Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What Poets Must Now Do

Accepting oneself as a poet
is much like accepting religious vows. One takes on a mantle of poverty and obedience to an unknown, stares every day in the face of the ignorance and cruelty of the human race, and yet persists in writing because one believes in the power of poetry, because one believes that, eventually, people will read their work and listen to the message--that they can, in some way, change the world for the better with this tool.

In his inaugural adderss, President Obama called for "unity of purpose over conflict and discord" and demanded that we "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." Near the end of his speech, Obama insisted that "it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies." With this speech, every citizen of the United States was called to be present and aware, and was called into action. Whether or not they respond to those calls has yet to be determined; however, it is important to realize what that call means for poets.

Assuming that poetry, in some way, has a close relationship to faith or religion, it follows that we must look to religious ideals for guidance. For example, the United States Council of Catholic Bishops recognizes seven themes of Social Teaching. Examining these themes, poets can find something to latch onto, something to write for or against, something that moves beyond simply what they had to drink the night before or the contents of their sock drawer:

Life and Dignity of the Human Person

The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. This belief is the foundation of all the principles of our social teaching. In our society, human life is under direct attack from abortion and euthanasia. The value of human life is being threatened by cloning, embryonic stem cell research, and the use of the death penalty. Catholic teaching also calls on us to work to avoid war. Nations must protect the right to life by finding increasingly effective ways to prevent conflicts and resolve them by peaceful means. We believe that every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person.

Call to Family, Community, and Participation

The person is not only sacred but also social. How we organize our societyin economics and politics, in law and policy directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community. Marriage and the family are the central social institutions that must be supported and strengthened, not undermined. We believe people have a right and a duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.

Rights and Responsibilities

The Catholic tradition teaches that human dignity can be protected and a healthy community can be achieved only if human rights are protected and responsibilities are met. Therefore, every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to those things required for human decency. Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities--to one another, to our families, and to the larger society.

Option for the Poor and Vulnerable

A basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring. In a society marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our tradition recalls the story of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46) and instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first.

The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers

The economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected--the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.


We are one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, wherever they may be. Loving our neighbor has global dimensions in a shrinking world. At the core of the virtue of solidarity is the pursuit of justice and peace. Pope Paul VI taught that “if you want peace, work for justice.”1 The Gospel calls us to be peacemakers. Our love for all our sisters and brothers demands that we promote peace in a world surrounded by violence and conflict.

Care for God’s Creation

We show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation. Care for the earth is not just an Earth Day slogan, it is a requirement of our faith. We are called to protect people and the planet, living our faith in relationship with all of God’s creation. This environmental challenge has fundamental moral and ethical dimensions that cannot be ignored.

This list provides poets with seven different tracks of obedience to that which is poetry. If we are to help in the remaking and reshaping of America, if we are to accept the responsibility of our call to poetry and the vows we have taken to that aim, then this is what our poetry must affect.


sara holbrook said...

Okay, I'll bite. Hear my prayer. God save us all from a continuation of the crimes perpetuated on the human race in the name of the Catholic Church and its succession of false prophets with deity complexes known as Popes. May no other woman loose her life through a risky pregnancy and may no other child be molested by the impracticable imposition of celibacy on the Church’s stewards. May the Church never again bless an inquisition or holocaust and may we all be saved by the continuing reverberations of misguided Crusades. My faith in the power of human love and justice demands that I reject cathedrals constructed in the name of political gain. I will not obey. Amen.

pottygok said...

It's interesting that you focused on the Catholic aspect of this post, rather than the poetry aspect. I agree, the Catholic church has committed many sins against humanity, and continues to do so, in some instances. However, reading the list of ideals, and tempering them with a small dose of reality, I think we can still take something from the intentions. One can read the list, and see it, perhaps, as the church, or at least the United States representatives of said church, attempting to work to attone for said sins.

The point is still that poets have a duty to move beyond their own private lives and engage the community on a higher level. For example, last year Carly Sachs edited an anthology for Deep Cleveland Press focused on rape and sexual abuse; profits earned from this book are donated to local and national women's shelters. bree recently held a poetry oriented benefit for the Sudanese Lost Boys. Where, then, are the poems and projects benefiting other aspects of our community--the poor, the environment, etc. Too often at open mikes I hear poems centered on what a poet had to drink last week, or who they slept with, etc. The point of my original post is not to convert anyone to Catholicism (though perhaps it could ask people to reexamine the church in this country and what it stands for), but to engage poets beyond their own immediate lives and beg them to burst the bubble that surrounds them as individuals, as well as to consider the power that poetry can have in a community. For example, there are many printers who are now using sustainable and recycled material in the production of their books. Why haven't local presses jumped aboard? There are many local charities that need their concerns addressed--why haven't local poets rallied around a few of them, put together anthologies, donated the proceeds, etc. Where is the engagement? Where is the responsibility that comes with being an artist?

Now, I'm not saying I'm completely innocent. My book is printed by a POD publisher, any money I've made has gone to improving my library, etc. However, in the wake of the inauguration, I'm trying to figure out if I'm doing enough (probably not) and what I can do to improve my immediate community with my art, whether it be benefit readings, published works, etc.

Mystic and Scholar Andrew Harvey, when he was in town at River's Edge, spoke to the brilliance behind terrorist cells. The idea of a terrorist cell is to create little groups or clumps of people all over a city or country who gather together, read propaganda, and simply sit, stewing in their own negativity and hatred, until some higher up is ready to unleash them on the world. Taking this model, he argued for cells built around what he calls "Sacred Activism"--using the traditions of mystics to fuel the passion for social change and justice. We, as poets, have the resources--readings, The Lit, etc.--to create cells for the purpose of using poetry to affect society in a positive way. The question remains, how can we go about doing it?

sara holbrook said...

