#31: Pádraig Ó Tuama and Marie Howe 2018
Can Poetry Save the World?, December 12, 2018
Pádraig Ó Tuama and Marie Howe join in conversation with Micah Lott about the endless possibilities that poetry allows us to share. By bearing witness, inspiring imagination, and showing compassion, poetry has the tremendous power to express an individual’s emotions. Ó Tuama and Howe discuss the excitement and passion in poetry as it creates and bonds a community.
- “The Northern Ireland Question,” Desmond Egan
- Seamus Heaney
- “Ceasefire,” Michael Longley
- George Eliot
- Máirtín Ó Direáin
- Paul Durcan
- “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” Adam Zagajewski
- “If you were lucky in this life,” Cameron Penny
- Brian Keenan
- Daniel Simpson
- Against the Pollution of the I, Jacques Lusseyran
- Rainer Maria Rilke
- “The Places Where We Are Right,” Yehuda Ammaki
- Avivah Zornberg
- “Singapore,” Mary Oliver
Isabelle Selles: [00:00:00] Support for Rewrite Radio comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives—a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Learn more by visiting fetzer.org.
Can poetry save the world? Poets Pádraig Ó Tuama and Marie Howe weigh in. This is Rewrite radio.
I’m Isabelle Selles, a senior at Calvin College and a Student Fellow at the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.
On today’s episode, Pádraig Ó Tuama and Marie Howe, in a conversation with Micah Lott of Boston College, discuss the political possibilities of poetry: to bear witness, to inspire the moral imagination, and to provide perspective on our neighbors’ lives and the world around us.
A poet, theologian, and group worker, Pádraig Ó Tuama is the leader of Corrymeela Community, an interdenominational church in Belfast dedicated to conflict transformation and church reconciliation. Ó Tuama has published and edited collections of poetry, essays, and theology, including Readings from the Book of Exile, Sorry for Your Troubles, and In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World. Working with groups in Ireland, Britain, Australia, and the United States, he leads workshops and retreats on storytelling, spirituality, and conflict resolution.
The Poet Laureate of New York State from 2012 to 2014, Marie Howe has published four collections of verse. Her books include The Good Thief, which was chosen for the National Poetry Series by Margaret Atwood; What the Living Do, an elegy to her brother John, who died of an AIDS-related illness; The Kingdom of Ordinary Time; and Magdalene: Poems. Her poems have appeared in many publications, including the New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry, Ploughshares, and the Partisan Review. Howe has received fellowships from the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia University, and NYU.
And now, from the 2018 Festival of Faith and Writing, Marie Howe, Pádraig Ó Tuama, and Micah Lott.
Micah Lott: [00:03:06] The title of this conversation, I think, is poetry in the body politic. Something like that was the title that was given. I was think, because you all, in different ways, have both engaged in poetry and public life, or the public presentation of poetry. You were the Poet Laureate of New York.
Marie Howe: I was.
Micah: Were you a government employee, during that time?
Marie: No way, Jose. [laughter]
Micah: Didn’t know if you had a small pension from the state.
Micah: You have done a lot of public poetry as well in the Corrymeela community. And I was thinking a lot about how, for a lot people like me at least, poetry is primarily thought of as a private thing. Something you do at home. If you read poetry at all, you read it at home, perhaps alone. And our public language is often very prosaic, or even worse, jargon-y bureaucratic kind of language. I wonder if you could start with any reflections you have on the public potential for poetry, or experiences perhaps you’ve had with poetry in common spaces, or how you think about the public and the private dimensions of reading or writing poetry.
Pádraig Ó Tuama: I think that poetry can be something of a common heart. I think poetry is what gathers people around. When I was fifteen, there was a boy and a girl in my class, they were going out for six months. It was extraordinary, six months. We were all invested in this. When they broke up, it was like a soap opera. And I sat next to the guy for chemistry and he was not interested in poetry. But I saw him in the back of his chemistry book [phone dings] writing in verse form. And I would never dare to look at it because there is a certain privacy of such poems.
However, there is a way that so many of us turn to form when we’re in need. And form can capture our desire, it can capture our hope, it can capture our lamentation or protest. I have seen over and over where public language often can feel like it is infused with jargon, as you say Micah.
But I think poetry can sometimes surprise us, because hopefully if the poem is doing its work, you can’t predict where it will go just by hearing the first line or the title. Hopefully if the poem is doing that you will be thinking, “What’s coming?” It’s rare unfortunately in civic life, where you hear the beginning of an interview on the radio for instance, and you think, “What’s coming?” Often what happens is you think, “I can write the script.” You might agree with one side and disagree with the other but you can write the script. The same questions will be asked, the same insults exchanged, [cough] and the same equivalency established, and the same fruitless public language will be engaged.
And one of things I think poetry does, if it’s doing its work, is to bring us to the heart of something that is either a unitive question that we gather around that creates a community together, or it creates something we thought, “I did not expect that.” And then you’re left with, “What did you think?” Which is something new based on the experience of the poem that you wouldn’t have known previous to coming to that experience of listening. So I think poetry has extraordinary common value.
There’s a poet, Desmond Egan, who wrote a poem, a really really short poem called the “Northern Ireland Question.” And there’s a word in this that you mightn’t know, but you’ll know it, “tig” it’s a just a game of catch that you play when you’re children. You know you’re on, and then you run after me, and I’m on. Here’s the poem, it’s really short.
“The Northern Ireland Question,” the poem’s titled, Desmond Egan. Here’s the poem.
[00:07:12] “Two wee girls
are playing tig near a parked car.
How many counties would you say
their scattered fingers are worth?”
Pádraig: “Two wee girls
are playing tig near a parked car.
How many counties would you say
their scattered fingers are worth?”
What an extraordinary poem. So embodied. And then this massive question, the Northern Ireland question. It’s a century-old question now. But he lands you right into the singular narrative, into the fingers, not just the body, but the fingers of children playing near a parked car that had a bomb in it. “How many counties would you say their scattered fingers are worth?” It’s a question about counting, a question about the value of a life, the value of a hand. And that poem has such currency because if you were to turn on the radio and the presenter were to say, “Today we will be discussing the Northern Ireland question, phone in…” Oh God, I’d turn it off I’d go mad, because you can predict it. However, this poem goes right to the heart of it. And that’s the value of public poetry.
Micah: Is that a poem that many people would know in Northern Ireland?
Pádraig: Oh yeah, it has currency. I mean Seamus Heaney, “Whatever you say, say something.” He spoke around the Good Friday Agreement where he spoke about this time occasionally where hope and history rhyme. He just captured the moment. Michael Longley also captured the moment in a poem he wrote about “Ceasefire.” Extraordinary way in which cultures turn to poetry like that. Because poetry, I think, is supposed to be an icon. In iconography, the idea is that when you look at an icon, it's also looking back at you and you’re looking through each other. And that, I think, is what art can be in public life when it captures the moment.
Marie: I’m thinking about the quote, oh my gosh, hold on. I’m at the age where the name takes a few minutes to come. Who wrote Middlemarch?
Micah: George Eliot.
Marie: George Eliot said, —thank you. There is no private life that is not determined by a public life. The private life and the public life are not separate. People of color know that, women know that, gay people know that. A lot of us who have been pushed to the margins know that. All of us know that. The private life and the public life are utterly connected. The politics of this room, for example, have already been set up. We’re on this thing, you’re not. What’s that about?
[00:09:56] We have to be seen, I suppose. The conversation, you know—everything is political, everything is ordered. People order themselves when you sit down at a table. Who’s gonna sit where? I see poetry as the original song of the human life. I believe the first poem was a lullaby. When we were sitting around the fire and a baby was fretful and a woman sang, and said something that was repetitive and cooing. And the sound of the thing, it was the sound of the sense, what Robert Frost calls, which was the sound of someone saying, “I’m here, it’s ok, I’m here, you’re not alone.” And poetry for me has always said that. It’s said, “I’m here you’re not alone. Step into this place where there are no opinions.” What you were saying about the radio show—What we can’t tolerate anymore is people calling with their opinions. Poetry cannot be paraphrased and it can’t be reduced to something.
The best poems are the poems that hold the unsayable, the irreducible. Something in the heart of the poem that we feel and intuit, and really cannot name. And that space is the space that we inhabit as readers, and the writer inhabits this mystery. So that writers don’t know any more than anybody else. No writer is wiser than us or smarter. Everybody alive has suffered as much, has known as much joy but the writer loves to be in the presence of something that wants to be born from her or him, that can hold the complexity of being alive and knowing that we’re alive and that we’re dying at the same time. And knowing that we can love someone and hate them and knowing that we want peace but we’re really pissed off. All the complexity.
So, I do want to share one thing about my public life as a poet which was a joy. [phone dings] The hunger for poetry is real. I feel as if, if we made more poetry more available to people. If it were as available to people as CNN or billboards, I think people would just love it. What we did in New York was we put poets at Grand Central Terminal, which is a large place where trains come and go, all the subways come and go. It’s the intersection of New York City. We put tables with poets, but we domesticated the spaces. So if you had table, you would have a desk and a chair and a chair next to you, and a lamp and a rug and a typewriter and carbon paper and a little bell. It’s something I originally created for my daughter’s fair at school. But remember with Peanuts the Doctor is in, Lucy’s booth? It was like that. The poet is in. [laughter]
So all these poets from different places with tables and lamps and typewriters, we invited the public to come and have a poem written for them, really with them. We had no idea what would happen. We thought, you know. The line formed quickly and within minutes the wait was two and a half hours. Two and a half hours people stood with strollers, with briefcases, with all sorts of things, waiting to sit down with the poet. And then the poet would ask questions, questions that would engage them and provide images from their deepest life. “Tell me a dream you’ve had more than once. Tell me an article of a toy you used to love. If there were a door in the air right now, and what you longed for was behind it, [phone dings] what would it be?” And people said things like, “My dead daughter’s shoes, my grandmother.”
And then the poet would take this and transform what the poet heard using language and silence and musicality. But take what the person had given them, transform it, type it out, sign it, and then read it to the person. Everybody wept. The poets wept, the people wept because it was their own lives given back, if you will. But put through this whatever, when we’re being writers, this imaginative language, silence, place that gave them back something. I wish we could do it every week. I wish there could be a permanent installation at Grand Central Terminal and everywhere around the world where people could experience the transformative act of poetry.
Micah: [00:15:13] Do you think there are things in our culture or cultures that are somehow resistant to poetry? Because the scene you’re describing seems paradoxical in a way both that there’s a hunger for it, people responding to it, and yet it’s like they're responding to a scarce resource that’s never there. So why aren’t we doing it more?
Marie: Because it’s not commodifiable. It’s not a commodity. It was free, it was a gift. We use carbon paper and typewriters so that it could be banged out with mistakes. We kept a copy, we gave a copy for free. The thing about a poem, is it can do anything. No one’s gonna buy it. We want people to steal it, we want people to learn them by heart, we want them to cross borders and go into jails and move throughout the world without borders or tariffs or anything. No one’s going to make any money from it. So it was funded by the MPA, and they just got some money from who knows where. They really did steal it from other programs, but. [laughs] It’s still a dream I think we could do. I think that’s a lot of the reason, because no one’s going to make any money from it. And they shouldn’t. It’s our original gift.
Micah: Pádraig, do you think this works any differently at all on either side of the Atlantic? The public place of poetry or the way people relate to poetry in their common life?
Pádraig: Yeah, so from the age of five when I started school I was learning poetry from the heart in two languages. Just a few poems a week. Poems I look to now. There’s one poet, Máirtín Ó Direáin from the Aran islands off the west coast of Ireland, and I remember one of the stanzas of one of his poems says, “[Irish]” And that is hard to translate because there’s such elegance in the Irish, so it’s really difficult to find the words that work in English. It’s something like, “As lonely as the tree is in the middle of a wood, so is the poet among the people.”
And so like, I was eight. [laughter] I was transfixed by this poem. And there were so many nationalist poems, poems about politics, poems about being a man in your sixties and not having found the love of your life yet. You’re learning all of these things off, and you haven’t a clue what they are, but you’re being mid-wifed, I think, into public language.
And so I’ve never lived in the United States, so I don’t know. But I think American contemporary poetry is extraordinary. I wait with eagerness every month when I get Poetry Magazine through the post. Because it’s I think the most vibrant poetry that I’m reading at the moment. It is very very exciting. I see this country is a place where this poetry is really alive and really valued, and full of protest and pain and hope and form and artistry. It seems to me like it’s very alive here, maybe very different than Ireland.
Certainly, regularly—after the Omagh bomb, which was the worst bomb in terms the amount of people that died from one bomb, in 1998, it was a few months after the Peace Agreement, there was a commemoration, there was a poet from Dublin, Paul Durcan, was asked if he could respond. He wrote a litany in four parts. The first part of the litany, it just had the ages of everybody who died. That was it. Three months, 74, six months, 19. And then the second part had the town where they all lived; Omagh, Madrid, London, Belfast. He just delivered this with presence and attention. I’m really glad to be from a culture that recognizes the containing value that poetry can have.
And I mean that in the psychological sense that, if the poem is doing its work, it can contain something without putting a border around it. I think that is the part of hope of what poetry can do. [phone rings] But I see so many people in this country who are doing so many extraordinary things too.
Marie: [00:19:47] Was anybody in New York after the World Trade Centers came down? Because that’s what happened in New York, remember? In Washington Square Park and all these places, people put up these huge sheets, and on the sheets they penned all the missing posters, and all the missing posters were like Paul’s poem, because they would describe someone down to the marks on her body. They were all over New York, thousands and thousands of them.
But also people would write poems and people would put up poems. For weeks and weeks and weeks, New Yorkers stood and read. That’s what we did. We stood and read. We read what our neighbor and friends and everyone had written. We stood for hours, twenty minutes between. There would be a woman in stilettos and a briefcase standing next to a homeless guy standing next to a kid holding his bike. We were all together reading what was on these big sheets. It was a sad day when they came down. It was a long time later. They were up for a long time. But that was public poetry, the very names. Also people would write poems, they would put up a lot of poems.
Micah: I was thinking about the Zagajewski poem, the “Try To Praise Mutilated World” poem, as one of the few poems that became public.
Marie: And he wrote that before 9/11.
Micah: It just happened.
Marie: “Try to Praise…” He’s Polish right? So he knew about the mutilated world. Americans, we’re very young in terms of world, our experience. I want to say one more thing: I do believe out of that time, I heard one of the greatest poems in the world. It was written by an eleven year old. I say it wherever I go, because it reminds me that poets, like the “Hope and History Rhyme” poem, by Seamus Heaney, poets can also take on the job or task, the vocation, if you will, of trying to be a visionary. Trying to imagine a future that is different from what all the American-made movies are imagining for us, which is pretty much annihilation. I’ve personally seen the Statue of Liberty drowned many times. New York City always goes [audience laughs], it just goes over and over and over again. But what film can imagine the new world where everybody puts down their guns, where everybody begins to build their houses that’s wonderful and communal and real. There's a beautiful poem by a young person named Cameron Penny who’s now 24 years old. The only poem he ever wrote. The afternoon of 9/11, Tony Nolan called me up. He said, listen to this, it's six lines:
“If you were lucky in this life
A window will appear on a battlefield between two armies
When the soldiers look into the window
They don’t see their enemies
They see themselves as children
And they stop fighting
And go home and go to sleep. [laughter]
When they wake up, the land is well again.”
