“There was the emotion over what had occurred, and there was also the emotion of knowing that thousands of people, millions of people, maybe all the people in the world, were feeling great emotion over what was occurring.”
By Maria Popova
“This must be the mission of every man of goodwill: to insist, unflaggingly, at risk of becoming a repetitive bore, but to insist on the achievement of a world in which the mind will have triumphed over violence,” legendary composer Leonard Bernstein urged in his stirring clarion call for the only true antidote to violence in response to John F. Kennedy’s assassination. “I have seen much of suffering and death in my lifetime, but I have never lived through a more terrible moment,” the great cellist Pau Casals wrote of his own reaction to the tragedy. “It was as if a beautiful and irreplaceable part of the world had suddenly been torn away.”
Bernstein and Casals were but two of millions anguished by deep personal pain in parallel with everyone else heartbroken by the unspeakable brutality of the loss. They were articulating a profound collective grief — the kind we experience whenever something or someone widely cherished has been violently ripped from humanity’s shared embrace, which is perhaps the most palpable evidence we have of a “planetary übermind,” or what Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious.”
Borges reflects on the grim afternoon of November 22, 1963, when he learned of JFK’s assassination:
I received that piece of news with an emotion I wouldn’t know how to analyze. I remember I was walking through this neighborhood, the one in which the National Library is; I heard someone say: “Kennedy’s dead.” I assumed this “Kennedy” was some Irishman in the neighborhood, and later, as I was entering the Library, someone said to me: “He’s been killed…!” And then I understood, from the tone in which he said it, whom he was talking about. And I recall, during that same day, having stopped in the street with people I didn’t know and who didn’t know me, and our having embraced each other as a way of expressing what we were feeling.
That day there was a sort of communion among men, as there was also that Sunday on which the first men landed on the moon. That is, there was the emotion over what had occurred, and there was also the emotion of knowing that thousands of people, millions of people, maybe all the people in the world, were feeling great emotion over what was occurring. With the difference that in Kennedy’s case we felt that something tragic had happened and, on the other hand, in the case of men landing on the moon, I think we all felt it as a personal joy. I would go even further; I would say I felt a kind of personal pride, as if I had somehow been one of the creators of that prodigious feat, since we’ve all looked at the moon, since we’ve all thought about the moon.
“Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire.”
By Maria Popova
One summer evening not long ago, on a rainy Brooklyn rooftop, a friend — a brilliant friend who studies the cosmos and writes uncommonly poetic novels — stunned me with an improbable, deceptively simple yet enormous question: “What does poetry do?”
But although poetry certainly does that, that’s certainly not all poetry does, so I’ve been puzzling over the question ever since.
The answer, or at least an answer, arrived as answers often do — in a flash of half-dream, half-memory as I was drifting into sleep one unsuspecting night. I suddenly recalled something I had read long ago, so long ago that it slumbered encoded in the deepest recesses of my unconscious mind — a passage from What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (public library) by Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012), one of the greatest poets and most wakeful minds of the past century.
Exactly thirty years after John F. Kennedy proclaimed in what remains one of the most powerful speeches ever given that “when power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” Rich examines “the long, erotic, unended wrestling of poetry and politics” and writes:
To look in a poem for immediate political function is as mistaken as to try to declare immediately what a particular protest demonstration or a picket line has “accomplished.”
I want a kind of poetry that doesn’t bother either to praise or curse at parties or leaders, even systems, but that reveals how we are — inwardly as well as outwardly — under conditions of great imbalance and abuse of material power. How are our private negotiations and sensibilities swayed and bruised, how do we make love — in the most intimate and in the largest sense — how (in every sense) do we feel? How do we try to make sense?
Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire.
I have never believed that poetry is an escape from history, and I do not think it is more, or less, necessary than food, shelter, health, education, decent working conditions. It is as necessary.
Where every public decision has to be justified in the scales of corporate profits, poetry unsettles these apparently self-evident propositions — not through ideology, but by its very presence and ways of being, its embodiment of states of longing and desire.
We see despair when social arrogance and indifference exist in the same person with the willingness to live at devastating levels of superficiality and self-trivialization… Despair, when not the response to absolute physical and moral defeat, is, like war, the failure of imagination.
It hardly matters if the poet has fled into expatriation, emigrated inwardly, looked toward Europe or Asia for models, written stubbornly of the terrible labor conditions underpinning wealth, written from the microcosm of the private existence, written as convict or aristocrat, as lover or misanthrope: all our work has suffered from the destabilizing national fantasy, the rupture of imagination implicit in our history.
But turn it around and say it on the other side: in a history of spiritual rupture, a social compact built on fantasy and collective secrets, poetry becomes more necessary than ever: it keeps the underground aquifers flowing; it is the liquid voice that can wear through stone.
Poets newly arriving here — by boat or plane or bus, on foot or hidden in the trunks of cars, from Cambodia, from Haiti, from Central America, from Russia, from Africa, from Pakistan, from Bosnia-Herzegovina, from wherever people, uprooted, flee to the land of the free, the goldene medina, the tragic promised land — they too will have to learn all this.
No one who loves life or poetry could envy the conditions faced by any of the Eastern Europeans or Black South Africans (for a few examples in this century) whose writings were actions taken in the face of solitary confinement, torture, exile, at the very least proscription from publishing or reading aloud their work except in secret. To envy their circumstances would be to envy their gifts, their courage, their stubborn belief in the power of the word and that such a belief was shared (even punitively). And it would mean wanting to substitute their specific emergencies for ours, as if poets lacked predicament — and challenge — here in the United States.
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