Magazine article The Christian Century

Politics into Poetry

Magazine article The Christian Century

Politics into Poetry

Article excerpt

THERE'S NOTHING like a long campaign season to weaken our faith in language. Transformative political speech is so rare that we weep to hear it--as many did when Michelle Obama spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Her account of waking up in a house built by slaves and watching her daughters play outside on the White House lawn was unforgettable. It left an image in our minds that has the potential to change us by reshaping our perspective.

Much of what we hear during political campaigns does not stir our imaginations. At best, many of the phrases we hear lack potency, and at worst, they leave our ears ringing with a high-pitched whistle meant to awaken old fears and hatreds. Unkeepable campaign promises tilt into magical thinking: "I alone can fix this." The words are as empty as soap bubbles, but they have real consequences.

As we move into the campaigns' last months, we need an antidote to the weightless, reckless words crowding the atmosphere. The beach books of summer, with their solvable mysteries, won't do. We need language that anchors us in more difficult mysteries.

If you're looking for a book to replenish your political and spiritual imagination, I recommend Collected Poems 1950-2012, by Adrienne Rich, with an introduction by poet Claudia Rankine. At more than 1,100 pages, this is a book that can accompany you to Election Day and beyond.

Rich, who died in 2012, published her first poems during the Truman administration and her last during the presidency of Barack Obama. Her body of work stretches from the Korean War to the war on terror, from her marriage to economist Alfred Conrad through her partnership with Jamaican-American writer Michelle Cliff. She was a poet when Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Kennedy brothers were murdered, and she wrote her last published poems shortly before 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed. To read from one end of her collected poems to the other is to experience history with someone whose engaged imagination not only longed for change but worked for it.

Start your morning with a few of her early poems; her rhymes and rhythms will echo in your mind all day and suggest your own thoughts and questions. Her early poetry is marked by a mastery of traditional poetic forms and her conviction that form offers us a way to bear our sorrows and our desires together. …

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