Friday, February 24, 2017

Moonlight Musings

How Can We Save the World with Poetry?

Short, obvious answer 1:

(a) Write it. (b) Communicate it. Do (b) as widely as possible, whether that means getting published in a book, an anthology, a literary magazine, posting to a blog, or sharing on facebook or twitter – or all of the above. We can hand out poems in the street. We can put them up as posters. We can shout them out at slams.

Short, obvious answer 2:
We can't. (I mean, really? Get a grip!)

Smart rat answer:
One poem at a time.

I think it's a bit like that old story of the blind men trying to describe an elephant (one holding the tail, another the trunk, another an ear...). All the above answers are partly right, and while I wouldn't say that all of them are wrong, they don't go far enough.

When I was 40, I believed that poetry could save the world. That was when I discovered my tribe. A friend took me to a poetry reading, and I saw that I wasn't isolated or a freak – there were all these other poets, acting as if making poems was a perfectly normal thing to do. (It was before the time when we could also find members of our tribe on the internet ... before there was an internet.) 

Listening to the poems, I heard that we all wanted a better world and had things to say about that. And that was the time when there was something of a boom in Australian poetry: many flourishing 'little magazines', lots of well-attended readings with dynamic young poets (I was older than most) and even a national Poets Union newly formed. It was easy to believe our words could move the world.

I wrote a lot of political poetry then – fiery, passionate stuff as a rule. So did we all. Little of mine has lasted. Too much fire, not enough objectivity. And probably not enough craft. Some rants make wonderful poems, but a lot don't. Also the particular issues and individuals are now in the past. 

Does the finite nature of political poetry mean we shouldn't attempt it? No, I don't think so. If it is effective at the time and for the purpose written, then it serves that purpose. No matter if it then has a longer shelf life or not. 

But how many such poems do succeed in serving their purpose, even in the short term? 

In some oppressed societies, revolutionary poetry becomes the voice of the people. When poets' words are considered so dangerous that their authors are sent to Gulags, or tortured and executed, it's a pretty good indication that the poetry is having an effect. To do so, it has to go viral. Even before the internet, there were ways that happened. 

Centuries ago, pamphlets were copied and passed from hand to hand. More recently, poems telling the truth about oppressive governments were read aloud secretly behind closed doors. We think about Madelstam, Neruda, Victor Jara.… And of course, that last name reminds us of the song-writers who helped bring change. Bob Dylan's recent Nobel Prize was as much for inspiring social awareness as for the poetics (a Nobel winner in Literature must satisfy both criteria). 

Dylan's songs have lasted so far. Is that only because of the extra dimension of music? No, I think it is also because he deals in the universal rather than the specific. 'You masters of war,' he says, not specifying which ones. 'A hard rain's gonna fall' – but he doesn't say where. He doesn't have to. We hear the words and know we're all in the same boat. And so it is with the great socio-political poetic utterances (without music) which have lasted. Eliot's 'hollow men' come to mind, and Yeats's ‘rough beast’ slouching 'towards Bethlehem to be born'. And Shakespeare's 'The quality of mercy is not strained ...' or, from the same play, 'If you prick us, do we not bleed?’

At present many are worried and fearful. We certainly all hope we'll never face another Nazi Germany or a new Stalinism! But even so, certain groups feel very threatened, even in countries we are used to thinking of as Democratic. America may be the most striking, immediate example, but it's not the only one. And I wonder about our brothers and sisters in countries where persecution and civil war are already daily facts of life. I suppose that few Arab poets write in European languages, so we remain ignorant of what they may be writing against their regimes. But some pieces in English do filter through, and are startlingly brave in their truthfulness. 

Some people think poets have a duty to write about socio-political issues. I don't know about that. If I want to write about my cat instead, I jolly well will, so there. And if I want to write a poem confronting the big issues of the day, I’ll do that too – not from duty but passion. It depends what's there to be written. But perhaps all people have some duty to acquaint themselves with what is happening in the world, and to try to counter injustice where they find it? Or if it's not a duty, might it be wisdom? If we ignore injustices, will they increase?

Perhaps I asked the wrong question to start with. Maybe I should have asked, 'How can poets (rather than poetry) save the world?' That's broader in scope and immediately becomes easier to answer. If we're poets, we know how to string words together so as to have impact. We can write! There’s no reason we have to stick to poetry when it comes to calling out injustice and defending the rights of the oppressed. A lot more people read prose. 

We can write letters to editors of newspapers, and make them so good that they'll get printed. We can write to our local political representatives, and make those letters so good that if they get read they might spark some action. (And we can phone up to make sure the letters are received and do get read.) Even more direct, we can write good emails. We can write or at least sign petitions. We are probably capable of speaking fluently too, when called for. 

Caveat: I'm not sure how effective it is to post one's opinions on facebook and twitter. There is the danger of preaching to the converted (we all tend to make friends with the like-minded). And there is the other danger of alienating people who have been your friends, who turned out not to be so like-minded after all. But, if you think these social media are good platforms, who am I to discourage you? I would suggest they might be places where poetry would serve best ... depending how outspoken the poetry, I guess. I was thinking that there may be times when points are best made subtly, and poetry could be a better medium for doing that.

I am not meaning to start a lot of heated diatribes in response to this post. You will all have your views about Trump, Clinton, Obama and the rest. Some of us are already writing poems about that and posting them to our blogs. Others of us are using poetry as a way to recover from such concerns and remind ourselves of the good things in our world. I think both are valid responses. But in your comments on this post, please focus on how we might use our writing to help improve our world, rather than on particular politicians we think could use a bit of improvement. 

It seems to my perception that most poets tend to be what we in Australia call 'small-l liberal' (because our Liberal Party with a capital-L is our right-wing, Conservative party). However, not all poets hold similar views. Some may not fall neatly into any narrow category. It's not safe to make assumptions.

I have not seen any nastiness in our community, although many have been greatly distressed by the USA election result and its aftermath. I think that's remarkable. It is very unlike what I see (sometimes) on facebook, where people are so moved by fear and disillusionment that some very inflammatory things have been said. Perhaps poets can help save the world by continuing to respect people's right to freedom of thought? By continuing to behave with care and kindness towards others? 

What I see amongst us here is ongoing respect for each other regardless of differing views and beliefs, and nurturing of each other when that seems needed. We write our poems honestly, and let them speak for us as to our opinions, spiritual leanings, etc. I guess if I wanted to take issue with things said in someone else's poem, I might write one of my own to express a counter-view, and leave it at that.

So what about the poetry itself? And what about the questions I first asked? 

I don't think any of us can have an effect all by ourselves. (Dylan is exceptional. And even he needed the masses to embrace his words.) And I don't think poets combining in numbers can necessarily do it either. But I think we can be one group, among others, raising our voices for what we believe in. I think it takes all kinds of people, poets included, and that by doing our bit in our way we can help bring about the world we all want (even though we may have different ideas of how to get there). 

I think there are many things poets can do, some of them not solely restricted to poets. And if there is a chance that our poetry might have an influence for good, then yes indeed, let’s keep writing and communicating it. Yes, certainly let’s communicate it as widely as we can. And let’s make sure we write it as brilliantly, beautifully and powerfully as we can!

What do you think? Have I left out any ways we might try? Is it all hopeless anyway? Or do we have a voice? What about you personally? Are you going to write to cheer the world up? Or denounce its wrongs? Or both? (Or neither?)

Remember when you were starting out, and you thought that if just one of your poems could move just one person, it would be worth it? The chances are that there'll be a lot more than just one (poem or person). Is that still worth it, to perhaps have a smaller effect, not the whole world but a bit of it? If many other poets are doing the same, as we know they are, will it all add up to enough? And if it doesn't, is it still worth it to reach even a few?

Maybe the only person your poetry will save is yourself. How many of us write through grief, illness, depression, marriage break-ups, and even despair at the state of the world? How many of us get through such trials with the help of our writing? (Me for one!) Isn't that in itself worth doing? Or is it only a starting point?

(Don't forget to pop back and read the discussion that follows! And please feel welcome to chime in.)

Some of the pictures used are subject to copyright. The guitar picture was made available through a Creative Commons licence. The image of the earth is in the public domain.The other photos are mine.


  1. Wonderful post. I agree that poetry won't save the world but it does bring a beauty and healing to small parts of it.

    1. Yes, and to be honest I do think that is worth doing! We can't know how far our own poems will reach; we can only put our stuff out there, knowing it is part of the whole realm of Poetry, and it's that whole which adds beauty and healing to the world.

  2. I enjoyed your musings Rosemary. So nice to share your wisdom and fairness. So well written.
    I think that expression, in poetry as in all art, has the potential to influence others, but I don't write for that reason. I write primarily as an exercise in introspection. Lately I have engaged in more political expression because politics has been on my mind as never before. I imagine that's true for many of us. I do hope that our poetry is received by the universe as a good and healing energy.

    1. You're right, of course. (If we were wrote primarily from a desire to influence others, we'd probably go into advertising instead.)

      The hope you express reminds me of the closing lines – particularly the last line – of one of my favourite poems, 'Ars Poetica?' by Czeslaw Milosz:

      poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
      under unbearable duress and only with the hope
      that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.

    2. I love that quote, Rosemary. And this discussion point, Myrna

    3. Tut, tut! 'If we were wrote'? LOL. Editing on the hop – of course I meant either 'If we wrote' or 'If we were writing'!

  3. How I love your Moonlight Musings, Rosemary. I agree with Myrna's words: you write with such wisdom and fairness and respect. When I am most moved by the plight of beings in the world, both human and non-human, and the state of nature herself, I write to bear witness and spread awareness. Because I care and cant stay silent. Sadly, right now the forces in power are upending safeties in such numbers I am beginning to get discouraged, to grow mute. It seems nothing can stop them. However, in our community we can share with and support each other, and gain some comfort that way. I remember a few weeks back, the spoken slam poem written by a young woman in Tennessee and read by Ashley Judd which DID move huge numbers of people. Words can expand awareness and effect change, I do believe. But your suggestions of letters to newspapers, and contact with the people who can make change are likely more effective than poetry. However, we write what we care about, for ourselves, because we must and if, as you say, our words move others, that is a good thing. I think in these times poems that can remind people that life is good and beauty exists can be powerful too. We all need that hope, and assurance. Thank you for your thought-provoking Musings. My fave feature of yours.

    1. Much of what you're saying here seems to exemplify that 'unbearable duress' I just mentioned to Myrna – those times when we care too much to stay silent, whether about beauty and goodness or the plight of the planet and its inhabitants, but MUST express our views and feelings.

      I think that, in reading Nina Donovan's powerful poem so brilliantly, and indeed moving many, Ashley Judd was preaching to the converted – lots of converted. However, that's not necessarily a bad thing. In this instance it probably gave great encouragement to people who needed just that.

  4. You articulate many of our musings in these times! Thank you, thank you. I believe poetry is part of the prescription for change whenever it reminds us of our common humanity. How can it not be? Someone in pain may heal from a cat poem that reminds them they are simply and amazingly human. On the one hand I trust that my words are part of the alchemy needed to transform even though I don't know the formula. Who has discovered it? DT says repetition is the charm that turns the false into truth. It worked for him during the USA election, and apparently has unsettled people like us around the world. So we must continue to create and generate healing and hope. On the other hand, I am toying with public appearance with poetry--not just in readings, but in the offices of representatives and in letters and postcards and places of public assembly like bus stations and hotel lobbies. An acquaintance of mine, a Quaker too, is interested in experimenting with me here. I am also starting to help others to use words again--as i tutoring writing. I believe it is a locus of power, and have the skill to teach it. My words may be weak, but someone I teach may be the one to move the many. What do you think of poetry in action in this way?

    1. Repetition may also be what keeps truth actively countering falsehoods!

      I LOVE poetry in action! My old friend Thom the World Poet (an expatriate Aussie who lives in Austin, Texas, and does indeed travel the world to spread poetry) began Street Poetry in Australia, where poets handed out photocopied broadsheets on street corners. Wherever he is – most especially in Austin – he starts workshops, and when they're up and running hands them over to others to keep going. He's brilliant at getting people to discover they are poets. Above all, he creates performance spaces in coffee lounges with cooperative managers, and then hands them over to others to run (but if possible keeps on attending himself, too). His idea is that poetry is one of the best ways to give a voice to the young, the poor, the minorities ... in fact, to the people. In poetry, they (we!) can speak out freely. (And it's probably the cheapest art form to indulge in, not requiring costly materials.) The fact that it is not taken very seriously by the authorities, at least in the Western world, is one of the things that enables us to speak our truths freely.

      The things that you yourself are doing are similarly wonderful initiatives. And your own words always seem to me deeply thoughtful, Susan; you do address the big issues.

  5. What a wonderful discussion! Susan, I so admire your boots-on-the-ground activism, which puts words and beliefs into action. I love the idea of street poetry too, finding poetry in unexpected places. I love the discussions arising from these Moonlight Musings!!!!

  6. Repetition is what keeps truth actively countering falsehoods!
    In so keeping - SHARED THIS

  7. This post is really inspired, Rosemary. I have been writing a lot of political poetry of late, and I am not naive enough to think that what I say will influence anyone else. Ha, it might even annoy some, but I have reached the point where I think that if it does, so be it. It is also evident to me from the poems that I read that some people use poetry to escape from the world of politics, and so be it as well. I always wonder though if these people think about the political scene at all or if they just ignore it in life as they do in poetry. I hope not, as I think what is happening right now in the world is so important that one cannot turn a blind eye to it. I do think you are right on when you say perhaps the only person your poetry will save is yourself. I find this for myself really. Actually I am so caught into the painful reality of today's political scene in my country that I can hardly force myself to write about anything else. How can a person write about the beauty of nature when there is a forest fire threatening to destroy everything looming in the background. Thank you for this feature, Rosemary. I hope a lot of people read it and think about it!

    1. I think we do what we must. And there are so many of us. There are enough others to write about the beauty of nature, if that's what they feel called to do – leaving you free to address your political concerns. I think we need both.

  8. Thank you for this thought-provoking, well written piece. As Mary has stated,
    I too am caught up in the political boiling pot that my country seems to be cooking. I have written many poems on this subject, but also write on other topics, and included haiku for a reality check about what is important. We write to touch people. I still feel wonderful if I touch even one.

  9. Plato wished to expel poets from the ideal state, the Republican City as aesthetics and literary criticism were not in his good book and he believed that politics, ethics and epistemology were beyond poetry’s boundary. How mischievous poets (base imitators of Nature) corrupt the youth and incite passions instead of leading them to the faculties of reason, he felt. Yet poets are species born to captivate Truth and Beauty. Truth whether in the arena of politics, nature, home corner, workplace, world of art, science wherever found has to be garnered and served with utmost honesty and in suitable language for Beauty dwells here. Inner urge will not let them rest till they have inked something to their satisfaction. And it’s an added bonus if it touches a kindred soul. We write because we cannot do without it.

    It’s a thought provoking article Rosemary and equally beautiful. Love all your Moonlight Musings.

    1. Didn't Plato let his philosopher kings read poetry and theatre secretly, as they were wise and couldn't be corrupted!?!

    2. Ha yet he felt that art is of no utility :)

    3. Well if this is the case,he was wrong. Just goes to show that Greeks don't know everything:)
      Hope Nick is reading this ! LOL

  10. As you said poets come from diverse backgrounds with differing views on the role of poetry in a society.

    I write political poetry occasionally and also poems about the destruction of the environment. These are important issues. Having said that I think the purpose of poetry is to capture beautiful moments and give joy and comfort to others so they can share in it and know they are not alone. An injection of humour never goes astray as well.
    The connection poets make with others is their raison d'etre...and that is " to give".

    As others have said if you only even touch one it makes a difference It makes me feel I have a valid purpose for my existence when this happens.
    There is so much cruelty indifference, lack of beauty and kindness in our brutal world. If you have the eyes for beauty you have an obligation to express it and gift it..It gives hope. It gives momentary happiness. It is healing.It is an act of love.
    Sometimes the words of a poet tucked away in some far flung outpost may be the only comfort or connection a reader experiences.Poetry says more. Poetry is more.The world has always needed poetry but needs it now more than ever .
    Thank you for a thought provoking post, Rosemary.

    1. Eloquently said! We might all adopt your wonderful words, from 'There is so much cruelty' to 'now more than ever ' as a manifesto. Now that you have articulated it, it seems so obviously the crux of the matter. Thank you.

  11. When I saw the title of your post, I was calld to write a poem....

    Moon Musings

    i trace your journey across the night time sky a sky filled with brilliant stars

    in the darkness of my room memories flood in the night quiet

    i fold each memory like clothes from the dryer i hug them to my breast

    still warm put them away seems like it all happened just minutes ago

    night fell suddenly there was a loud crash

    time stopped yet you were still there in that bright star filled sky

    my constant companion the candle glow the brightest light

    on the darkest night when you have lost your way moon light shows the way

    lights the path new moon first quarter

    full moon third quarter/last quarter my friend

    you hear me pray sort the mumbled words of an earth traveler

    February 25, 2017

    When I came back this morning, I realized you weren't asking for a poem. How many mistakes do I make each day? I haven't really read all of your post, my time has been very short of late, I will be back to read more. Thank you Rose Mary.

    1. No, I didn't ask for a poem – so this is a fabulous gift! So, so beautiful; my new favourite of yours. I love it. I keep reading it over. I hope you post it on your blog as well, for more readers to see.


  12. Love Is Not All - Poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay

    Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
    Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
    Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
    And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
    Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
    Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
    Yet many a man is making friends with death
    Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
    It well may be that in a difficult hour,
    Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
    Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
    I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
    Or trade the memory of this night for food.
    It well may be. I do not think I would.
    Edna St. Vincent Millay

    This reminded me of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem, Love (Poetry) is Not All

    1. Wonderful poem – and one of hers that I didn't already know, which I am very glad to become acquainted with. Beautifully and movingly true about love – and yes, also very much applicable to poetry. We'll take it (we who are lucky enough to have it) even if it brings us nothing but itself. Thank you, annell, for two wonderful poetry shares here.

  13. No poetry will not save the world, but when the world goes mad, it's sometimes the only place where we can go... maybe because it seldom becomes a mass movements, it's a small outlet that actually can be a bit safe... it might be a bubble, but let it be so... I find that in countries with repressions, poets gain in importance. When the world is mad, we turn to poetry... and maybe one day if the world turns worst the metaphors is what will save us all...(if not the poet)

    1. You know, I am thinking that if we make ourselves calmer and more positive via our poetry, then we are going to contribute towards a better community, a better society, a better world. (Smile.)

  14. A very interesting article, Rosemary. I tend to think of writing poetry as a kind of conversion you have with yourself. It is often observant and introspective and even, spiritual and goes to a place that you might not get to without poetry. When I feel anxious or overwhelmed, poetry is my "go-to" place and it does help me feel that I have taken control of a little piece of my life. Poetry may not save the world, but I believe that it does save people ... one poet at a time.

    1. Well put, Wendy. One poet at a time, yes, *smile*. And I think also some readers.

  15. Respected Fellows,

    Poetry has long been neglected, as if, it is mere a fantasizing tool. That incomplete view often cripples us, poets. Today I'll disclose my original thoughts expecting a vigorous society of poets around me.

    I obtained poetry as a lens system. We can make it convex, concave, flat, or a combination of some of these.
    As the convex lens can converge sunrays to light a fire, poet's lines can accumulate enough energy to burn any message in mass. As the concave lens can diverge rays, poetic lines can dissipate threads of depressive thoughts away to make a mind calm. At least, we can make a plain mirror of our lines to show the world what true is.

    Dreaming imagery, what many great souls might have considered unethical, impractical, and untrue, is just one of the infinite possible views that poetry can cast. We'll decide how far real, or dreamy, our lines are going to be; we can. Also, unless we step beyond what is accepted as today's safe true, how could we find confirmed true for tomorrow? Poetry can show the way.
    Politicians, saints, scientists, sport persons, media persons, and so on, all are focusing their excellence to better the world. Are poets the exception? No ways. We may empathize for those who failed to perceive how far can poetry span.
    Human feelings shape the world and poets can compose human feelings. That's all. Let's compose a beautiful world.

    1. What a wonderful, thorough, and indeed poetic comment. Thank you so much! I will do my best to make sure others too come back here to read these positive and inspiring words. They make a brilliant conclusion to this discussion.

  16. What a fascinating and relevant conversation this is. Rosemary, your Moonlight Musings are my favourite feature of yours and this is why - they spark such intelligent and illuminating discourse. Thank you to each person who shared here.


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