We are connected, perhaps too closely, too immediately. With Nigeria and Boko Haram. With Paris and Charlie Hebdo. Ferguson, MO. Eric Garner in New York. George Zimmerman. Iraq. Syria. It’s easy to continue this list–too easy.
What we tend to want are simple solutions, dichotomies, dualities, one choice or another–not complexities and subtleties. But the human brain, the human culture, the human genome, the human body and the systems in and through which we operate are damned complicated.
Former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins gets a great deal of press, and sometimes he gets criticism for his popularity; but in a recent interview he states in apparently simple terms how complex the human condition is, and why we need compassion, and poetry:
The poem shows us that these emotions, love and grief, have been going on through the centuries; and that the emotion we’re feeling today is not just our emotion, it’s the human emotion.
Poetry is the only history we have of human emotions. Most history books, what we call history books, are stories of battles and treaties, negotiations and beheadings and coronations. But poetry is the only reminder of this very essential part of being human, which is one’s emotional life and all the dimensions it entails.
The history books will leave out many of the crimes, massacres, terrorist acts, and bloody little belligerent actions of people and their governments and cultures and belief systems. History cannot help but be compromised by point of view–it is always, as Churchill noted, “written by the victors,” even when they are trying to be even-handed and objective. But poetry is all about point of view. The “tell it slant” of Dickinson, ambiguity and mixed feelings, individual imaginations and individual interpretations. As Collins puts it:
I think writing and creating are expressions of an epistemological position — that is, how you look at the world, that slant you look at it from. And that’s all I feel I am in a palpable way responsible to: using that slant to get at some truth or a little smidgen of beauty.
It’s a matter of being true to your imagination, and being true to your vision, and true to the material you’re working with, whether it’s a violin or the dictionary of the English language. You have to listen to all the other violinists who have ever played, and read all of the poetry you can consume. That’s my sense of responsibility. It’s an artistic responsibility, not so much a political one, not so much a financial one or a responsibility based on commodity. It can’t be commodified.
As a teacher myself, I love the anecdote in this interview about a past student who, years later, could recall a poem he’d memorized for Collins’ class. Collins says:
[T]eaching is a very mysterious process. You’re throwing information, in a sense, into the dark. I mean, you spend an hour talking to this group of increasingly younger people and you walk out of there and you think sometimes you’ve had a good class, and other times it’s not been that great. But no matter what it is to you, you’re not sure how it’s being taken or what effect you’ve had.
The story reminds me of one time when I was getting my teeth examined; my dentist (knowing I teach poetry) said to me, “You know, in college and dental school, I took Chemistry. I had five classes in Chemistry. And I never, hardly ever, in my current job, use that information. I almost never think about chemistry. But I took a class on Milton’s Paradise Lost. A poetry class, really. And you know, to this day–sometimes I find myself thinking about that poem. And that class, and those lines. Really. It’s stayed with me much longer, and more significantly, than any of the chemistry courses I took.”
Billy Collins would surely smile and nod if I were to tell him this story. Those connections are the invaluable sort: beyond information and into the mystery of what makes us human beings. Teachers learn from this sort of experience. It stays with us.
We may not be able to resolve the wars, prejudices, pride and anger and sense of injustice that cause people to murder one another for revenge, honor, religious feeling, economic or territorial needs, or fears so deep we may not even be able to name them. Even tolerance has its downside: a tendency to refrain or excuse when speaking up might be necessary, if dangerous. Not all of us enjoy the learning we can gain from adversity or from trying to understand our enemies, who may not respect a willingness to listen. Not all of us learn from great literature, or have the patience to live with art that discomfits or challenges us. It is easier to paint Satan with the broad brush of evil, when Milton’s character possesses nuance and depth. The same with Mohammed or Jesus, the Pope or Buddha, Putin, Obama, or any world leader or financial oligarch.
We are all people in the world, flesh and bone, loved by someone, suffering and gratified by daily life, under the same sun and moon. The sun and moon that have appeared in poems from time immemorial. The biosphere that connects us whether we like it or not.