Easier said than done. Covid, quarantine, divisive cultural conditions, all exacerbated by shrill and reductive social media discourse, have made teaching our civic calling to justice more challenging than ever. And more urgent.
“Poetry is having (its) moment,” claims Morgan Hines, in a recent USA Today feature. Her article reports the “moment” owes to the pandemic, to a racial reckoning, and to poets Amanda Gorman and Rupi Kaur. Joy Harjo, Poet Laureate of the United States, thinks poetry may be experiencing a renaissance “coming up from the char,” Hines writes.
I am grateful for a reported surge in popular interest for poetry because I have been using selected poems to teach vocation concepts for many years. Most students think they are poetry-averse, but the right poem, selected and presented as accessible entry to a vocation topic, can be an effective way to complement teaching about vocation.
Biden’s inauguration occasioned another flurry of internet chatter and reflections on his often used quotation, “when hope and history rhyme,” from Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, a version of Sophocles Philoctetes. Making “hope and history rhyme” has always s been an inspiring phrase for me, but, as I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the literary genre of tragedy and its usefulness to vocation, I was struck by how apt tragedy is for educating us in the type of civic engagement that lines of Heaney and the young poet Amanda Gorman call us to.
We might start to answer the “why” by listening to what students tell us about their experience with poetry prior to college. Many students have been taught a Romantic expressivist theory—that poetry is the passionate expression of the poet’s personal emotions—and thus think of the lyric as the poetic norm, whether they recognize it or not. The simplest marker of a lyric would be the “I” who expresses feelings or perceptions about human existence—William Wordsworth’s speaker, reclining and lamenting “what man has made of man” while feeling pleasantly sad in a birdsong-filled grove, for example (“Lines written in Early Spring”). Students don’t often consider that the “I” is a construct, that the emotions expressed are not unfiltered outpourings onto the page, or that poets revise and revise and revise to achieve, among other things, rhythm and sound patterning. So how might teaching students to consider the lyric differently contribute to our discussions with them about vocation?
What Seamus Heaney’s “The Redress of Poetry” can teach us about rhyming vocation with our historical moment
When Joe Biden recently quoted Seamus Heaney’s famous exhortation to “make hope and history rhyme,” scores of subsequent articles commented on the fondness of Biden and other world leaders, writers, and activists for quoting this succinct and compelling civic calling that has echoed from the fall of Troy into the 21st century. As Biden’s speech sent Heaney’s call to visionary civic engagement trending on social media, I went back to Heaney’s 1995 essay “The Redress of Poetry,” a delightful, accessible, and wise essay first delivered as an Oxford lecture, that thinks through poetry’s purpose and the competing artistic and social obligations that the calling of poet enjoins upon those who answer it. As I read, I simply substituted “vocation” for “poetry,” and I came away convinced that Heaney has much to teach myself and my students about rhyming our vocations with our historical moment.
In an essay entitled “Place and Displacement: Reflections on Some Recent Poetry from Northern Ireland,” Seamus Heaney observes of the people of Ulster that they live in two places: “Each person in Ulster lives first in the Ulster of the actual present, and then in one or other Ulster of the mind.” Just as the two-mindedness of Northern Ireland shaped Heaney’s vocation as a poet, so the conflicts inherent in my native place and upbringing—a tension between the Trailer Park and the Ivory Tower—have fundamentally shaped my vocation and its trajectory. Indeed, my life could well be encapsulated by the only two diplomas I’d ever hang on my office wall if I ever got around to decorating my office, my GED and my PhD. Between these two lie my vocation.
“Whatever is given,” says Nobel prize winning poet Seamus Heaney, “can always be reimagined.” For the past six years I’ve taken students to Northern Ireland (as well as the Republic of Ireland), and each time I have two thoughts. First, nothing seems less able to help than the imagination. Bombs, shootings, riots, marches. Violent murals, omnipresent flags, banners, and painted curbs (red, white, and blue in Loyalist areas, green, orange, and white in Republican areas) all of which serve as warnings to the zone of loyalties one is entering. Then there are the peace walls, the ironically named concrete and barbed wire monstrosities erected by the British army to keep neighbors from murdering each other. “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?”
My second thought is that nothing is more urgently needed than imaginative push back. In his essay “Frontiers of Writing,” collected in The Redress of Poetry,Heaney (with a little help from American poet Wallace Stevens) voices an astounding call to exercise the civic imagination on behalf of the common good. Heaney says of the Loyalist majority in Northern Ireland that “everything and everybody would be helped were they to make their imagination press back against the pressure of reality and re-enter the whole country of Ireland imaginatively, if not constitutionally” (202). Because Northern Ireland and the work of Seamus Heaney have taught me so much about the power and limits of the imagination, my mind drifted to them during Dr. Robert Franklin’s closing plenary at the NetVUE gathering in Louisville last month, in which he argued for the imagination as a virtue to be practiced in leadership and institutions in the face of the challenges confronting America (challenges enumerated by Dr. Rebecca Chopp in her opening plenary). As I listened, I found myself wondering: Could America be helped if we began to believe that meaningful change could at least begin with the imagination? Could I persuade students that imaginative resistance and push back is itself a vocation? What happens when we think about the imagination as a confrontation with possibility?