The Good News of Poetry That Can Win the Day

--Liberal arts as life and death in the fate of the earth: the role of poetry of epic verve for a culture of hope

--A class assignment explores the literature of moxie

The news is not all discouraging. We hear from scientists that, in spite of the fact that the sun is scheduled to explode and incinerate earth, we have five billion years until then to figure out Plan B. This would seem to be time enough to reassure us; our great minds can get right on this. Jonathan Schell, in The Fate of the Earth, argues that the most profound threat to humans, and obstacle in our planning for Plan B, is despair. If we do not have hope, he argues, we wallow in the mires of Despondency, a state of apathy that renders our human imagination, creativity, courage and practical resourcefulness useless.

So how do we generate essential hope in our human capacity to address our problems? William Carlos Williams, known to many of us as the unrepentant kitchen rascal eating the cold plums in the refrigerator, wrote a poem ("To Asphodel, That Greeny Flower") which says, "My heart rouses, thinking to bring you news that concerns you and concerns many men." He says it is "difficult" to get the news in "despised" poems, "yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there."

Life and death -- this would seem to be a pretty large claim for what's at stake in poetry that he admits is both difficult and despised. Yet Williams would know of what he speaks. As a physician in his day job, an OB/GYN, he is dealing with actual life and death. At the end of the day, he goes home and writes and ponders what news could save us. It's in his clinical estimation that he prescribes poetry as Rx news. Poetry can keep our spirits resilient and able to sustain us -- literally, for a happy life -- even to live at all.

A poem by William Ernest Henley helps him survive and overcome a leg amputation, and keep Nelson Mandela's spirits up over twenty-seven years in prison, and help his strategy to unite his seemingly hopelessly polarized country by energizing the nation's rugby team. A poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson helps him survive the despair of a death of a friend, and in turns helps countless people in dire circumstances decide to move forward: " . . . made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield." Teddy Roosevelt's "The Man in the Arena" rouses our spirits: when we are battered and besieged, scorned and overlooked, we remember our strength. Reading Walt Whitman's and Emily Dickinson's ecstatic and defiant paeans to overcoming the limited, limiting vision of others that is not large enough for them, we realize what we have to contribute. We read Nikki Giovanni's "ego tripping," and realize "like a bird, I can fly." It's moxie, it's swagger and it's just the thing you need to go on, whether you are QB or coach of a football team that just had a humbling loss, or you have a frightening diagnosis, or face a job review or interview or community in crisis.

Thus we need, we heed, the kind of news that Williams' heart rouses to bring us.

Yet we tend to think that poetry is not all that practical. Life and death aside, admit it: if your child tells you she wants to be a poet, you're worried. Where did you go wrong? Your son is reading Shelley: this does not bode well, certainly not to a job with benefits. As a savvy professional who wants to be promoted in the business world, to matter to society, you don't want to waste time with a luxury we can't afford.

I am thinking of our national state of mind these days, with the discouraging news for world peace and prosperity across all the sections of the media, from government, health, military, economics and the "general welfare" of our citizenry. We feel like a Shakesperian king, with bad news coming in from every sector. I am worried we may be discouraged and slide into apathy. Therefore, I thought this was a good time to bring us news from our rising generation of the next decades of leadership.

For example, students in the Clark Honors College of the University of Oregon are required to write a senior thesis, defended as a public event, making the case for the significance of their original research. In other words, they have to present "news" that matters to society. The requirement is for a quality of writing and presentation that has "verve." I reflect that Stephen Pinker, well known for his challenges to academe on the quality of academic discourse, concludes that only a minority of academic scholarship is written with "verve and grace." What would the consequences be for our society if our learned citizens wrote in ways -- however difficult and despised -- with verve? I asked our students to identify examples of knowledge the world needs now that are expressed with verve, and I thought our readers would be interested -- and "heartened" -- to know what they found.

Each student took a synonym for "verve," including creative enthusiasm, vim vigor, energy, get up and go, vitality, vibrancy and related ideas of stylish moxie and swagger, including elan, panache and the elusive je ne sais quoi. I will come back to you with this news.

I think they may have their fingers on the pulse of what will save us. If news is going to matter to us in a way that encourages our hope, it has to speak to us in a convincing way. It has to rouse us, rouse our belief that indeed we have the ability to solve our problems. It has to energize us, increase our resilience and build our capacity to think and to imagine. It's all about hope, and with sufficient verve in how we speak to one another, we can create a public ethos of encouragement for problems facing us not only five billion years from now, but right now, where we each live. It makes sense that our world's leaders, in war and peace, civil and human rights and the environment, however beleaguered and overwhelmed, however dire things seem, however bleak and discouraging, find news in poetry that helps us summon the belief that we can turn things around: we can, as we say in Oregon Duck country, win the day.