The Poetry of Politics: Where We Write, We Belong
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
—Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness”
There’s a common and recurring fear among people who study literature: the fear that none of it matters in the day-to-day world, the fear that the time you spend pouring over thousands of words in novels and poems is time that could be spent helping people in more physical, tangible measures. You spend a good portion of your academic career grasping and holding onto the belief that words, in all their forms, have shaped human history. You keep studying because you know that, in many ways, words are all that matter.
There is, on the other hand, an entire political world that appears, at first glance, to live on the outside of this literary world you’ve created for yourself. But I won’t beat around the bush. What I mean is, we’ve just had our 45th presidential election: the results (safe to say) were surprising across party boundaries, and the responses (also safe to say) have been emotionally charged—the surreality and uncertainty of the experience has made many people feel estranged in their own lives. But even if you had a fleeting moment of reconsidering your life’s entire trajectory, most of us who study literature will wonder how to find our way back to literature, if we haven’t already.
What, after all, is there to say about poetry and politics? For some, the answer is obvious. Most of the leaders we deem great have esteemed the words of the poets, and they have used the power of poetic language to build speeches to influence people for good. During President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, the poet Elizabeth Alexander presented this poem: “We encounter each other in words, words / spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed / words to consider, reconsider.” Elizabeth Alexander knows, as many poets know, that words are where the power lives.
Frankly, poetry is much more than what is contained in college textbooks, or the greeting cards we give each other on holidays. Poetry, as poet Naomi Shihab Nye describes it, is your life. In a recent interview on the podcast On Being, Nye gives life to her poetic world, saying that it is very important to see “your thoughts as text or the world as it passes through you as a kind of text.” As a poet whose origins lie in both Palestine and Ferguson, Missouri, Nye has written her poetry as a sort of wanderer, belonging to both places and histories, and making her way between them physically and poetically. In her interview, she speaks of her process of belonging through contemplation:
“I’ve always loved the definition for contemplation: ‘a long, loving look.’ And when you take a long, loving look anywhere, you feel sort of more bonded with whatever you’ve looked at. You feel as if you recognize it. You see it. Maybe it sees you back. And you’re participating in a world where it exists. And so feeling that sense of gravity and belonging everywhere is very important to me.”
Like many poets before her, Nye believes that poetry has the power to create belonging, to forge a sort of connection with our surroundings, whether that be people or geography. Poetry, for Nye, is as good for mental health as it is for creating an empathic interaction with others:
“You’re not battered by thought in a poem, but [it’s] sort of as if you’re riding the wave of thought, as if you’re allowing thought to enter. You’re shifting. You’re changing. You’re looking. You are in a sensibility that allows you that sort of mental, emotional, spiritual interaction with everything around you.”
Rather than believing that these poetic powers belong only to those who name themselves poets, Nye speaks of the capacity that anyone has for writing (just three lines a day, she says). And this, above all, is where poetry collides with politics. Surely, the poems in the books on the shelf are a power that cannot be underestimated—but the fears about the efficacy of literature can only truly be calmed when we consider the poetry of the world around us. That is, the real power of poetry is our world, in the way we decide to shape and tell our story. In this, my hope is the same as Nye’s: “…that you could find a way to live, a way to be, a voice to use, where you feel at home.”