Pádraig: That’s beautiful.
Marie: It’s a vision. It’s a vision.
Micah: That image of the people seeing through the window connects to something else I want to ask you all about, which is the theme of recognition. As I was reading both of your works, it seemed to be something that was in common. A certain way of seeing or recognizing something. I was thinking about how recognition can mean a kind of mere intellectual recognition, like, do you recognize that tune? But it can also be freighted with the relational, moral implications—to recognize another person. That means to acknowledge them, and acknowledge them in a particular way. It’s also something that works in personal context. But it’s incredibly important politically.
I wonder if you all would say something about that: the notion of recognition and maybe the difficulty of it. I was thinking in both of your works it seems that you’re interested in how hard it can be to recognize something about yourself or to recognize another person, or for two groups of people to recognize one another, and how there are both internal and external barriers to that. Does that make sense?
Marie: [00:25:08] Yeah. You know, Pádraig works in a—I think it’s great to talk about the reconciliation work you do. I’ve got a couple things to say but Pádraig, this is really his work.
Pádraig: Northern Ireland, the north of Ireland is a place in conflict about itself. Claire Mitchell, a sociologist in Belfast, says that it’s a meta conflict, because there’s conflict about what the conflict’s about. [laughter] Which is such a clever way of speaking, but it’s also so true about many places. Were not unique about that. There’s always conflict about what the conflicts about. And people blame each other beginning at different places.
And one of the long standing conflicts, some people say the troubles in Ireland started in 1969 and somebody always in the room will go, “What about 1607?” [laughter] And so, that’s kind of funny but it’s also kind of awful. Because it can show you how long these things go for. One of the hopes in conflict reduction and conflict escalation, or conflict transcendence, is that we can find a way where we’re not asking anymore, “Okay, let’s find out exactly who’s to blame?” And let’s find out, what does it mean to live here together.
And does that mean justice and reparations and punishments? Absolutely. It also does involve generosity and it involves the pain of comprises. It involves the pain of coming together. It’s such a human experience. Some of you will remember throughout the ‘80s there was a campaign of kidnappings by Islamic jihad in Lebanon. At Corrymeela over Easter, we had a festival called Carafest. “Cara” in Irish word for friend. Reconciliation also means to restore friendship, conciliar, in Latin. So I invited Brian Keenan from Ireland, a poet, who had been kidnapped in 1986 and he was held captive for four and a half years, most of that time in a basement. I think three of those four and a half years he was blindfolded.
Marie: Oh, God.
Pádraig: A whole load of the people who were captured wrote books when they left and I read a whole load of those books in preparation. Brian’s is the shortest, and the most frightening, because he doesn't talk about fear, he makes you feel it. He goes elegantly from prose to poetry and back to prose again. For a number of those years that he was incarcerated, or that he was kidnapped, he was handcuffed to a radiator with an Englishman called John McCarthy. They were very different, one a poor working class protestant from Belfast, the other a public school boy from England, planning a life in public service.
The two of them recognized each other in a way, like in the book he speaks about the conversations they had about God. Brian Keenan had been to school with Van Morrison, so McCarthy didn’t know Van Morrison. So they spent a few days singing songs to him. [laughter] And Brian said when you’re in that kind of environment the life of the mind is escalated. He said that’s both amazing and also frightening, because he could remember things that he didn't realize he could remember. He could go on trips and he said they were true. He was having out of body experiences, and he thought, “Will I come back?” It was a frightening thing that he realized.
I asked him to speak about friendship, because I think friendship is one of the truest words. And he said, “When you are, when everything is gone from you, when you are physically naked, tied up, and your sight is taken from you, and you’re next to somebody, you realize what it means to be recognized and to know that somebody knows you there.” I don’t think I’ve heard a better description of reconciliation for a long time. That requires to face your fear [cough] and then to face your fear knowing somebody’s near you. They can’t do it for you, but they’re near you. So you’re both alone and somehow and in encounter as well.
That’s I think what poetry, but also human presence can do. Here meeting each other, talking to each other in the que for the bathroom or talking to each other waiting for coffee. There can be all kinds of human encounters that can be meaningful.
Marie: Did you ever read, Meandering? That’s such an extraordinary story. I had a student who was blind. Beautiful poet. And it was, I felt as if, recognized by him in a way I had never felt recognized by anyone before. I felt we really knew each other. And he never saw me.
Micah: [00:29:59] How did that work? Or, why?
Marie: He was a very deep person, Daniel Simpson. His nature, his soul, was a soul who could recognize people. We became friends after he was my graduate student. And then he, what’s that illness? ALS. He got that illness and it took him very quickly. He had a brother, a twin, who was also blind, and they both had dogs, and they were both poets. But this one person, I don’t know, I was in class with him twice, but we would meet and I would talk about his poems, he would read them to me—he would say them to me, I should say.
