Saturday, October 30, 2010
OP-ED PIECE by Kathryn Stripling Byer
NEWS-OBSERVER, RALEIGH, NC
Published Sat, Oct 30, 2010 02:00 AM
CULLOWHEE The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley declared poets "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." These days we snicker at such an inflated claim for poets, or for any other voices claiming that language used well and with poetic intensity matters at all.
And yet, what can we say of the real "legislators" of our world? Their world of spin and double-talk, distortions and lies?
Now that the mid-term elections are upon us, the relentless TV ads, the daily prognostications, the vast sums spent by candidates and corporations, I'm left, yet again, wondering what qualities a leader worthy of the name should embody.
This is a difficult question to address nowadays. We exist surrounded by static: television, texting and Internet. We watch the images of men and women on the screen professing this or that value or policy. How can we tell if any of them are worthy of our respect, not to mention our vote?
I think I have found a way, thanks to a recent speech by former University of Chicago President Don Randel. He begins by quoting noted poet Richard Wilbur, whose poem "Clearness" contains these lines: "There is a poignancy in all things clear,/In the stare of the deer, in the ring of a hammer in the morning./Seeing a bucket of perfectly lucid water/We fall to imagining prodigious honesties."
Randel then laments that we live in an age of "prodigious dishonesties," but his solution does not require more classes with "ethics" in the title. "Perhaps," he declares, "we should require everyone to study poetry."
He concludes his speech with a revolutionary idea. One that might help us focus our attention more accurately on the men and women whose faces we see in the media: "The next time you see a face on the front page of the newspaper ... you might ask yourself whether the subject reads much poetry."
I don't think it's asking too much that our leaders read poetry, that they be able to speak our language clearly and precisely, nor do I think it is asking too much of them to be well-read in the texts that our canon of great literature has given us.
After all, these texts contribute, as Randel observes, to our understanding of what it means to be a human being and how we ought to behave in relation to one another.
When we have leaders who proclaim that they read nothing much at all, what does that say about them? And about us?
I suggest that as another Election Day approaches, we apply Randel's litmus test to all the candidates begging for our votes. Or dare we? Might we come away disappointed that no one, not a single solitary one, would pass muster?
If so, we face a future worse than any of us could imagine, one in which language is used not to draw our attention back to those "prodigious honesties" that the poet expresses, but to deceive, confuse and seduce us into supporting policies that will undermine and ultimately silence our voices. When that happens, the word "democracy" will have been robbed of all meaning.