The Guardian’s Hay Festival–“a spectacular holiday party for friends to gather and indulge their tastes for the finest books, food, drink, comedy, music, art, argument and literature”–comes to a close today. But I could not make it to Hay, for among other reasons, one of my sons was graduating summa cum laude from UMass Lowell, on the left side of the Atlantic Ocean. I was prepared for the worst, to be bored silly for most of the three-plus hours, in order to get a glimpse of my son here and there during the gathering, and dutifully be part of the sea of people gathered for all the other graduates. Boy was I mistaken.
The commencement speaker was Amartya Sen, the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics, who was there also to receive an honorary degree. Before he began, I thought I would need to dust off either my old economics hat or my ear muffs (if I couldn’t find the hat on short notice), to relate to him. Instead, it quickly became clear that his “expertise” as it were, included bringing disciplines together, including anything I readily brought to the table. He did not speak about poetry, but just about everything he said made me think, among other things, about poetry. So I am not here giving a synopsis of his lengthy address to the graduates, but to take some of what impressed me and relate it to poetry.
Sen spoke of terrorism, and how in order for someone, such as Osama bin Laden, to recruit people to kill other people, those others to be killed need to be seen as being in a different group, as being instilled with a different cause, what I (not Sen) can call wearing a different hat, a Muslim hat versus a Christian hat, a liberal hat versus a conservative one, and so forth. Even history can be brought to bear for the inciting of terrorist cause. It is not that the person being killed has done anything or believed anything or espouses anything, but that the tribe has, in the past, been against another tribe, as in Africa.
There was an entertaining point when Sen went on at length, listing all the roles a made-up individual has. We can do the same for our own imaginary people, and do it for ourselves as well. Here is someone I am making up on the fly: an executive, woman, liberal, feminist, artist, poet, photographer, mother, vegetarian, Toyota driver, jazz aficionado who loves the Platters too, member of Amnesty International, a former Roman Catholic, a Buddhist, a Mexican in Mexico City, who sings with a group at hospices, loves to cook, and a former tennis player, who now jogs each day.
The idea of terrorism is to zero in on one of those roles, maybe two. Let’s choose that she is a feminist member of Amnesty International. These are reasons enough for her to be killed by a terrorist group. Similarities are not important, such as the fact that her suicide-bomb killer is a woman who loves to play tennis and cook. And aren’t we all different, prospective terrorists against each other?
Sen applied this thinking from different angles. For instance, with the case of illegal immigrants, right there in the label are two reasons for any given American citizen to be against them. Maybe you are okay with immigrants. Well, what about the fact that they are illegal? Or vice versa. This categorical thinking leads to many people favoring the deportation of eleven million others.
Or, how about the urge to have everyone be in our group, the English-speaking one? If they are going to be in this country, they’d better speak English–like you, me, and how my great-grandmother had to learn it, right?
Let’s get back to The Hay now. All those people coming together, with their subtly different hats, the poet-fiction writers meeting the novelist-essayists, meeting the editor-whatevers, and all of them meeting the diverse ticket holders. Not that there weren’t arguments. There’d better have been. An event like The Hay is meant for a good argument or two, along with the food and such. So we might think that such a festival would serve as a model. That depends on what you look at.
by Joyce Kilmer
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
One of the great purposes poetry can serve is to bring us people together. In Kilmer’s poem, we get to appreciate trees. Trees, as such. Not Republican trees, nor the Hindu ones, nor even the female ones, nor the Japanese trees. And we are just people, like trees are just trees. There will never be a poem as beautiful as a person uncategorized. And it is here, this meta-categorical, anti-categorical, super-categorical place, that our best poetry comes from, the place that draws poets, then readers together to it, just as it did for Kilmer, and how we joined him, even across time. We get all jazzed up with the blues of living, the economics, the literature, the biology of it all, being the athlete, the dad, the gardening expert, the ER nurse, pondering the philosophies of love and death, that we forget to be just us–people–people taking in trees.
Poetry serves this purpose of bringing us together, pointing out the life line we are all attached to. This is why, for instance, Iran has its movement to be sure Americans are well-aware of their culture, so that they are seen as people, and not as others. Americans are urged to read more Rumi, and are exposed to profiles of culturally active Iranians.
We, though, as a group of poets and poetry lovers need to watch our step on a slippery slope. Yes, we are infused with much to offer, much to give. It’s not so selfish that we want our poems to be read. “Get it?” we want to say, “isn’t this another way of you seeing your life?” “Here’s my love poem,” we say, “isn’t it great to be human?” “Here’s my war poem, too,” we say, “won’t that lead to peace?” It’s wonderful to be us and think through these given and conjured musings. And wonderful that we have the readership we do.
But as we spread the good word, and bring people back home, there are people who simply do not like poetry, and never will. I have a good friend who doesn’t seem to listen to music. He couldn’t care less about any poetry going on anywhere. He golfs, and listens to talk radio. At least at this point in his life, and for some their entire lives, poetry is not for them. They don’t own a poetry hat, and wouldn’t be caught dead with one on.