Last year I spoke to a college writing class and, perhaps unsuccessfully, tried to relate to its students the relevance of poetry in their lives. It can be present, I told them, in the lyrics from their iPods or the taps of their Twitter posts. I told them at some time or other they will find themselves needing to say something important, to answer a question, to offer advice to someone, to say the right thing, to a child, to a friend, a spouse, to someone they’ve fallen in love with, to anyone, and in that moment they will want to be a poet, to say something that can be held, remembered, appreciated, something with meaning beyond its words.
But I don’t think anything quite got their attention like one little story, of a farmer and poet who decided several years ago to let it be known that he was fed up with the choices for governor and that he simply wasn’t voting in the primary out of protest.
We all know people who don’t vote. But when this man, Wendell Berry, said he was sitting an election out, people fretted. Many were upset. Even some who understood were upset. They wrote letters to the newspaper editor. They talked about it on the radio.
One missing vote out of millions, yet it mattered. Hands went up. Why such a big deal?
Why, indeed? It’s 2011. Everyone has a blog. What can an old fellow without an i-Anything or a Facebook account say that should stop a state to pause and think? It was a big deal, I told them, because of the voice he has become and, yes, the life he has lived but more even than that, because of the words he has sewn.
You never know how much weight your words can carry until you hang all your mind and heart on them, particularly when they are rooted to where you stand.
Last night, the writer, poet and farmer from Henry County slept on the floor outside the Kentucky governor’s office with a handful of others as part of a protest of mountaintop removal for coal mining.
I’m not going to talk about coal. Berry and his companions are far more effective voices on their own behalf, and the governor has no trouble laying out the other side. The coal debate has plenty of fuel.
I want to gather around another fire, this notion that Berry, and Kentucky authors Silas House, Erik Reece and others, could wander into the governor’s office, ask to speak about something, and touch off a debate.
I work for a newspaper. “Print is dead,” I hear almost daily. The words I write are not even called by their name, but have been given the label “content,” as if they were toothpaste or flour or any other substance that fills a container.
“Print is dead” they tell me, and it is hard to argue given the mounting cultural evidence, even the financial realities. It’s easy to forget, in fact, that there are realities even beyond those.
I don’t know who will win in the final analysis in Mr. Berry’s attempt at a dignified dialogue. But it is evidence of something else, in any event: Regardless of whether print is dead, words are not.
A farmer-poet goes to the governor’s office talks, sits, sleeps, pulls out a copy of “The Tempest” and reads, and a state turns its head and eyes, if only for a moment, though one would hope for longer.
Wrote Shakespeare, in that very play:
Faith, sir, you need not fear. When we were boys,
Who would believe that there were mountaineers
Dew-lapp’d like bulls, whose throats had hanging at ’em
Wallets of flesh? or that there were such men
Whose heads stood in their breasts? which now we find
Each putter-out of five for one will bring us
Good warrant of.
And, perhaps, a few more words, these by a Kentuckian, who took up the subject of a mountain, and trying to see clearly. From Robert Penn Warren:
In the Mountains
II. Fog [A]
White, white, luminous but
Blind — fog on the
Mountain, and the mountains
Gone, they are not here,
And the sky gone. My foot
Is set on what I
Do not see. Light rises
From the cold incandescence of snow
Not seen, and the world, in blindness,
Glows. Distance is
Obscenity. All, all
Is here, no other where.
The heart, in this silence, beats.