Poetic Justice: Young Poets and the Good Society

"[T]he slovenliness of our language," George Orwell reminds, "makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." The more foolish our thoughts, the more "ugly and inaccurate" our language becomes. "Political language," Orwell continues, "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

Orwell was born 101 years ago last month, and wrote his famous essay "Politics and the English Language" in 1946. The ideological anxieties may have changed since Orwell wrote, but his concerns for the quality of our language strikes as hard as ever. We depend upon our language to do justice to the world as it is.

So what happens when a group of young men and women -- all award-winning high school poets -- come together to attend the Aspen Ideas Festival? They, more than most, are the young custodians of the language and the creative forces of its future. And the future is bright indeed.

Despite the differences of geography, demography and poetic form, these young poets all share a sharp eye in observing the world, a keen ear for the sound of words, and a desire to do justice to the language they speak and the world in which they live. Some write of poverty, violence, or histories of oppression. Others reflect on the dislocations of moving home, of patriotism and the paradoxes of freedom, of the bonds of extended families, of responsibility and love, including the love of poetry itself. From more formal expression to free verse, spoken word, and rap, their poetry has sometimes raw emotion but never juvenile sentimentality -- the students' maturity of experience finds expression in the maturity and beauty of the images and sounds they paint. "We need dirt to grow the first fruits of our labor." "Discomfort is the secret ingredient in your recipe for success."

Imagined by Aspen Institute Arts Program Director Damian Woetzel, and hosted in Aspen by the Arts Program and the Institute's Seminars Department, the eight student poets come from across the country and from the range of socio-economic backgrounds. They have won awards from different student literary programs: the National Student Poets Program (supported by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers and the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities), Young Chicago Authors, the 'Louder Than a Bomb' competition, and Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

They found at the Festival four things we all need.

First, they found peers who care about the language and the craft of poetic expression. It's more fashionable now than when I was in school to be a nerd, but our contemporary culture celebrates techno-geeks rather than logo-geeks. The young poets were delighted to meet contemporaries and older peers who understood the inner compulsion to get words right when speaking for and to our age. Additionally, they found themselves in what the founders of the Aspen Institute called "The Great Conversation". Our seminar sessions brought us into dialogue with texts from Plato and Aristotle to Hannah Arendt and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie -- not peers, exactly, but fellow practitioners of using language well to refine our collective discourse and nourish our souls.

Second, they met professionals -- men and women from all walks of life -- whose diverse backgrounds and perspectives converge in a common concern, as T. S. Eliot put it, to find: "The common word exact without vulgarity,/The formal word precise but not pedantic,/The complete consort dancing together." These professionals' concern is not primarily artistic but practical. Business executives regularly tell me their frustration in finding employees who can write clearly and elegantly. Language nourishes our commerce as well as our culture.

Third, they encountered performers -- people who speak varied languages as part of their creative livelihood. Professional writers, like Walter Isaacson and David Brooks, who spoke of their love of words from a very young age. Dancers, like Charles "Lil Buck" Riley, whose physical eloquence spoke beyond sound -- "Take time," said Lil Buck, "to be a vehicle for sound." Actors, like Alfre Woodard, who told our young poets: "Art is not a luxury, it is an expression of the soul -- we are expressions of God." Or House of Cards writer Beau Willimon, who spoke of writers as "professional thieves" as he reflected on what he's learned from Greek and Latin literature. We tell stories in different ways, but the stories we tell shape our individual and collective imaginations of the lives we live, singly and together.

Finally, our young poets were able to immerse themselves in a community of play -- a playfulness of words to be sure, but also a playfulness of spirit which is itself the expression of the muses. As part of our seminar, the poets and their program mentors acted out scenes (in a time-honored Aspen tradition) from Friedrich Dürrenmatt's sobering play, The Visit. We were absorbed by a stunning rehearsal of Beethoven's Egmont Overture (Goethe's poetry set to music) and Mendelssohn's E minor Violin Concerto, played by Simone Porter. Whether in the dramatic performance, the music rehearsal, or the poet's open mic night, to be truly at play is to be most seriously consumed by the language one is speaking.

Without sharp, supple tools, we are ill-equipped for the arts of thoughtful deliberation, principled compromise, and virtuous collaboration that allow us to live and love well in a good society. If justice, as the ancients sometimes described it, is to give everything its due, then language and justice -- aesthetic and moral judgment -- walk hand in hand. Giving each word its due in the stories we tell ourselves and each other allows us to be vehicles of what is most noble in us.

The young poets composed a renga poem based on their Aspen encounters and gave an impromptu performance, with Lil Buck dancing improvisationally as a vehicle of sound:

Renga, Party of 8: by Michaela Coplen, Omari Ferrell, Louis Lafair, Brandonlee Cruz, Nathan Cummings, Karlyn Boens, Sojourner Ahebee and Wayne Strange; with choreography and performance by Lil Buck.

We strip to our bones
on the page and stage just to
Receive acceptance.

Or maybe not "just", maybe
we peel away the surface

finding common ground
in our hands as we write truth.
Our mouths speaks the truth.

Our mouths are an opening
of sacred, of forgot: light

reflected from suns.
Plato, Adichie and King.
Guellen. Omelas.

I wonder what poems come next
and what nations they will build.

Climbed poetic hills
Whistle blows as we proceed
With poetic drills,

Discovering what it means
to be a poet, a human.

First: life is never
about finding ourselves, it's
defining ourselves.

Mirrors never can reflect
the full truth of a poet.

Only the soul can.
The universal language
of the true poet.

Our words are bridges, ladders
antidotes, weapons, prayers.

Our words are breathing
pulsing on our tongues, alive
leaping from our mouths

to roost in nooks and crannies,
wings fluttering, faces singing

an early morning
wake-up call to the people
who are slumbering

In the depths of their white sheets,
poems and bodies rising.

Second: life don't exist
in a vacuum. Here we stand:
Writing for life's sake,

finding poetry in the
beauty of a baby step.

Rebellious teenage
footprints walking on language
creating fossils.

Creating something that lasts.
Building tomorrow, right now.

There is nothing slovenly in these young artists' ability to define and refine what it means to live a richly human life in a world that too often celebrates the inhumane. Sometimes in gentleness, sometimes with roughness, the arc of their poetry bends towards justice.

Todd Breyfogle, PhD, is Director of Seminars at the Aspen Institute.