In Praise of Poets

Poets have given their lives for different reasons. Cinna the poet was killed by a Roman mob because they mistook him for Cinna the Conspirator, one of those behind the murder of Julius Caesar. The Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca was executed by a firing squad of six pro-Franco thugs who murdered hundreds of suspected leftwingers in the summer of 1936 during the early stages of the Spanish Civil War. Four prominent Jewish poets were part of the thirteen prominent Jewish writers and cultural leaders who were executed on false charges of espionage and treason in the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow on August 12, 1952. The Islamic Revolutionary Tribunal of Iran found the popular poet Hashem Shaabani and 13 other people guilty of “waging war on God” and promoting “corruption on earth”. All these people were hanged on 27 January, 2014. Shaabani sums up the madness in his poem, “Seven Reasons Why I Should Die”-

For seven days they shouted at me
You are waging war on Allah!
 Saturday, because you are an Arab!

Sunday, well, you are from Ahvaz

Monday, remember you are Iranian

Tuesday: You mock the sacred Revolution

Wednesday, didn’t you raise your voice for others?

Thursday, you are a poet and a bard

Friday: You’re a man, isn’t that enough to die?”

Not all poets who espouse social causes and speak against injustice are necessarily murdered. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote love poems as well as angry poems, but was loved, revered as an artist as well as a politician. Here’s an example of his verse, “The Dictators” –

An odor has remained among the sugarcane:
a mixture of blood and body, a penetrating á
petal that brings nausea.
Between the coconut palms the graves are full
of ruined bones, of speechless death-rattles.
The delicate dictator is talking
with top hats, gold braid, and collars.
The tiny palace gleams like a watch
and the rapid laughs with gloves on
cross the corridors at times
and join the dead voices
and the blue mouths freshly buried.
The weeping cannot be seen, like a plant
whose seeds fall endlessly on the earth,
whose large blind leaves grow even without light.
Hatred has grown scale on scale,
blow on blow, in the ghastly water of the swamp
, with a snout full of ooze and silence

Neruda’s protégé, the Mexican poet Octavio Paz also won love and adulation through his poetry even though, in abandoning unthinking Communist dogma, Octavio drove a wedge between himself and many members of the Mexican intelligentsia. They viewed Octavio Paz as betraying the goals of the Left. Václav Havel, the Czech poet, wrote great poetry and was also a great political leader. In “It is I Who Must Begin” he writes –

It is I who must begin.
Once I begin, once I try —
here and now,
right where I am,
not excusing myself
by saying things
would be easier elsewhere,
without grand speeches and
ostentatious gestures,
but all the more persistently
— to live in harmony
with the “voice of Being,” as I
understand it within myself
— as soon as I begin that,
I suddenly discover,
to my surprise, that
I am neither the only one,
nor the first,
nor the most important one
to have set out
upon that road.

Whether all is really lost
or not depends entirely on
whether or not I am lost.

Make what you will of Havel’s words. But, for all injustices inflicted on poets and artists over the ages, there are moments of redemption for humanity. This morning, a beautiful Alberta morning in Canada, I woke up to choral music coming from the Vatican, celebrating the canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II. It was to me one such moment of redemption. John XXIII and John Paul II were great human beings, now saints of the Catholic Church. But John Paul II was also a gifted poet. For me, and I hope for poets everywhere, he is also a poet who achieved sainthood. A poet saint for all ages! I end today with an excerpt from the poetry collection of Pope John Paul II, “Roman Triptych: Meditations” published in Rome in 2003:

I stand at the entrance to the Sistine –
Perhaps all this could be said more simply
in the language of the “Book of Genesis”.
But the Book awaits the image –
And rightly so. It was waiting for its Michelangelo.
The One who created “saw” – saw that “it was good”.
“He saw,” and so the Book awaited the fruit of “vision”.

O all you who see, come –
I am calling you, all “beholders” in every age.
I am calling you, Michelangelo.

Marina Keegan

I wish to write about Marina Keegan today not only because April is National Poetry Month, but also because Marina’s life reminds me of a sad and lyrical sonnet – brief but deeply moving. I wish I had known her, but I didn’t.

Marina (Yale Class of 2012) was a true champion of the arts, not just in her personal orientation, but also as an activist. In fact, her life embodies the universal struggle so many of us face in life, between meaning and money. She opted for the former.


In my youth, I believe I felt like she did. The difference was that I lacked her courage and conviction as I moved through the years. Marina, a prolific writer, actress and activist, died in a car accident in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in May of 2012, five days after her graduation from Yale. She was 22. Announcing her death, the Yale Daily News wrote: “At Yale, Keegan distinguished herself as a leader across disciplines: in addition to writing and starring in several campus plays, Keegan served as president of the Yale College Democrats, and last fall sparked a campus discussion on careers in finance and consulting that ultimately spread to other Ivy League campuses and the pages of the New York Times.”

So, even as we do not for a moment disparage those who choose careers in science, medicine, law, engineering or commerce, we pay homage to the brave souls who opt to serve the arts – as poets, writers, artists, musicians – and the certain struggles such choices entail.

As I write these words, I am drawn irresistibly to the life and work of one of our beloved authors, Evelyn Mattern (“Ordinary Places, Sacred Spaces”, Bayeux, 2005). Mattern, a poet, author, mystic, activist and member of Sisters for Christian Community, died in 2003 at Sacred Heart Home in her native Philadelphia. Mattern’s friends gathered at United Church of Chapel Hill, N.C., for a memorial service to tell stories about the woman who was a champion of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue, and who devoted her life to working for justice and peace.

Friends joked that Mattern was better known for campaigns that ended in failure. A front-page tribute to her in The (Raleigh) News & Observer was headlined: “Triumphs lie in fights, not wins.” We end this homage to poets and writers with words from one of Marina’s poems: “I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short,”