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Poetry and Power:

W.H. Auden, one of the very great poets of the 20th or any other century, once wrote, “For poetry makes nothing happen, it survives/In the valley of its making where executives/Would never want to tamper…” This sentiment has been debated often: Does literature affect events, or does it live its separate life within our private thoughts and relationships?

I suppose an answer to this question is that poetry and literature may affect some political and international leaders deeply and, hence, may affect their decision-making.

Vaclav Havel is one example of a writer turned politician whose decisions were surely informed by a sensibility nourished by language and literature. Winston Churchill is, of course, a famous example of a leader whose brilliant use of language inspired a people under ferocious attack, and whose metaphors and magisterial, rhythmic uses of language played a role in the ultimate victory of the Battle of Britain. Remember?

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

Listening to the recorded speeches of Churchill is still a thrilling experience; Churchill himself was the product of an education which demanded close reading of the masters of the English language. His ability to inspire his countrymen came, in part, from his education, his love of language, history, and literature.

For this and for other reasons, I was briefly optimistic when John F. Kennedy became President and not only delivered a literate and well-crafted inaugural address with its, by now, famous phrases, “Ask not,” etc., but he also included Robert Frost in the ceremony. Seeing one of America’s greatest poets on the podium with JFK was, I hoped, an omen that a new sensibility might inform political decision making. Perhaps the arts might receive greater emphasis and funding? Perhaps education would be more revered and supported – particularly in some neighborhoods bereft of any poetry – literally and metaphorically. But these hopes exploded in November 1963 in Dallas (and in June 1968 in Los Angeles). Since then we have had a succession of prosaic presidents – several who didn’t or don’t read at all – and so no more Robert Frosts at inaugurals, no significant funding for the arts, and no concern for the poor who remain where the poor always have been – neglected and miserable.

What is the relationship between poetry and power? Or what might it be? Well, climbing out on a limb somewhat, I believe that sensitivity to nuance in language, the perception of the radical ambiguity of life’s deeper issues that literature engenders, and an awareness of what Miguel de Unamuno called “the tragic sense of life,” affects and guides leaders to be more enlightened in their decision-making. That is to say, to make decisions more with an eye to posterity than to immediate expediency. When JFK said, “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin…” he was expressing this kind of sensibility.Robert Kennedy in his later years took to reading the Greek tragedies and, I believe, that in the last year of his life we witnessed one of the most extraordinary expressions of concern for the poor and suffering in America that we have ever seen. Certainly, we have not seen its like since 1967-68. Robert Kennedy’s reading of the Greeks led him to underscore and to memorize sayings by the tragedians, Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, and by historians Herodotus and Thucydides, to embrace many of their sentiments, and to act upon them. His whistle-stop train trip through the Central Valley from Fresno to Sacramento was unlike any political tour before or since. He gave hope to the hopeless, a sense of possibility to despairing and isolated people. In fact, he was acting out lines of Euripides, “Know you are bound to help all who are wronged.”

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