We are drowning in a tidal wave of lethal numbers. They are lethal in that they take account of the thousands of human beings whose lives have been cut short by a mysterious, imperceptible, undetectable, ubiquitous, senseless, odorless, tasteless virus. This submicroscopic infectious agent that replicates only inside the cells of a living organism has become the most powerful, inhuman and inhumane force on the planet raging through the bodies of millions. It is completely ignorant of the colour of one’s skin, the religion of one’s faith, the ideology of one’s homeland, the economic or educational or political status and title of one’s achievements. Kings, dictators, princes, priests, shamans, electricians, doctors, lawyers, street cleaners, sanitary workers, sewage plant workers, professors and poets are all targets of its potency.
Drowning may actually be a metaphor that is altogether too swift; perhaps suffocating slowly is more appropriate as our eyes glaze and our ears close protecting us from the enormity of it all. Every so often, perhaps once a day, we permit a particularly frightening and tragic comparison or personal/familial story to cross the boundary of our awareness. Nurses, doctors, respiratory technicians drive to work in tears, return home to shower in their own tears, bent seemingly permanently by the weight of death interminably declaring its fatal blow to patients cut-off from loved ones, leaving the final parting to be shared by care-givers.
We count the fatalities; we compare the numbers for age groups, racial groupings, geographic regions, and of course, for level of compliance with preventive steps. We debate the comparisons of political decisions, those endorsing social compliance with prevention to those endorsing market freedoms, as if each were ethically equivalent. The false equivalence, however, is lost on too many.
Our social and political and scientific vocabularies are replete with what are commonly called “reasonable” statements, based largely on the “responsible group’s” assimilation and assessment of the latest trends in cases, and their impact on human and facility resources. Vaccines to be released for public injection must pass specific clinical hurdles, hopefully free of political interference, and then must be submitted to rigorous storage and transit criteria, prior to the needle piercing the skin on the shoulder of those deemed ‘first in line’…also determined by an oversight body assessing greatest need and most significant impact.
Those considered “essential services” (often previously ignored or taken for granted, outside of health care workers) suffer some of the highest rates of infection, for example in meat-packing plants, the transportation sector, the public service sector. And those living in poverty, often without access to adequate health care, confront not only the direct threat of infection, but also the additional burden of having their children attempting to acquire an education, too often at home and without access to either the hardware or the broadband to make that process work.
The human spirit, witnessed in applause at 7 p.m., for example, in New York for health care workers on the frontline, in the early stages of the pandemic, and for hundreds at Dairy Queen’s paying it forward by purchasing meals for those behind them in line, and for unexpected acts of charity that share a smile, a friendly greeting or even an occasional conversation from behind masks, with complete strangers, now liberated by anonymity and the shared threat, to speak, often while in one of the many lines separated by six-foot-floor-stickers.
One pundit observed, insightfully, that across North America where formerly public institutions like churches were once able and willing to challenge false utterances often by irresponsible spokespersons, that leavening is no longer available, in the flood of lies to which narcissistic opportunists have taken to skew public opinion and confidence in basic facts. Offering “rugged individualism” and the liberty of personal choice, as if it were a holy rite, when actually social compliance with protective and preventive measures are far closer to qualifying as sacred, and life-preserving, these charlatans (including and highlighting the current occupant of the Oval Office, and many of his sycophantic state governors, Senators, and legislators) not only poison the public consciousness, and its unconscious, but have spawned a spate of hate-filled, spurious, truth-denying websites as propaganda machines, infectious of the public mind.
And while exaggeration of fears lies at the core of the motive and method of the propagandists, the conventional thought leaders, the social activists, the opinion-writers, themselves attached to a public, for profit organization dependent on revenues, ratings and share-holder underwriting, submit highly researched, sophisticated prose in their analysis of ‘where we are’ at any given moment.
While it may seem incongruous at first, the observation and assessment this scribe made during and subsequently to a fifteen-year stint in ministry on both side of the 49th parallel, especially about the public’s receptivity to, familiarity with, and delight in language that can only be termed “poetic” or “imaginative” or “emotive” or “dramatic” or “visionary” was and remains depressing. The strength of the imagination, expressed in poetic language, is especially relevant when the crisis is at its peak. And just at this moment, there is a gaping desert of poetic imagination and language coming from the talking heads and the political and scientific leaders.
