Suzuki Roshi used to say that what was needed most in the monastery were people who were good at cleaning out the corners. The most perverting ideas are the ones that lie for years and years in the dark corners of our mind. Like spiders, they creep out while we are sleeping and spin their webs of illusion. Only when the mind is clean, in order, and uncluttered can the present moment be fully realized. If we hang onto past memories, trophies of our good-old-days, in time our mind and our home will be a museum instead of a place to encounter the present reality. The relationship between house cleaning, garden cleaning, and mental caretaking is not just symbolic. It is very direct.
Poetry Is a Conveyor of Truths
by Krista Tippett, host
A man at a coffeehouse in downtown Long Beach reads aloud to himself.
(photo: John Williams/Flickr)
When I listened to our Rumi show back in December, I was struck with new force by Rumi’s notion of “the value of perplexity.” Perplexity is a great word I’d like to use more often. It’s something more nuanced than confusion, more substantive than anxiety. It describes the way many of us feel at this moment in time in the life of the world, I think, and also on a more intimate level at this time of year.
We’re making sense of what’s been, reckoning with that, and also feeling perplexed (which is not the same as hopeless) as we look forward. I was tired at the end of last year and I’m aware of that in many around me too. And the cold and snow in the place I inhabit encourage an animal urge to get under the covers and close one’s eyes.
My interview with Elizabeth Alexander (audio above, mp3) encourages this slowing down and peering inside, as well as seriousness and playfulness with words, and a different kind of reflection than all the popular “end of year” analyses and lists. I’ve become more and more aware, in my years of doing this program, of poetry as a conveyor of truths that cannot be captured in mere fact. Poetry, Elizabeth Alexander also reminds us, is one of the great ways we have to tell our stories, the stories of life. It is a carrier of questions to sit with. There is this question, for example, that ends her poem titled "Ars Poetica #100: I Believe": “Are we not of interest to each other?”
A question like this could be as powerful a tool as any we possess for reorienting our approach to each other in our private and public spaces. So was the question she invoked in a political moment at the presidential inauguration in 2009: “What if the mightiest word is love?”
As Elizabeth Alexander and I frankly discuss, these have been hard months since that historic and exhilarating day on the Washington Mall. But this, for her, makes that question more pointed, more necessary — not less so. During one exchange, I wonder if a discussion about poetry might be a luxury when the crises of our time for many are about basic matters of safety and survival — a job to go to, food to eat, medicine to buy, a roof over one’s head. She comes back at my question with a poem Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in a crucible of poverty and insecurity: “(C)ould a dream sent up through onion fumes/And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall/Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms?”
I have the feeling that we need poetry but sometimes without even knowing it. I’ve noticed how distinctively magnetic it is for us and our listeners when we draw out a Joanna Macy, or hear Wendell Berry, or now sit with Elizabeth Alexander. Poetic language is magnetic and humanizing in a class of its own. But I’m aware too that poetry also demands a quality of attention and vulnerability that other forms of language don’t, which may be why we don’t reach for it as often as we might.
I’ve been reaching for it lately. And I’d like to share a few of the poems that have spoken to me at this turn of year.
To begin, two poems by Elizabeth Alexander. The first I asked her to read is actually the end of a long poem called "Neonatology," about the birth of her oldest son. She paired it with a second, "Autumn Passage," which is about the death of her mother-in-law. This loss unfolded in that same period as she was becoming a mother. “Autumn Passage” is on my mind today, as I have news of the impending death of the mother of one of my dearest friends. (The full poems and her readings can be heard by clicking the links above.)
I’ve also been pondering Rainier Maria Rilke’s "Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower," which Joanna Macy translated and read for us back in September. And, finally, a classic, Mary Oliver’s "Wild Geese." This is poetry, as my beloved producer Kate Moos (a poet herself) has pointed out, that has saved lives.
And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t encourage you to pick up a copy of Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems, 1990-2010 by Elizabeth Alexander. This book of poems collects the work of this major American poet, and brings us new poems as well. From the seminal work of The Venus Hottentot through "Praise Song for the Day," her poem for Barack Obama’s inauguration, Elizabeth Alexander celebrates the deep moments poetry can illumine.
Weighing WikiLeaks’ “Uncomfortable Truths” and Julian Assange’s “Scientific Journalism”
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Julian Assange of WikiLeaks speaks at the Hack in the Box security conference in Kuala Lumpur in 2009. (photo: Daryl Yeoh / Flickr, released under a Creative Commons 2.0 license)
WikiLeaks' founder Julie Assange published an editorial in The Australian yesterday. In "Don’t shoot messenger for revealing uncomfortable truths" he presents WikiLeaks as a moral, journalistic enterprise whose ideological origins trace back to Assange’s Australian ancestral roots. He writes:
"I grew up in a Queensland country town where people spoke their minds bluntly. They distrusted big government as something that could be corrupted if not watched carefully. … These things have stayed with me. WikiLeaks was created around these core values. The idea, conceived in Australia, was to use internet technologies in new ways to report the truth."
Assange goes on to describe WikiLeaks’ approach as “scientific journalism” — meaning that anyone can read a news story and access it’s original source materials to verify its journalistic accuracy.
Assange’s view of himself as a truth-crusading underdog is not universally shared. Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, argues that Assange’s world view is juvenile and oversimplified. Appearing last week on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, Rose, a former National Security Council official under President Clinton, opined:
"This guy is basically a crank who is an essentially old-fashioned anarchist…which is essentially an adolescent world view — that all power and all authority is bad. Well, you know what? Not all authority and power is bad. And these cables that have been revealed show actually U.S. diplomats trying to do the right thing in generally intelligent ways. So ironically it proves the opposite of what Assange actually thinks."
David Brooks echoed Rose’s perspective in his recent New York Times column, "The Fragile Community":
"Far from respecting authority, Assange seems to be an old-fashioned anarchist who believes that all ruling institutions are corrupt and public pronouncements are lies. For someone with his mind-set, the decision to expose secrets is easy… But for everyone else, it’s hard."
Brooks goes on to criticize WikiLeaks for undermining the global diplomatic conversation — that when truths are leaked, trust is compromised and relationships suffer.
Is WikiLeaks in fact a constructive vehicle for revealing “uncomfortable truths,” as Assange argues? How are or aren’t we better off as a global community now that these diplomatic cables are Internet-accessible to all? In what ways has this latest round of leaks done more good than harm or more harm than good? Or is it too early to reach a conclusion?
The problem was not a shortage of sincerity but an excess of zeal in which self-belief overrode objective judgment.
— —Jonathan Aitken, commenting in The Guardian on former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and his role in the lead-up to, and the aftermath of, the Iraq war. Aitken says that “once the Chilcot inquiry establishes the truth about Iraq, we should be quick not to judge, but to forgive.”
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Truth is shattered into a thousand pieces when God throws it down to earth.
— Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, citing a kernel of midrash from her new book, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious
What a rich, evocative title for a book. I’m enjoying it immensely!
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor