrance is of more than personal value.'

 

Mandelstam and Akhmatova were poets in extremis. Poetry also plays this same purifying and exigent role in other societies. Bruce Dawe’s poem A Victorian Hangman Tells his Love tells the story of Ronald Ryan, the last man to be hanged in Victoria in the midst of great controversy. Dawe focused on the political calculus that people were more moved by ghoulish fascination with the hanging than with the victim. His poem imagines a hangman’s love letter addressed to his victim. The concluding lines of the poem expose the public vision in which Ronald Ryan is a morsel to be tossed to the crowd. They also make evident his absence as a person:

'Be assured, you will sink into the generous pool of public feeling
as gently as a leaf—accept your role, feel chosen.
You are this evening's headlines. Come, my love.'

Although few poets are published, and fewer poems are written with intent to purify language, many unnoticed poems are concerned to remember and represent the immediacy of relationships that would otherwise be forgotten. The poets assume that even if no one reads the poem, the care invested in remembrance is of more than personal value. It is as if the poem that honours a person or event in this way will be joined to a hidden river of poetry where they will be forever held.

Much anonymous poetry tries to find words for massive suffering whose victims are inevitably faceless. One such poem reflects on the fate of Vietnamese refugees who fled by sea only to be were killed in their thousands by Thai pirates. The writer imagines flying over the South China Sea, looking down over the lights of fishing boats and musing on the fate of a young Vietnamese woman. It is an act of memory honouring her in the terrible end of her life while opening the possibility of life beyond her disappearance.

'… And you, little sister,

salted, fried and shaken,

as you sailed,

did you smile

to see these lights

alluring you,

like tunnies,

to frenzy

of paddles, flails and knives?

Or did you wait in fear,

drifting on the unmarked sea?

 

In this black box,

little sister,

I record your pain

until we land.'

The stream of poetry is a stream of memory in which memories are constantly celebrated and retold in another key. The theme of the Iliad is the sadness of war, an epic poem about what we might see as a minor skirmishes, which is large in its evocation of personal relationships and the broader context of Gods and human fates. It inspired the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh’s sonnet about two farmers who came to blows over the boundary between their stony farms. He remembers the poverty of the land, the passion of the protagonists, and then asks himself how to compare this scuffle against the contemporaneous Munich pact in 1938. He concludes the poem:

'I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.'

Truth be told, all human events and the relationships that compose them have their own importance. Poems honour it, even if they do not rhyme.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Amanda Gorman speaks during the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, poetry, Amanda Gorman, Anna Akhmatova, Bruce Dawe, Patrick Kavanagh

 

 

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Existing comments

At moments of great perplexity, when I search for a blessing, the depth of poetry is the place I seek. Les Murray asked 'Why write poetry? For the weird unemployment./For the painless headaches, that must be tapped to strike/down along your writing arm at the accumulated moment.' (The Instrument). Joe Biden's inauguration was immeasurably enriched by Amanda's searing poem. What could be more important than writing about poetry, Andy!


Pam | 25 March 2021  

Thanks Andrew. Beautifully done. You reminded me of Seamus Heaney's 1995 Nobel speech called Crediting Poetry in which he also addressed the eternal question: what use is poetry, and answered in part "we want the poem to be not only pleasurably right but compellingly wise, not only a surprising variation played upon the world, but a re-tuning of the world itself. We want the surprise to be transitive like the impatient thump which unexpectedly restores the picture to the television set, or the electric shock which sets the fibrillating heart back to its proper rhythm."


Pat Walsh | 25 March 2021  

I think the best poetry is written in someone's own language about something which is genuinely theirs by experience or heredity or both. At best it should also contain some insight or vision. Amanda Gorman's 'The Hill We Climb' has all those characteristics in full measure. Reading her biography is both daunting and awe inspiring. She is at home with both her Afro-American tradition, which has considerable depths of feeling and deep, deep religious roots and also the wider multiethnic American Idealist Tradition. Afro-American spirituals and gospel music, especially when sung by someone like the great Paul Robeson or the wonderful Mahalia Jackson, embody something very, very deep about human experience, survival and triumph. This is a young woman we shall all be hearing much of. Some poetic visions, such as those of Rudyard Kipling, the Poet of Empire, might seem a bit outdated now. I find T S Eliot's poetry, particularly his 'Four Quartets', embodies a deep, long extant English spirituality, which radiates out from the country of his return to the world. I envy Hindus in some parts of rural India, where a local Brahmin often gives readings of the Ramayana or Mahabharata to the whole village. This is done without being the least bit twee or pretentious. Eureka Street is to be commended for regularly publishing some excellent poets.


Edward Fido | 25 March 2021  

We all need to see love in action, for when we do so hardened hearts are softened, as mine was, many years ago while watching the News at 10, in relation to ‘another’ humanitarian crisis. The camera focused on sea of human misery, waiting in expectation for aid, one of the most startling things about this visual encounter, with this misery, was the reflection of two human hearts in action, the heart of the Cameraman who “stood alongside” (Focused on) the reality of love in action, emanating from within the heart of a child, who on the arrival of the expected aid had lost a younger sibling amongst the crowd… In a cold light mist on a sand sea / Ten thousand souls waiting to be consoled / This story must be told / The Queen of Africa and she is ten years old / In cough, splutter, sigh and cry / Ten thousand droplets of human pain / If only we had been sent rain / Crying children grasping shrunken breast / Empty mothers groaning for rest / Broken fathers clinging to their own / Children alone with no one to call own / All with sunken eye and tear ducts dry / One was a dewdrop that didn’t look for the fruit of the rain / Overcame her dreadful pain / The star of Bethlehem was her rightful claim / Then surge of human tide / The fruit of the raindrops had arrived / Refusing to be harried against the strongest tide / Her dress no more than canvass sack / Swollen belly but not with fat, naked leg arm and back / Leather black skin and protruding bone / The Queen of Africa stood alone / This little ship with a sack for a sail Sailing, sailing, beyond the pale / To save a ship with a smaller sail / With a heart full of dew drops / Under you’re dirty torn sail / Refusing the fruit of the rain drops / As onward you sail / With mother love and farther care / As sisters love and brothers share / Now turns the little ship / Carrying one extra small sail / As she’s blown along with love in her sail. kevin your brother In Christ.


Kevin Walters | 25 March 2021  

C'mon Andrew... with a little craftiness even your own words can be twisted to poetry..."the relationships that compose all human events, Truth be told, have them their own import'nce." Does it re-value the sentiment? Dunno... frequently artists produce works of expression of themselves, the mediums (sic, on purpose to ensure media is not confused) selected can be delberate to the work; like a Banksy in some alleyway, it might have no place in a gallery. Perhaps like Shakespeare's swimmers who choke their own art some words and works will resound purely by contemporary relevance then fade to oblivion...probably coz they don't rhyme. Maybe the great poets of yore can be simply written off as writers with bad syntax over thinking their last lines while waiting for the ink to dry. The obvious answer is a poetic licence system which can revoke infringing work; until then, graciously we're free to choose. If people can recite Gorman in 400 years we'll know that it stood the test of time.


ray | 25 March 2021  

Poets "purifying the language of the tribe" is part of their traditional function, which also, particularly in times of social dislocation, involves forging renewed vision and the articulation of it - as the best of them do.


John RD | 26 March 2021  

I couldn't even listen to the entirety of the Gorman poem because it struck me so forcefully as unbearable jingoistic schmaltz. I guess I had falsely assumed this feeling of queasiness was more universally shared. The language of that poem strikes me as fundamentally opposite to the examples you gave within Stalinism, precisely because its content is so clearly sanctioned by ideological power rather than subversive to it.


Josh | 26 March 2021  

I reckon good poetry takes its reader to a better time and place through the disposition of its conceptual words rather than necessarily through rhyme, reason, construction or song. Thus, something which is pure prose can be extremely poetic (like much of your writing, Fr Andrew) while so much modern, disjointed prose that claims poetic status is a load of eminently forgettable old rubbish similar in impact to some nominally poetic rhyme and metre that fails to transport its reader to another time and place.


john frawley | 26 March 2021  

The inaugural address is supposed to be the poetry of the day. Biden will have done well if he is remembered for not delivering ‘The Hill We Climb” because nobody remembers it wasn’t Edward Everett who delivered the Gettysburg Address.


roy chen yee | 26 March 2021  

‘….event of high significance. The personal and the public must meet in the writing of the poem.’ Sin, fortunately in plentiful supply, is the poet’s best handy tool for producing an event of 'high' significance in which the personal and the public can meet. Sin and spilt blood. One wonders whether, without them, there’d be any cultural expression which soars, soaring, of course, being, in the perspective of the first person, an escaping away from the now. An arc of the universe has to bend towards justice. It would not work if it bent towards tea and a cucumber sandwich at 3 pm on a halcyon suburban Saturday afternoon. O Happy Fault of Adam.


roy chen yee | 28 March 2021  

Drama, too, would be a parlour show, Roy - and the novel; for instance, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, etc., etc., etc. O Happy Fault indeed.


John RD | 29 March 2021  

My penny catechism taught me that ‘God made me to know Him’ so do not all true seekers of Truth no matter what their state of being, glorify God. Many poets/searchers/seekers of truth have subverted the values of the world with a handful of words, and they could claim a share to these beautiful mystical words by Francis Thompson ..“Turn but a stone, and start a wing! ‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estranged faces, that miss the many-splendored thing”…For all true searchers, the pull of the Cross ‘draws us into His infinite beauty’ as it exposes the reality of sin, leading to the turning of stones/sins within our own hearts which stirs the wing (Higher consciousness) of the Holy Spirit to act (enlighten) while He endeavors to create a humble heart within us, His known dwelling place, without which our estranged hearts cannot truly see (Embrace) the wonder of our God in our neighbor and creation. …“If you love me, obey my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive him, because it isn’t looking for him and doesn’t recognize him. But you know him because he lives with you now and later will be in you. No, I will not abandon you as orphans—I will come to you. Soon the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Since I live, you also will live”…kevin your brother In Christ


Kevin Walters | 29 March 2021  

Many poets/searchers/seekers of truth have subverted the values of the world with a handful of words, and they could claim a share to these beautiful mystical words by Francis Thompson … “Turn but a stone, and start a wing! ‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estranged faces, that miss the many-splendored thing”… For all true searchers, the pull of the Cross ‘draws us into His infinite beauty’ as it exposes the reality of sin, leading to the turning of stones/sins within our own hearts which stirs the wing (Higher consciousness) of the Holy Spirit to act (enlighten) while He endeavors to create a humble heart within us, His known dwelling place, without which our estranged hearts cannot truly see (Embrace) the wonder of our God in our neighbor and Creation.


Kevin Walters | 31 March 2021  

A pity that, one says/Kevin Walters his hand so overplays/ No real 'Brother in Christ' should so berate/ As the Gospels unerringly demonstrate?/ This, surely, is poetry's lesson, viz./ That it so pithily understated is.


Michael Furtado | 03 April 2021  

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