Where to find solace in these days of disillusion? How to keep your head above water as the tide of self-interest from the political class rises and, contrary to the natural order, shows no signs of receding?
We live, of necessity, under tiers of government, but one that runs under all is the government of the tongue. It is the saving grace. The phrase is borrowed. It is the title of a collection of essays and lectures of the late Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney.
The government of the tongue is an encapsulation by Heaney of the inner world, of all that is not spoken of in politics and yet is the invisible hand on the tiller of our lives. You could call it poetry. You could, of course, call it worthless, but labelling such does not occlude its existence.
Politics is the business of government. Politics is also the business of power. The two are symbiotic. And the language that binds the pair is less reliant on the truth and more weighted on economies of scale. What a word means, and therefore what a promise, a commitment, a stance means, has a lifespan little more than a gnat. And, in some cases, much less. A week used to be a long time in politics. Now 24 hours is.
Half a century ago, John Lennon sang, “I’m sick and tired of hearing things,/From uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocrites,/All I want is the truth,/Just gimme some truth,/I’ve had enough of reading things,/By neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians,/All I want is the truth,/Just give us the truth.”
Many know the feeling. But Lennon may as well have been shouting at the clouds.
He may as well have been reading poetry.
There are lies, damn lies and then there’s statistics. Such as these from a report in The Washington Post a few years ago, citing a national Survey of Public Participation in the Arts:
“In 1992, 17 per cent of Americans had read a work of poetry at least once in the past year. Twenty years later that number had fallen by more than half, to 6.7 per cent. Since 2002, the share of poetry-readers has contracted by 45 per cent—resulting in the steepest decline in participation in any literary genre.”
The Post report noted that poetry was less popular than jazz or dance and half as popular as knitting.
Heaney would decry the attempt to quantify the unquantifiable. For after all, how can you capture the whistle in the wind?
And it is that whistle that is not hostage to the warp and pummel of competing shrill declamations and pronouncements; nor the bark and bite of dog whistlers, nor the sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Political conversations blow in and they blow out, exhausted and exhausting all. They mean everything for a time, and then evaporate. Just like trust.
It’s not elitism, Heaney’s way. It is the opposite – the common touch. It is about knowing that political conversation has a significance like that of surface storms that scudder across sea and soil. They blow in and they blow out, exhausted and exhausting all. They mean everything for a time, and then evaporate into the thinning air. Just like trust.
Words blown through a megaphone do not, despite their dispersal, make for a universal truth. But truth is a forlorn figure in the pursuit of power. Election campaigns amplify the isolation. Solitude stands while we are at war with ourselves over ownership not only of the higher ground, but all points to base camp and the valleys below.
About a decade ago, Heaney was asked if poetry had value in times of upheaval or crisis. He said: “If poetry and the arts do anything. They can fortify your inner life, your inwardness.”
A poet, and a supreme one at that like Heaney, would of course say that. But in such times as these, inner fortification is not only a defence against the pusillanimous, it is necessary to the inner life not only of each but all.
The Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, for whom Heaney had great admiration, when once asked how his country could seek a way forward from its past was fearful. ‘’I am afraid we may sink into idiocy.’’
Herbert, who died 20 years ago this July, is the par exemplar of marrying the poetical and the political. Writer Al Alvarez wrote in an introduction to Herbert’s Selected Poems:
“In Western Europe we take for granted that there is a fundamental split between poetry and politics. The problem is not that the twain can never meet but that they can do so only at a great cost. The complexity, tension and precision of modern poetry doesn’t go with the language of politics with its vague rhetoric and dependence on clichés. It amounts to the belief that political poetry, as poetry, must be relatively but debilitatingly simple-minded.’’
Herbert was the exception. To Alvarez, he created a “minority politics of sanity and survival”.
As Herbert said: “Maybe it is already too late, but I think we need to start a process of national education and get rid of our complexes. Our major enemies are now our national shortcomings: hypocrisy, self-love, megalomania.”
J.M. Coetzee has written of Herbert: “The body of Herbert’s poetry rests on one great secret that the censor does not know: the secret of what makes a classic … The classic does not belong to an ideal order, nor is it attained by adhering to one set of ideas or another. On the contrary, the classic is the human; or at least, it is what survives of the human.”
Our national security does not depend on a mega-department, a gargantuan monster of enforcement, it is reliant on acknowledging our shortcomings, of looking both the past and the present squarely, unblinkingly in the eye and saying, yes, that’s us.
Herbert saw the entwining of the soul of a person and the spirit of their nation as indivisible. “A subject for meditation/The arithmetic of compassion.” “We are despite everything/the guardians of our brothers.”
This is the language of fraternity. It transcends borders and ideologies. It speaks of the common touch of goodwill to all. Despite the government, this is the unbending truth of invisible government.