Poetry and the heart’s education

Richard Blanco’s poem reminds us of what is missing in our lives

The author, a retired Butte College English instructor, is a frequent contributor to the CN&R.

In addition to being a fine evocation of the elemental things that unite us, Richard Blanco’s poem, recited at the inaugural ceremonies last Monday (Jan. 21), served to remind us of what is too often missing in our lives, both private and public. Respect for language, reverence for our common humanity, and due regard for the immediacy of our experience are all too often absent as our elected representatives dash about, spouting language meant to obfuscate, phrases meant to exploit differences, and abstractions intended to conceal the meaning of laws being enacted that sometimes serve to make our daily struggles more difficult.

Shelley, the 19th-century English poet, wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged moral legislators of the universe.” When I first encountered those words as a young anti-war activist back in the ’60s, I thought the poet was attempting to claim importance for poetry it clearly didn’t have. After all, hardly anyone read the stuff, and if they did, it usually was the sort of poetry rich in the kind of saccharine falsity I thought was at the heart of our problems, that steadfast attempt to sugarcoat reality. Poetry was merely another dodge, like the military euphemisms that attempted to hide the awful nature of what was going on behind phrases like “pacification program” or “free-fire zones.”

But I’ve long since grown to see what Shelley meant. Poetry, when it deserves the name, educates the heart, and the heart is where our laws should begin. All too often, of course, our laws never even make a nodding acquaintance with the heart. They’re crafted in the sausage factory that is our legislative process, neglecting the heart and ignoring the immediacy of our lives, pushing feeling aside in favor of service to heartless and narrow special interests.

“It is difficult to get the news from poetry,” William Carlos Williams wrote nearly six decades ago, “but men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

Those words seem fundamentally true to me, not at all hyperbolic. Our spirits shrivel and we die when we fail to pay the keenest attention to the world around us. And our daily deaths get reflected in the ways we make our laws. The role of the best poets, even in song, is to wake us up to our lives, to remind us of what makes us human. Richard Blanco did that with his poem. It’s hard to imagine how much better things could be if more of us, including our politicians, had a little more poetry in our souls.