I hold out an assumption – that appointing a poet to serve as an ambassador, as an emissary of a country’s good will and good intentions, suggests a level of understanding about the affect of poetry on the sensitivity and wisdom of the individual, as well as on a nation’s sense of itself.
Can writing or reading a few lines of imagery, whether about the goings on in the natural world or in the private world of the poet, make a difference in how an individual might represent the interests of everyone living in her country? Apparently some places in the world have thought so. Notably, there was Moto Owanto, one of the few female Japanese diplomats of the previous century.
In her company, and possibly more well known – Ivo Andrić, (Yugoslavian novelist and poet. Winner of Nobel Prize for Literature. Served as ambassador to Germany), Pablo Neruda, (Chilean poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Served as ambassador to France), Octavio Paz, (Mexican writer and winner of Nobel Prize for Literature. Served as ambassador to India), Giorgos Seferis, (Greek poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Served as ambassador to the United Nations and the United Kingdom), and my personal favorite, Gabriela Mistral, (Chilean poet, educator and feminist who was the first, and so far only, Latin American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, which she did in 1945 for her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world).
Not to mention perhaps the best known – Geoffrey Chaucer, as well as, Saint-John Perse, Miguel Ángel Asturias, and Czesław Miłosz.
Each of these poets did what that made them well suited to serve as political emissaries to the world? Lent eloquence to our daily fumblings? Assemble a few well-selected words into something original, musical, insightful, surprising? Whatever it is we do in our wanderings over the vast curve of our fragile blue planet, our home, poets slow us down, give grace to our movements, and ask us to pause and to notice. Wouldn’t the best hopes for what might go on between countries be the same? Could that be why some nations evince the wisdom to send their poets out as ambassadors, diplomats, spokespersons and interpreters?
What surprised me most about being in Moscow, St. Petersburg (still called Stalingrad while I was there), and Tblisi in Georgia, was but for the language, I could imagine I was strolling down Nicolette Mall in Minneapolis on a sunny July afternoon. Body shapes were more varied than the stereotype I brought with me about “the Russians.” Clothing looked pretty much like what one sees on a warm day in America. Plenty of automobile traffic. In short, if I was going to look for differences, I needed to find a way to go deeper. The seemingly national love of poetry I discovered all around me while in Russia and Georgia was one avenue I thought to explore.
Poetry speaks about what is common to all of us, about what it means to be human. Each of us could do well by being reminded of our humanness, and what we hold in common with every other living person. Perhaps poets, and their poetry, help us toward that end. What remains to be seen, then, is whether enough nations, aware of our common humanity, decide to send in the poets.
You don’t make art, you find it.
Charles Simic, Dime-Store Alchemy
No matter the class, no matter the grade, the weather or the time of year – we begin each day by writing. Lights low, silence except for the ticking of the clock and the soft rasping of pen and pencils. Ten minutes, at least, of this exercise each day. As the my students accept this routine, as they learn the ropes of this new skill, you can see them grow hungry for it. After a while, I no longer need to ask them to take out their journals and copy down the day’s title. They do this by habit and begin to stir in their seats if the directions are too lengthy. Their lovely bodies bend closer and closer to the page as they write, connecting with a part of themselves they knew nothing about before snowflake sized spallings from a cave painting in central Africa, like the petrified wings of a dazzling prehistoric insect, begin fluttering down from the ceiling.
John, nearly blinded in fifth grade by a virus, writes about the day his Korean mother, tearfully putting him on a plane for America and for what she hoped would be a better life, sewed her picture into the lining of his trousers. “I haven’t thought about this much since then, since I was four,” he confides in the class before he reads. Somewhere in the middle of his reading, holding the journal page close to his eyes, he stumbles across the words – “I never cried about this” – and surrenders to those long held tears. We are all stunned, paralyzed by what we are witnessing. Then Keisha, who just a few days ago risked reading about wishing she had known what it was like to have a father, hands John a kleenex, rests her hand on his shoulder and with the unschooled instinct of a Maria Cure’ or a Gabriela Mistral, reads her own day’s entry.
The turning of the earth and of the seasons, the drawing in of the breath and the exhaling again out into the universe, the longing for crocuses at the end of winter… We all live by rhythms, by cycles and by the expectations these natural events create in us. The classroom is no different than the rest of the world. It is the place we learn to be human.
The prose poem, “Journals” is by George Roberts, from Elfriede’s Cat, Notes of a High School Literature Teacher, published by The Scarecrow Press, (c) 2003. Reprinted by permission.