Poetry as a Healing Balm
Poetry can open us up to new perspectives, and allows us to be vulnerable.
Logging into social media or picking up a newspaper and reading about the state of the world today can be a disheartening experience for many of us. We struggle to make sense of our confusing times. We worry because as our social networks grow, our circles of trust shrink.
Perhaps nowhere is this trust deficit more pronounced than in our views of the political class. According to a recent Pew survey, public trust in the government is near historic lows. This is quite surprising given that we are experiencing a level of relative economic stability, coupled with a political moment that may be disruptive, but has not proven to be catastrophic. Yet, as of April 2019, only 17% of Americans believe they can trust the government to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (14%).
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Rabbi who marched hand-in-hand with Martin Luther King at Selma, argued that the ancient Hebrew prophets offer an inspiring model of leadership because they were not simply microphones for revelation, but human beings choosing to use poetic language to ignite social change.
Now imagine: The United States helmed by a President who tweets poetry. And citizens who embraced the verses, perhaps crafting poetry of their own.
Maybe a poet could generate the trust we need. As I learned in writing my new book Fifteen Paths, trust is very difficult to build absent things like vulnerability, inventiveness and a deep sense of hope. Poets use emotional and imaginative language to challenge the revered. They would be a class of leaders unwilling to tolerate human mediocrity, phrasing their critiques of current policies in emotional and imaginative language that was unabashedly hopeful for the future, romantic and patriotic. They would craft messages that signaled love of country and all its inhabitants, while being sensitive to questions of the social good and the limits of power.
I wonder if the absence of this kind of politics or even general socializing is why we are at our current cultural crossroad. We’re not hearing enough bravely vulnerable romantic voices. Artistic expressions provide access to a space for respectful disagreement and a certain degree of togetherness through the dissonance. It’s part of what gives the arts -- music, visual, written -- their seemingly magical ability to bend public thought and opinion. They open us up to new possibilities and give us room to change our minds. But the qualities that enable artistic expression -- traits like romanticism, flexibility and creativity -- are sorely lacking in our current political space.
Maybe our society is not yet ready for a political class of poets. Maybe we have forgotten how to listen, and have closed our ears to the sounds of words bearing social admonition. Maybe we no longer have the patience to unpack the complicated or ornate language of poetic expression.
Are we open to being challenged by those who may not be current members of our self-identified tribes? Are we prepared to encounter a challenging message head-on and unafraid, with the intention of transforming words that upon first hearing may make us uncomfortable into something hopeful?
We can be.
The safest way to embrace dissonance and improve our ability to listen is by reading or hearing poetry. We need to start embracing the artists who choose to use emotional and imaginative language to challenge the revered. We need to empower those voices that are unwilling to tolerate the mediocrity that many in our political class view as expedient. We need to embrace our shared vulnerabilities, foster deeper connections to those that are hopeful about the possibilities of our shared future and rebuild trust by supporting a governing class that will prove to be trustworthy. We need more art and fewer arguments.