The level of language on social media, now so sparing, so literal and so uninspiring is only one element in the diagnosis of the mental attitudes and the emotional depth of contemporary North American culture. Quick transactional interactions, a nicety offered, or an act of revenge enacted, to achieve a specific and targeted goal, may offer some slick moments of humour on a sit-com, but they also engender a homogenization of what is considered ‘normal’ in how people relate to each other. Obviously, the coarseness of the language and the attitudes of the trump presidency (and the chorus of sycophants) further erodes the expectation of not only decency, but the lifting of eyes, ears, imaginations and aspirations from the gutter minimal to a more lofty height. As John F. Kennedy proclaimed, poetically, in announcing his “moon-shot” project, “We do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard.” It was JFK, too, upon accepting the democratic nomination for the presidency in July 1960, injected a note of poetry that continues to reverberate even six decades later, in a totally different, but equally challenging moment:
But I think the American people expect more from us that cries of indignation and attack. The times are too grave, the challenge too urgent, and the stakes too high—to permit the customary passion of political debate. We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future. As Winston Churchill said on taking office some twenty years ago: if we open a quarrel between the present and the past, we shall be in danger of losing the future. Today our concern must be with that future. For the world is changing. The old era is ending. The old ways will not do. (jfklibrary.org/archives)
Even such a minimalist image as “lighting a candle” in comparison with ‘cursing the darkness’ offers a rhetorical shift in perception that today would fall like melodies of hope from the screens and the microphones of public figures. The willingness to face the depths of authentic emotion, the essence of poetry, is never to be regarded as dainty lace on the doilies of the upper class. It cannot be reduced and thereby dismissed as the effete language of the elite, especially at a time when elites are under fire for their arrogance, their insufferable insensitivity and their alleged lack of empathy and compassion.
Leonardo da Vinci is reported to have left us this epithet about the value and meaning of poetry:
“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.”
Robert Frost writes: A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.
Kahlil Gibran: Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky,
We fell them down and turn them into paper
That we may record our emptiness.
On another note, we read this from T.S Eliot:
Do I dare disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a
Minutes will reverse.
W.H. Auden: Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.
Novalis: Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Poetry is the eternal graffiti written in the heart of everyone.
I’m nobody! Who are You?
Are you nobody too?
Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
Rappers do it! Songsters do it! Even reporters do it occasionally!
And yet, if that graffiti that is written in each of our hearts were to be given the light and air of daylight, it would find the one(s) who are the most courageous among us eager and willing to explore that deeply personal and authentic tunnel of meaning. We are all living with a lump in our throat, a sense of wrong, a homelessness, a homesickness, and, if the truth be told, we are all nobodies not because we are worthless, but because we are precisely the inverse. It is in our surrender to the unavoidable, inescapable, inevitable and even perverse truth that all of our ‘reasonableness’ and all of our dedication to reason, to objectivity, and to detachment, we each know, in our heart of hearts, that we are alone, that we are subject to the whims and the winds of the universe, and that, in the face of all of that uncertainty, we also know that at the bottom of the mine, when our world has completely collapsed, there is something stronger than our worst fears, more immutable than our most debilitating expectations, that, while it may not leave us unscarred or unwounded, will continue to sustain us in that plight.
We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that will guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future…
And it will take a commitment from each of us to light our own candle, to encourage our friends, families and neighbours to light their own candle (many not even convinced that they have (or are) a candle to light. We see so few candles being lit in the hopes and aspirations of our current crop of political leaders, so deeply engrossed in the minutiae of process, including the necessary process of methods of delivery and injection of a vaccine are they. Yet, even they, perhaps especially they, need both time and discipline to light their own candle of hope and new life.
Dependent on the adulation of their people, political leaders could pause to reflect on the old cliché that imitation is the greatest form of flattery…And by offering candles of hope, poetic images of new ideas, and even the deepest fears wrapped in language everyone ‘gets’, they would find both attention and support. There is no intrinsic separation of poetry from effective leadership. There is no shame in telling hard truths in images that everyone uses (perhaps unconsciously) in the poetry of the kitchen table, the market, the court and emergency rooms, and hopefully the sanctuary.
Personification, like metaphor and simile, convey what Frye termed the “unity” of human experience, slightly different from the language of practical sense, daily routine and responsibilities. Addressing even abstractions in anxiety, can serve as a clarifying and thereby freeing experience, not by offering solutions, but merely by bringing each of us into the “picture”…As Paul Simon, the “poet-laureat” of the last century wrote in Sounds of Silence:
Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence
In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.
“Fools’, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
In the wells of silence
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are
Written on the subway walls
And tenement halls”
And whispered in the sound of silence.