Tuesday, October 25, 2016

What does poetry do?

I spent the past weekend with a group of 75 poets, members of the Florida State Poets Association, meeting at a seaside hotel.  As I listened to these people read and talk, I asked myself, Why have they come here for this weekend?  What is the value of the work they do?

I was reminded of the line from W. H. Auden (often quoted out of context): "Poetry makes nothing happen"--in the sense that it does not drive the economy or the government. It survives beyond the world of executives. Yet, for those concerned with the inner life, poetry makes a great deal happen, and this has nothing to do with status, power or money.

One of Maria Popova's Basic Beliefs is "Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone."  Of course, like the assembled poets and their prizes, we who write and create want some approval, but that alone is not our goal. We do it because of love, because the poem must be written, and, as isolated poets, we need to come together with like-minded people to share in a community of appreciation.

Our keynote speaker was the noted poet Lola Haskins, who lives in Florida and England. She gave us a valuable overview of poetry in the Middle East, where poets are much more important than they are here in the First World.  The same is true in Russia and Eastern Europe, in fact, in many of the hurt cultures of the world. As my wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, says, in numb cultures like ours poetry is not valued. It has only a small audience.

In the Middle East, I learned, illiterate tribesmen know and recite poetry, the way the Irish and the Anglo-Saxons centuries ago have done. I learned about the Mother of Palestinian poetry, Fawda Touqan, whose love of the land is expressed in her verse. Mahmoud Darwish, another Palestinian, says his action in the world, his work, is poetry.

There are statues to noted poets in many lands; in America, we put up statues of generals and presidents, mainly. Yet, as I discovered this weekend, poetry is alive and thriving, hidden amid the many other activities that dominate our media. It is alive because many people find their spiritual outlet in verse, because they care about language and feeling and sharing their unique insights with others, irrespective of money, status, or prestige. Bravo!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Toxic Trump

The recent "debate" in St. Louis between Clinton and Trump was, because of Trump's behavior, more like a brawl, one that I was unable to watch to the end. It was embarrassing.

That up to 40 percent of Americans might support a man clearly unbalanced by narcissism, sexism, racism, and lies as well as ignorance is alarming.  Soon it will be over.

A valuable perspective on his "locker room talk" came today in the New York Times in a piece by Jared Yates Sexton. It touches on a topic, masculinity, that has long preoccupied me both in my fiction and earlier in my teaching.

Sexton's point is that the so-called locker room talk that demeans women is a manifestation of the fear many men feel: fear of inadequacy, rejection, and (I should add) of women as controlling.  Although most men outgrow these fears, many, like Trump,the Highchair Child (as Maureen Dowd called him), never do.

Many men, with limited knowledge of the world, facing complex foreign and economic issues, take refuge in a compulsive or toxic masculinity of tough-guy domination because social forces threaten their belief that they alone control their fate.  They feel overwhelmed by the political reality and so react negatively.

The author goes on to point out that such compulsive masculinity and its posturing causes men to suffer more than they realize. I am reminded of the fine book by Frank Pittman, Man Enough (based on his years of treating wounded men who fear that they are never quite masculine enough).

This approach certainly does not excuse the vile behavior of someone like Trump but it helps us understand how troubled men like him really are, how insecure and frightened. And where there is fear, there is often anger. And hatred. And violence.

Seeing this enacted on the national stage instead of a discussion of issues that concern the world is horrifying.  Soon the election will be over. But Trump will no doubt continue to rant and rave. If only people would stop listening to him and giving him the attention he craves.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Living with a Hurricane

Hurricane Matthew is, as I write, moving at 130 mph thirty miles off the coast of Florida, about 50 miles from where I live. I awoke this morning surprised to find electricity, despite the wind and heavy rain, having expected to spend the day in hibernation, hunkered down with only the basics.

For days, fearful Floridians have been storing up food and water and checking with each other about roads, worrying about trees being uprooted and crashing into our roofs, as they did 12 years ago when three major storms hit us in central Florida.  Will we escape all such discomfort this time?  If so, our neighbors to the north will not.

Major storms remind us of our solidarity with others.

I read today a piece by Richard Rohr on simplicity: A simple lifestyle, e says, is "an act of solidarity with the way most people have lived since the beginnings of humanity."  This is a helpful reminder that the constant acquisition of goods and luxury comforts, including air conditioning, are not the norm and that living under a hurricane warning can have spiritual value: it can remind us of the power of solitude and silence.

It can provide time for prayer, for simple games and crosswords, for reading perhaps by flashlight, and just being: chatting with neighbors, comforting our pets and elderly friends. I sort of looked forward to a day when I would be forced to give up our dependence on the internet and the other media, on cooked food and iced drinks and all the other things we take for granted.

So far, I am grateful to be spared the worst. I also welcome the freedom that can  come from a life limited by nature to the basics. If tonight brings a power outage, I will be ready.

(For Richard Rohr's daily meditations, see meditations@cac.org.)