There’s this amazing book by a man called Jacques Lusseyran. Has anyone ever heard of him? It’s called Against the Pollution of the I. And the I is a capital I. Against the pollution—and its a very strange expression. Against The Pollution Of The I. Jacques is French.
He was blinded when he was eight. He lived in Paris, and when the Nazis invaded Paris, he went to people were organizing the underground and said, “I want to join,” and they said, “You can’t, you’re blind.” He quickly formed the underground newspaper, and had a hundred people working for him [phone dings] within weeks. Eventually, one day, a thousand people were betrayed. The underground organization people were betrayed, a thousand people were arrested and sent to Buchenwald. Of those thousand, he and one other person were of the only two persons who survived.
He writes about being in Buchenwald, and he writes about poetry. He said there was a day where all these men were in this freezing room, they were crowded in a room so that their skin, there wasn’t a part of them that wasn’t touching another person. Like your man. Freezing cold water was raining down on them. And the water stopped and they had to stand for a long time. There was no drying with towels or anything.
And suddenly someone began to recite a poem, and everyone moved, impossibly moved to make space for this person who was reciting the poem. And then someone else recited a poem, and then someone else recited a poem, and then someone else. And all of these poems were about what they loved, they were all praising the world—food and countryside and sunlight. And then someone began to recite a poem that was sad, and they all went, “No, no.” They wanted to praise the world again. We must try to praise the mutilated world, right?
And this is an amazing chapter in his book, but one of the chapters in his book is about the gift of being blind and how he feels sorry for those of us who are sighted because we can be fooled into believing in the surfaces of things. As if they’re true. And that’s what David Simpson knew. He knew the surfaces aren't true. [phone ding] Which is why it was such a relief to be with him. This young poet. Simone Weil says, “A beautiful woman can look into the mirror and convince herself that it is herself she sees. An ugly woman knows it is not.” [laughter]
Pádraig: I have a friend in Melbourne, Australia, Clara Koburn is her name. She was, as a young woman traveling throughout European, this is in the seventies. She met and fell in love for the first time ever with somebody in Paris. They were both doing their travels around Europe. They had an arrangement to meet at the American Express Office in Rome two weeks later. That was the whole thing.
Marie: Everybody met there.
Pádraig: Yeah, that’s what she said.
Marie: Everybody met there. You ran into everybody you knew in those places.
Pádraig: That’s what she said. You kept these arrangements perfectly because it wasn't easy to communicate with each other. Anyway two weeks later she's there, she's waiting at the American Express Office in Rome or building. He doesn’t turn up, she goes back the next day and he doesn't turn up, and the next day again he doesn’t turn up, at which day she realizes he’s not turning up. And she's walking back to her pension in which she’s staying and she’s devastated. The whole world is fall apart, the whole world was open to her, and suddenly it’s all closed down. And as she’s walking by, this young priest walks past her and he looks at her and he says, “Corragio.”
Marie: [00:35:21] Courage.
Pádraig: Courage. And she said, everything changed. She has no idea who he was. Corragio.
Marie: One word.
Pádraig: That’s the description of human encounter. I was walking across—what do you call the little bridge over the road?
Micah: The little bridge over the road. [laughs]
Pádraig: That’s what we call it.
Micah: Yeah, that’s what I would call it. [laughter]
Pádraig: The little bridge, just the other day. Yesterday, I think. As I was walking by, I must have looked as if I was thinking something funny because somebody walked by me and said, “Well you look happy.” [laughter] And I wasn’t actually. I was thinking about something that was troubling me. But I must have looked—maybe I smile when I’m upset. [laughter] But then I found myself smiling. She made something that wasn’t there, there.
Pádraig: By that loveliness. I thought what a generous thing, what a lovely way to go throughout the world. Making things that aren’t there be there.
Marie: Like the window the soldiers look into. They don’t see their enemies. There’s a great thing about poetry too. Well, two things. The beautiful word, courage. Poetry cares about accuracy and freshness of language. My friend and teacher Stanley Kunitz used to say, “We have to have to avoid cliches of speech of course. But we also have to avoid cliches of thought and feeling.” And poetry asks us to avoid those cliches because they’re not true anymore. They’re dead, and the world goes dead if we use them.
To use language that’s accurate all the time is a great practice. They said of the poet Rilke, Rainer Maria Rilke, “Does he have to be a poet all time?” [laughs] Someone once said when he left the party. [laughter] Which I think is hilarious. But, what if we were—what if someone said, how are you and we didn’t say “Good. How are you? Good.” What if we said, “Famished,” or [cough] something more accurate. And then we practice that everywhere.
We see of course in this culture right now where language is being dumbed down, and how we’re accepting that language, we’re allowing ourselves to legitimate it even by accepting it. Language like, I don’t even want to say it, “fake news.” I don’t want to say that again, I don’t want to make it legitimate. So to keep responding with greater accuracy is something.
But the other things poets can do, speaking of conflict, is to find the enemy within ourselves. The age—to be heroic is not the job of the poet. The job of the poet, I believe, is to implicate ourselves, constantly, to implicate ourselves so that the process of having a poem come through you, implicating yourself, refusing to be the exception or heroic in any way. But to be—well, last night, Parker Palmer was talking about vulnerability. To be vulnerable, to be the voice of vulnerability I think is a great service to the world.
I was remembering this poem—I showed it to my undergraduate poetry class—by Yehuda Ammaki. Yehuda Ammaki was a great Israeli poet, people are nodding, a great poet. And he had this beautiful poem about the places where we are right. Which goes back to your call-in show. And I just want to read it, its very short. I took a picture of it.
“The Places Where We Are Right,” Yehuda Ammaki.
[00:39:28] “From the place where we are right flowers will never grow in the spring. [laughter] The place where we are right is hard and trampled, like a yard. But doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plow and a whisper will be heard in the place where the ruined house once stood.”
This was a man who was deeply upset by the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. Very concerned with his nation’s response to that. “A whisper will be heard in the place where the ruined house once stood.”
Much political poetry shouts. Much of it whispers and much of it implicates the speaker. Of the political poetry that’s moved me, it’s the poems that have implicated the speaker and wondered into the way Ammaki does.
Micah: Do you think there are special challenges around the set of things you’re talking about here when it comes to religious language? Because I was thinking, both of you in different ways, engaging with the language of religious traditions or religious language. And it seems by its nature, a lot of religious language is about formula.
Marie: What is religious language?
Micah: …saying the same thing.
Marie: Really, what is— I don’t think I use religious language, what do you mean, Micah?
Micah: I mean a language of people who think of themselves as religious or go to church or would say, “I am part of a religious community.”
Marie: I don’t do that. First of all I’m not religious.
Micah: I’m not saying for you, but do you think there’s a challenge around religious—
Marie: But the language is what I’m asking about. What is religious language?
Micah: It’s the language that plays a role in religious practice and religious ritual.
Marie: But in our poems what do you see as religious language.
Micah: I wasn’t thinking about your…well...
Marie: You were. [laughter]
Micah: Well yeah, I would say, the biblical stories are religious language.
Marie: No they’re not.
Micah: In so far as—
Marie: They’re stories.
Micah: In so far as we have those stories, we know them, they’ve come down to us because certain groups of people collected them, remembered them, told them. The context in which they were collected...
Marie: Let’s talk about those stories.
Micah: …we’re told were contexts of religious practice. They are religious language in that sense. [laughter]
Marie: I feel so strongly—and I understand what you’re saying—but I feel so strongly those stories are mythic deep archetypal stories, soul—
Micah: But that consists with what I’m saying. It could have been that they were gathered collected with those groups.
Marie: Yes, but what I’m saying, they’ve lasted because they’re archetypical. Forget whatever religion. Every culture has a flood story. Many cultures have goddesses like Mary or Magdalene or these people. But the western Judeo-Christian culture—we both love a woman named Avivah Zornberg. Does anybody here know of Avivah Zornberg? Hallelujah, right? Write this down. This is such an important person. [spells it out] She does Midrash, the Jewish tradition of Midrash is that these stories are not static, they are live. The people who read them continue to write them, so that the Torah is a living document. John Keats said, well Wallace Stevens—God and the imagination are one. Wallace Stevens said that. “God and the imagination are one.”
Remarkable thing to say. So if you are writing Midrash, you think of the silences in these stories, the great gaps. What happened the day after Adam and Eve were forced out of Paradise? Did they have sex? Was it pleasant? What happened? I mean, really interesting story.
The stories inside the silences. The silences inside the silences are what we can imagine into. That’s why I refuse to have those stories be merely religious because they feel they belong to the Jews, they belong to Christians of all types, they belong to agnostics.
Open your computer. What do you see? Literally. What pops up? The apple. [laughter] What is missing from that apple? A bite. That’s Adam and Eve. The fall of humankind we conjure every time that “boing.” [laughter] It’s no mistake, they’re embedded everywhere, these myths. It doesn’t matter what religion you are. The apple, the bite out of it, we just take for granted, but it’s right there. The cause of all our suffering, and Eve was the problem, [laughter] the “boing.” We get to reinterpret that, we get to reimagine that. We have to.
[00:45:17] That’s why I won’t call them religious, I’ll call them imaginative, I’ll call them human, I’ll call them spiritual even, psychological. Avivah—I’ll be quiet after this—but Avivah writes these amazing books. The first one is called The Beginning of Desire. It’s a close reading of Genesis into these spaces. And the title comes from a Wallace Stevens’ poem. “The Beginning of Desire.” I urge you all to read it. You can also see her on YouTube.
Pádraig: She’s amazing. So words like sin and repentance have lost their currency by overuse with a particularly unimaginative understand of what they are. James Allison, the theologian, says that sin is an addiction to being less than ourselves, which is such an extraordinary understanding about what that might mean as a public-secular word. Repentance doesn’t mean saying sorry or even weeping or being sad. Repentance, metanoia, to change direction. Surely to God, repentance is a word of currency for today.
None of you are allowed to steal this, but I’m working on a poem called, “It’s time to Put The Protest Back In Protestant.” [laughter] Because I want—I’m not protestant, but I want them to be more protestant. I want them to take that word and to check it out. Look at our protest, and to go into this faithful dismantling of the structures that dismantle us. And that is of real interest to me.
I get the currency that you’re speaking about, and I also get the protest that Marie is giving, because these words need to be words that belong to the population. We need to find a way where we are in deep need of blessing and benediction. Where we are in really important need of sacrament. Clara Cobern where she was devastated and that person said coraggio to her, that was sacrament, that was something audible, something that came from the mouth, the tongue and a voice box and a set of lungs that made something physical happen. With air. And that changed something. I think that’s the kind of religion we need.
Whether God needs to be involved in that is delicious debate but ultimately a distraction. What we need is now, and in the now we can find ways in which, hopefully, we can reignite with dynamism, words that have really lost their potency. Often I think religion has done that.
A few years ago, I was part of this, fairly self involved—but I loved it—artistic troop in Belfast put together by Pete Rollins, lots of you might know Pete, a philosopher. The group was called IKON, I-K-O-N. We used to do theo-poetic art, and then theo-drama in a pub in Belfast. One of the things we did was we had this outside, gospel rally during a big evening in Belfast when everybody was out at events. And we were there, we were dressed in a way as if we were preachers. One guy had a blank chalkboard in the front and back, and it said, “What must I do to be saved?” Such a usual...
And then he gave people chalk and said, “Write,” and people wrote the most beautiful things, stunning. And somebody got up and knew the cadence of preaching, and they preached about moving from certainty to uncertainty, and it was beautiful. And utterly self-involved. [laughter] I should put that out there. Somebody once came and said, “All the IKON people are up their own asses,” and we said, “Fair enough.” So, I’m not saying this is anything radical necessary, but it was an attempt to say, “This stuff belongs to all of us. It came to all of us. And if borders around it are going to limit the potency about what’s possible in public language, well then we’re limiting that too much.”
I’m thrilled when I hear religious communities reignite that in a way where it goes far beyond their own limitations.
Micah: Maybe that’s a good place to open it up to questions or comments from the populi. There’s a microphone here. I think there’s a hand in the back, in the very back.
Marie: He acknowledged her.
Audience Member 1: [00:49:51] You gave some examples about people who are suffering and the poems that came out of that. I guess the inspiration that we can take from that. I want to know, are there poems for the people, the ordinary people, who were, you know looking the other way, while their neighbors were being rounded up. Because I’m not really worried about being sent to a concentration camp, but I am more worried about becoming a regular Nazi. So if you have some poems about that or can think of some, I would appreciate that.
Pádraig: Mary Oliver has an extraordinary poem about traveling. It’s a poem about a blackbird, as many of her poems are. Interspersed in the stanzas, she’s describing this woman who’s she’s seeing who’s cleaning the toilet in the airport where’s walking. It goes back and forth, and it’s an uncomfortable poem because of the counterpoint in between—what seems like a simple nature poem with the beautiful hair of this woman who’s cleaning the toilet and her hairs falls out and tumbles down. That’s a poem I think about a lot. While that’s not the entirety of Mary Oliver’s work, that certainly is a poem that’s really disturbing, because it challenges complacency.
Marie: It’s interesting, you said we spoke about poems that came out of suffering. I think, you know, when Mother Teresa came to the United States and said, “I’ve never seen such suffering as I’ve seen here.” I think we suffer from a numbness, which is what you acknowledged by asking that question. What you said was extraordinary. You said I’m not afraid of going to a concentration camp, is that really true?
Audience Member 1: Well, sure but—
Marie: Wait, you said, well sure but.
Audience Member 1: I don’t really think it will happen, it’s not—
Marie: That’s interesting, nobody did. My friend Jason who’s now dead said, all the Jews on the way to their showers are going, “I don’t believe this is happening.” [laughs] You know? We never think it, we can’t believe what’s happening now. How many times have you said to your friends, “I can’t believe what’s happening, I can’t believe what’s happening, I can’t believe what’s happening.” That’s what we say and it’s already happening. How do we speak to it?
What’s interesting is to question what we say, like what I loved was what you said. I want you to write the poem that says, I’m not afraid of going to a concentration camp, I know it won’t happen to me. Follow that and see what happens. Or, I’m afraid of becoming a Nazi, and then follow that. In other words, you write the poem you want to read. That’s what we all have to do. We have to try to write the poems we want to read. Not that we know it, because the poem will tell us when we write it what we need to hear. But truly, I want you to write those poems and share them with us.
Micah: Any other comments or questions. Yeah, I think right here, and then after that one in the front row.
Audience Member 2: I was curious, some of what you guys shared, there’s a very strong reaction to the concept of this isn’t religious poetry, this isn’t religious language. But it was interesting some of the things you guys shared, you talked that poetry is concerned with accuracy and fresh language, and it is an imaginative, spiritual, faithful thing. I guess I’m just curious from you guys, do you feel like that actually undergirds your beliefs, whether you would label that religious at all? Would you consider that maybe, at the root of what we long for in religion, or what we recognize in religion, and you can either give it that name or not. It just seems very apparent through you conversation and in your poetry. So I’m just curious if you guys think of that taking place in place of your religion.
Marie: I’m the one who reacted so strongly, so let me just say. Because we’re very different people in relationship to your question. So, when people use religion in relationship to my work. To me religion means organizes, it means a kind of constriction of belief, certainty, or a kind of creed. Which I don’t believe in. But as Micah well knows, I tried to rip those stories from him, to say those stories are human stories that belong to us all. I haven’t reconciled that word religion myself, I’m still reactive to that. So I apologize.
Even the word spiritual has become kind of sickening, right? Anybody looked on a dating site? I’m not religious but spiritual people say, it’s become a cliche. What’s another word? What’s your question? How can we freshen the language? I think that’s what Pádraig was getting at.
Pádraig: [00:55:15] At the heart of your questions is some great imagination. If poetry were religion, what would its doctrines be? [Marie laughs] I wonder though, would I be reluctant at the religion of poetry. Because I think that anything that seeks to confine and inherently falls on its own danger. What poetry works in form, poetry also celebrates form breaking and form innovation. And what we thought is strict form, a sonnet for instance, there are many examples of eleven line sonnets in the great history of sonnet writing. So, sonnets weren’t always fourteen. The vote to move from line thirteen up to line nine.
So even what we think is certain, isn’t. Speaking about religion, I’m a theologian, that’s my training. So I try to be religious, and I try to like that word. I try to believe and I try to act. When people say things like, “I’m just concerned about the demise of the Biblical family.” I want to go, “When’s the last time you read the Bible? [laughter] Ask any of the Tamars what biblical families look like. Ask Lot’s wife. She was turned into a preservative by the God she turned and accused.” [laughter] This is what religion does. Form that is unbreakable I think will always require us—
Marie: We want to break out of.
Pádraig: I think that’s part of poetry is to do that with that. So I really like what you’re saying.
Micah: What about the word faith, [phone ding] or the language of faith? Because this is the festival of faith and writing. Does the concept of language of faith land with our other viewer.
Pádraig: Faith in Irish doesn’t exist as a noun, it exists only as a verb. That’s why we all should speak Irish.
Micah: Does it mean something more like the English believe, or something more like the English to keep the faith or to trust, because the English verb cam mean something like that?
Pádraig: I mean, I’m so nervous about the word faith. I think Jesus is to blame. I mean somebody would come up, a woman pushed through a crowd, extraordinary bravery. She would not have technically been allowed outside of her own home. She pushes through a crowd, she seeks to keep herself in secrecy. And then when she falls at his feet when she’s kind of called out, there’s this beautiful moment. He calls her daughter so there’s belong and reciprocality and being seen. It’s a stunning story. And then the way it’s said in the English—“Your faith has saved you.” I just find that to be so flaccid.
Marie: To me that’s connection. This is what I want to say. The hierarchy of religion I reject. Right from the beginning that God is up and God is male. All that, ridiculous—but the rest of the planets the galaxies, the world—we used to think [bangs floor] this was solid. We had faith in that. Now we know its not. Now we know that a percentage of everything that is is dark matter, we can’t even perceive. I have deep respect for the mystery of everything. I have deep humble respect, I know nothing. Eliot said be still and wait without hope, for hope [phone dings] would be hope for the wrong thing.
And that’s my faith, not to hope not to have faith in anything that’s beyond. I could say. Meister Eckhart says, we’ve made God small, so small. Small enough for us to understand God. There’s no understanding. Just to be open, radically open that what connects everything, the stones, the stars, the animals, us as animals, the trees. Now we know trees aren’t lonely in the forest. They’re all connected, they’re feeding each other, they’re helping each other. Now we know, what we learned two weeks ago, dark matter webs connects the galaxies, are connected by webs we can’t see. That to me, what can you say, just bow to that. The mystery, that faith has this certainty that I just can’t believe in. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel…
Pádraig: The certainty but also concrete practice. So I don’t think that woman who pushed through the crowd believed that Jesus was the second person of the holy trinity incarnate in human form [laughter] born of the virgin Mary. I think she had guts. It’s your guts that save you.
Marie: She knew he had energy.
Micah: I think we have time for one more question here in the front, and then we’ll wrap up after that.
Mavis Moon: I hope you won’t be disappointed but I don’t have a question which is why I waited until the very end. I just want to say thank you to Pádraig—or Pádraig is how you say it? I really appreciated, especially, I’ll show you my book. I appreciated everything you wrote. [lauhgter] I especially appreciated, “Hello” and “Blessings.” Those have made such a difference in my life and I’m sure that is shared by others. I just wanted to say thank you.
Pádraig: What’s your name?
Mavis: Mavis, Mavis Moon.
Pádraig: Thank you.
Micah: That’s a great place to end. So shall we thank Marie and Pádraig? [applause] [mic cut]
Isabelle: [01:01:21] Enormous thanks to Micah Lott, Pádraig Ó Tuama, and Marie Howe.
Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing, located on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.
Theme music is June 11th by Andrew Star.
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