“Poets are like great chess players with language,” Don Paterson says: “they look less at the next move, or the next ten moves, than at a Gestalt, at a system of relations.” If poems are creatures of relation, gestalts fashioned in intense awareness of larger gestalts into which they play, then it’s possible that poems can help us think through our relatedness, to each other, and to the world in which we live—that poems can become, if it’s not too grand a phrase, repositories for ecological understanding.
In Auden’s famous elegy for Yeats, he admonishes us:
Follow poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night.
The implications are twofold: a) The poet cannot lie: not to others, and especially not to herself, however tempting that might be. And, b) She cannot give up hope. The darker it gets, the more challenging it is a) not to lie and, simultaneously, b) not to lose hope. But poetry seems to affect hope the way salt affects water: it lowers the freezing point a bit, allowing hope to coexist with a fair amount of darkness. Perhaps this is why poetry has proven such a good companion to katabatic voyagers, traditionally.
In our obsession with the on-line storage of all and sundry, we are liable to forget that the business of living is not to school computers but, as Keats had it, to school Intelligences. Because of its long apprenticeship in the school of mnemonics, poetry is uniquely well suited to storing information—not in a computer, but in a human mind.
Someone gave our one-year-old a T-shirt that says, “When I grow up I want to save the world.” Besides being a whopping amount of pressure to place on a child who can’t yet feed himself with a spoon, this seems to me symptomatic of a wrongheaded approach that governs the way we teach young people about the environment. Sure, we need leaders, heroes, people to “save the world,” if you want to call it that—but still more, I think, at least here and now, we need people who are prepared to live simply, and compassionately, with less. I don’t know if poetry can teach us this, but lyric poetry, of all the arts, is the one that has made a study of “less is more.”
For a long time it seemed that poetry could help us out by celebrating nature in a human voice (“Without man, nature is barren.”); then it seemed that poetry could help us out by annihilating the human voice (“a hoosh a ha / a hoosh a ha …”). But it has become increasingly clear that the effect of our worst environmental depredations will be not to wipe out nature but to wipe out species, including, of course, us. So I actually wonder if poetry now doesn’t have a service to perform in reminding us why we, despicable we, might be worth saving.
I wrote this piece over a year ago, to read at the panel Disrupted Nature? Resilient Nature: Poetry’s New Take on Survival, moderated by Anita Lahey, at the Canadian Writers’ Summit in June, 2016. At the time I wrote it, a Donald Trump presidency was (to me) unimaginable. Now I find myself rereading the piece with new eyes. Some of these sentences have fresh urgency—yet I find myself wanting to amend what I say about leaders and leadership. Yes, we need people who can live simply, and compassionately, with less. But don’t we also need, now more than ever, “leaders, heroes, people to “save the world””? (So I find myself scavenging on YouTube for words of consolation or at least new direction: Elizabeth Warren, Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders…)
Or perhaps it is a matter of changing the way we think about leadership: of looking to those people who can live simply, and compassionately, with less, and letting ourselves be led by their example. (So I find myself lingering on the sidewalk outside the house of the people up the street who grow food in the city, mend their children’s clothing, mark the first frost, and don’t buy stuff.)
At the Writers’ Summit where I delivered my little, five-point talk, the keynote speaker was Lawrence Hill. He said from the podium (I paraphrase from memory): “I am worried. I am worried. I worry: are we seeing the rise, again, of fascism, in our time?” Someone asked him, from the floor, what on earth we might be able to do about this. His answer stays with me: “We are writers. We can use our voices.”
As a poet, I consider that there are many ways to use our voices. One is through the ancient and still remarkably effective technology of the simple statement: “NOT MY PRESIDENT,” grease-painted on the forehead of the hauntingly beautiful woman photographed by Kena Betancur, on the street in front of Trump Tower in New York, on November tenth. Another way is through guarding and tending the meaning-making capacity of language, the capacity of language to be witty and multiply significant and to turn to jelly in the voices of those who would use it as a weapon. Richard Outram wrote to me, in a 2004 letter, in the midst of another disheartening, if very different, presidency:
I hold, as an article of poetic faith, the conviction that one major moral obligation of all imaginative (as opposed, at least partially, to discursive) writers is ever to labour to maintain and advance the cause of meaningful ambiguity, together with its antinomian sibling, paradox. Against the ever-present banalities of illiterate literalism. Beware not the Jabberwocky, but abhor the soundbite. Beware not technology, but the burnt-out Bush.
Trump is the Twitter candidate, the soundbite candidate. But language is older and I have to believe stronger than its misuse on Trump’s Twitter feed.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses …
Blessed are the meek …
Amanda Jernigan is the author of two books of poems, Groundwork and All the Daylight Hours, and of a short monograph on the poetry of Peter Sanger. She has written for the stage and for music, most recently text for Years, Months, and Days, a new choral piece by Colin Labadie. She lives with her family in Hamilton, Ontario.