"Interesting" that you equate reliousity with the paternal tyranny of the Catholic Church. That wasn't my premise, friend, it was yours. Reframe and you might get a better discussion.

Pressin On said...

i agree with sara—words like god or catholic or creator invoke the paternalistic—or in my own words, are yucky. i see your point, josh. sometimes a poet churns the steeple turning to the social good as writing matter, rather than breakups or indulgence. i do not have religion, and my faith is much more self-centered and small as to be based in my husband and i; that the two of us encourage one another to do well, of must. i think getting caring communities on board with poetry is a way to broaden an audience, and turn a few laymen on to verse. i read too much ayn rand growing up, to give money to charities, and yet the humanity of those lost boys moved me, and i wanted to encourage them. welcome them into our community. it wasn’t an intellectual decision to fundraise for them, it was one of heart. and this goes back to elizabeth alexander’s (sic) poem. when she stops trying to invoke the social, or political (thank goodness) she turns to love. love may be what drives the empathetic poets. i think poets’ biggest adversity is apathy.
perhaps our defiance and grace (like obama!) in the face of apathy, more than religion, faith or poverty, is what unites us. and anything united, as we have witnessed via again, obama, is that much stronger. i am looking forward to the united states of mind lake effect will ignite! 2010!

pottygok said...


This is not a religious debate. I simply used the Catholic church because that's what I'm familiar with. I'm sure other religions have creeds or statements of social justice, and I would love to see how they compare. From what I've read and learned about other religions, I can't believe they're too far disparate. That being said, bashing a group of people is not going to solve the problems that need to be addressed. I appreciate your rage, but ask that you realize that all Catholics are not medieval, misogynistic, pedophile hate mongers. There are those of us who are working from within the church to address and discuss some of the apparent hypocrisies and affect change within the institution. Catholic means universal, and God is genderless. Many progressive thinking members of the church realize this, and are working to promote these ideas.

The point, however, was not relgion. It was to compare and show the similarities of religion and poetry, and address the apparent self centeredness that permeates a lot of modern poetry, both academic and non. If you feel that the ideals listed are not topics for poetry, or should not be the focus of modern poetry, then what should? How should we, as artists and citizens, respond to the summons of our president?


I like the idea of combating apathy; however, I think there needs to be something that fuels that fight. We can remain defiant and graceful, but sooner or later, with out something to fall back on, be it faith or community, that defiance will get smothered by the apathy. Something has to fuel that inner strength. You, from what I read in your response, find that fuel in your husband, and recommend "caring communities." I'm wondering where else other folks find that strength, and what they feel their responsibility as a poet is, especially now in a time of change.

sara holbrook said...


I was responding to your invitation: "Examining these themes, poets can find something to latch onto, something to write for or against."

In response to the following mysoginistic statement that along with the church's stand on open access to birth control directly attacks women's health and the dignity and health of the already born, "human life is under direct attack from abortion and euthanasia. The value of human life is being threatened by cloning, embryonic stem cell research." And this little titbit, "Marriage and the family are the central social institutions that must be supported and strengthened, not undermined" which is a not-so-subtle slap at the gay community.

Since you seem to need clarification, my position is, "against."

pottygok said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
pottygok said...

As far as your immediate criticisms, I think it depends on how you define "marriage" and "family". If you take a narrow view of those terms, then it could possibly been seen as an attack on homosexuality, as well as single parent families, adopted families, etc. These are not my definitions, nor is this my experience with the church. As far as the positions on birth control, abortion, euthanasia, etc. see my previous post from Jan 22.

However, if that is your position, where are the poems to support it? That is the purpose of the original posting, not a religious debate. If you feel you have been called to rail against the Catholic church, so be it. If you are against these positions, then what are you for, and where are the poems? Where are the social projects, fueled by poetry, to serve this purpose? That is the question that lays before us. If you feel that this is a purpose or cause to rally behind, how do you plan on using your talents as a poet to support it?

sara holbrook said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
pottygok said...

I know where your poems are, and I understand what you do. The question I'm asking, not just of you but all poets, is are we doing enough? Can we do more? What are our responsibilities as artists, especially considering the recent inaugural address?

Anonymous said...

I can appreciate the comparison that Josh was trying to draw here. It's unfortunate that some are getting hung up on the fact that these ideals were gleaned from Catholicism. I think it was a good example. I have worked on a few things here and there--worked on and performed at benefits--but this gave some food for thought. Art--and really, any of the work that we do--should ultimately serve some kind of higher purpose.

If we can't get past the Catholic terminology used here, then maybe we, as poets, should write up our own list of values, using this concept as a jumping-off point.

(But to briefly comment on the religious aspect--why does it matter that the Catholic Church said it? Issues like the basic dignity of human life and assisting the needy aren't owned by any one organized religion, nor should they be disregarded just because it was attributed to the Catholic Church here...)

Pressin On said...

why ought art serve a "higher purpose?"
is it not enough that we poets have a relationship with poetry, and work at fidelity?
if we are homogenous of voice and self, i.e. being an artist, this should satisfy anyone (who can be satisfied in life).
now, for those of us who cannot and will not be satisfied with purpose, seeking, and having been true, there are self-help book paths to take, and statues, and numbered scriptures to recite.
if ya doesnt take succor in
living the life, seek
for what lies beyond.
and seek long.


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau