“The Child Christ lives on from generation to generation in the poets, very often the frailest of [mortals], but [mortals] whose frailty is redeemed by a child’s unworldliness, by a child’s delight in loveliness, by the spirit of wonder.
Christ was a poet, and all through his life the Child remains perfect in him. It was the poet, the unworldly poet, who was king of the invisible kingdom; the priests and rulers could not understand that. The poets understand it, and they, too, are kings of the invisible kingdom, vassal kings of the Lord of Love, and their crowns are crowns of thorns indeed.”–Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God
In 2006, Adrienne Rich published this essay “Legislators of the World” in The Guardian saying, “In our dark times we need poetry more than ever.” At the time she had just been awarded the US National Book Foundation 2006 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and released her most recent book School Among the Ruins. Rich died this week at the age of 82. I’m including the full essay below because I think it is so important:
In “The Defence of Poetry” 1821, Shelley claimed that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. This has been taken to suggest that simply by virtue of composing verse, poets exert some exemplary moral power – in a vague unthreatening way. In fact, in his earlier political essay, “A Philosophic View of Reform,” Shelley had written that “Poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged” etc. The philosophers he was talking about were revolutionary-minded: Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Voltaire, Mary Wollstonecraft.
And Shelley was, no mistake, out to change the legislation of his time. For him there was no contradiction between poetry, political philosophy, and active confrontation with illegitimate authority. For him, art bore an integral relationship to the “struggle between Revolution and Oppression”. His “West Wind” was the “trumpet of a prophecy”, driving “dead thoughts … like withered leaves, to quicken a new birth”.
I’m both a poet and one of the “everybodies” of my country. I live with manipulated fear, ignorance, cultural confusion and social antagonism huddling together on the faultline of an empire. I hope never to idealise poetry – it has suffered enough from that. Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no universal Poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming, intertwining histories to which they belong. There is room, indeed necessity, for both Neruda and César Valléjo, for Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alfonsina Storni, for both Ezra Pound and Nelly Sachs. Poetries are no more pure and simple than human histories are pure and simple. And there are colonised poetics and resilient poetics, transmissions across frontiers not easily traced.
Continue reading “Adrienne Rich: ‘Legislators of the World’”
Whilst reading in the prophet Isaiah, I popped down to the grocery store to buy orange juice for Sojourners’ Mardi Gras pancake breakfast tomorrow. With the prophet’s searing poetry still curdling inside me, my eyes fell on that this week’s edition of that fish-wrap, scandal rag The Globe trumpeting:
Just weeks after leaving the White House, depressed and paranoid George Bush is suicidal, insiders fear. In a blockbuster world exclusive, sources tell GLOBE the ex-President is boozing up a storm – and reveal why he is terrified of Barack Obama and his own wife Laura. Don’t miss a single word!
It seems that life in the Bushes’ new home in Preston Hollow, a wealthy Dallas suburb, is not all he expected it would be. It struck me that the prophet Isaiah is much better at explicating the daily headlines than I am and in words much franker and bolder than I usually give myself permission to use. Isaiah 14:6-10 says:
You persecuted the people with unceasing blows of rage and held the nations in your angry grip. Your tyranny was unrestrained. But at last the land is at rest and is quiet. Finally it can sing again! Even the trees of the forest–the cypress trees and the cedars of Lebanon – sing out this joyous song: `Your power is broken! No one will come to cut us down now!’ In the place of the impotent there is excitement over your arrival. World leaders and mighty kings long dead are there to see you. With one voice they all cry out, `Now you are as weak as we are!
In fact, Isaiah describes Yahweh’s specific instructions to Israel to taunt the deposed leader of an empire, saying, “When the Lord has given you rest from your pain and turmoil and the hard service with which you were made to serve, you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon” (Isaiah 14:3-4).
Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in his explication of Isaiah 1-39, makes the argument for why this taunting is important, saying that when the people are free from their oppression then “one of the important opportunities, in such freedom, is to engage in a mocking song against the tyrant.”
Brueggemann goes on to describe the toppled ruler’s arrival in Sheol:
“Sheol” is not a place of punishment, but it is where the dead are kept in their impotence. As the deposed oppressor arrives in Sheol, now completely removed from authority and utterly impotent—a suitable resident for Sheol—all the others who used to be active authorities and great powers in the earth (now become impotent) present themselves as a welcoming committee for the new arrival in Sheol. They gather around the new arrival and recognize him as one of their own, formerly powerful, now completely powerless.
In high irony, the poet [Isaiah] has them welcome the new member of the powerless to their company—“You are like us”—powerless, no longer a force to be reckoned with. … The speech “rubs it in,” so that this now feeble has-been should be recognized for what he is, completely broken and irrelevant, warranting no attention at all. (Isaiah 1-39 by Walter Brueggemann, 1998, p. 127-128)
In light of Isaiah’s description, it seems entirely appropriate that Kyle Walters, president of Elliott’s hardware store in Dallas should offer George Bush a job as a store greeter, saying, “Like you, many of our greeters are retired from the corporate world, so we’re sure you’ll have no trouble making new friends.”
How many American retirees have had to do just this in order to make their Social Security checks stretch farther and cover their medical expenses?
And, the LA Times reports, that while the former first lady is working on a book, “the former president has yet to interest a publisher in his memoirs. In fact, several have advised him to wait a few years until his reputation is less, well, in need of a good hardware polishing.”
Of course, having compassion for George W. Bush, the man, the husband, the father, is part of the Christian calling, as is extending him the hand of mercy when he repents of his sins.
But for President Bush who sought the status of emperor and who claimed divine right in his exploits; who tortured strangers in secret prisons; who opened the nation’s treasuries to privateers; who unleashed the dogs of war on civilians for the purpose of working out old vengeances and hoarding resources, I have a few good taunts left in me.
In fact, I imagine that, right now, Sheol may have taken up an address in Preston Hollow, Texas.