In a few weeks I’ll begin a sabbatical year of travel, research, and writing. (Not that I’m counting the days or anything).
Sabbatical: from sabbath (shabbat), meaning to cease or stop or rest.
Academic sabbatical: a period in which one is to be demonstrably productive.
In my application for sabbatical leave, I noted this contradiction by citing an observation by Max Page, a professor of architecture and history at the University of Massachusetts:
What “sabbatical” meant was that the land—your productive capacity, your brain, your heart—should not be used or exercised in exactly the same way it had been for the previous six years. It needs to be refertilized. It will be more productive and life giving (and refereed journal article producing) if it is allowed a rest from its usual activities. I found it particularly remarkable, and disturbing, that in the sabbatical seminar I attended no one spoke about improving the quality of the work of their sabbatical, only that they produce more, and faster.
I hope to take the “rest” part of sabbatical to heart but will also work, reasonably productively, I hope, on a project that is situated at the intersection of religion, science, and art; one that begins with an uncontested truth—our planet is in crisis—and proceeds with an unconventional claim: we have neglected the aesthetic response to this crisis. I want to show that at the intersection of theology and poetry lay fertile ground for confronting the problems of ecological degradation and matters of culpability, accountability, and the flourishing of all of creation.
I will not argue that poetry helps us to better appreciate the natural world (though poems can do that). Nor will I champion the polemical—poetry as argument for political change. I’m with Robert Lowell, the American poet who once confronted a Soviet bureaucrat who was urging more frequent exchanges between poets and superpowers for the purpose of promoting peace. “Art,” Lowell snapped, “does not make peace. That is not its business. Art is peace.”
I am most interested in the intrinsic connection between the loss of linguistic capacity (our ability to speak truthfully, to wield language responsibly) and the loss of the world (its destruction by forces driven by ignorance and self-interest and our culture’s willing and often unwitting collusion with them). Poetry, I will suggest, is one way to recover from this loss—not because it is “useful” but because, as Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney has said, it “offers a clarification, a fleeting glimpse of a potential order of things ‘beyond confusion.’”
There’s much more to say and I’m grateful that I have a couple of summers and a couple of semesters to try and say it. But lately I’ve been thinking about the connections between poetry and politics. Not so much in the sense of how nice it would be if politicians spoke in more poetic terms but wouldn’t it, though? The linguistic gutter that Trump and Rubio have dragged us through is foul territory indeed.
But much more than that, what would it mean to attend to the aesthetic dimension of our political plight in this particular historical moment? To take account of the diminishment of language broadly (not just vulgar political speech) that keeps us from desiring, seeking, and living into the beauty we were made from and for? To even ask such questions in our current political culture sounds naive, a little ridiculous, even.
We would have to get our heads around the idea that language is creative of meaning, not descriptive of something we call “reality.” (An idea whose explication requires more than a blog post, I realize). We would have to agree that, on one level, at least, theology is the work of giving an account of the world that makes possible certain kinds of communities, produces certain kinds of people. The theo-poetic speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. was about this kind of work: “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community.” As is that of Pope Francis: ““Give us a holy courage to seek new paths, that the gift of unfading beauty may reach every man and woman.”
Where we have been paralyzed by information overload–almost all of it maddeningly contradictory–or polarized by soundbite one-upmanship, how might we recover the language, the speech-acts of shared responsibility and care, of mutual joy and delight, such that we might desire, seek, and work for the well-being of our neighbor above our own?
And how does poetry help with this?
Poetry, I suggest, is a kind of witness, a form of protest (things can be otherwise), a vision of wholeness out of disorder, for it is the art of making a new thing with the material—human language, a nearby dictionary—at hand. (No creation ex nihilo here. As Wendell Berry says, “poetry can be written only because it has been written.”)
But we don’t mine poems for meaning or to see what truths they might express for application to this or that situation. Good poems are “beautiful and pointless.” That is, they don’t mean; they—not unlike the liturgy—do. “Authentic poetry,” says theologian Rowan Williams, “is labour, it’s work: the doing of something which has its own integrity.”
So I vote for poetry.
I vote for exposing ourselves and our children especially to the contagion that good poetry is–poetry of all kinds. For, as Mary Oliver has said, “poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.” And like a contagion, good poems, says Pulitzer prize-winning poet Jorie Graham, “want to go from body to body. Built in is the belief that such community—one could even say ceremony—might ‘save’ the world.”
Well, if not the world, then maybe our dismal politics.
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
Li-Young Lee, “From Blossoms” from Rose. Copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee