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Why literature must be part of the language of recovery from crisis

Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “The End and the Beginning” outlines a plan of recovery after the war: the Polish Nobel Laureate’s vision of how we return to a sense of normality is pertinent to our times, when the COVID-19 pandemic has left the world in ruins and people in an unfathomed reality. The poem, inter alia, mentions bridges—literal ones that we must cross to resume activity, but it’s not lost on the reader that bridges are also spiritual, emotional, and cultural. The bridge she constructs though, is linguistic: it rests on the pylons of ten stanzas built with the word “someone”—a person—who takes on various roles in the process of fashioning a new life. This process begins with cleaning up the destruction and ends with acknowledging the sense of wonder: “someone” must also be tasked with “gazing at the clouds”.

Szymborska, the poet, provides society with the word “fitly spoken” as in Proverbs 25: 11-12, where “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear.” Her language incorporates, and reflects on, all aspects of human endeavors that are focused on recovery. It is this function of literature to articulate the right word at the right time, and to be that “wise reprover,” that makes the world go round, as the old saying goes.

Recovery takes many forms, the most obvious being physical, mental, and economic. But there must also be a recovery and a newly-discovered sense of values that put the human struggle in perspective and bring the world community to a strongly-held respect for life.

Recovery takes many forms, the most obvious being physical, mental, and economic. But there must also be a recovery and a newly-discovered sense of values that put the human struggle in perspective and bring the world community to a strongly-held respect for life. For many of us the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the foundations of trust in government, has torn apart families, has left long-term physical and mental scars on individuals, and exposed the worst aspects of our character which are greed, complacency, and egoism. Yet for many others the sense of self-sacrifice and resilience have come alive, sometimes for the first time. The entire planet has been affected by this pandemic and no value has been left unturned. Literature bears testimony in deep and feeling language to our upheaval and determination to survive.

Those of us who experienced social, personal, and political duress have a story to tell that is concerned specifically with language. We understand our situation—and our human condition in uncertain times—in words. The role of language in the destruction of values as well as in their recovery cannot be overstated. Poetry records and expresses, and it keeps us alert to the spiritual consequences of our experiences. Poems and stories help us sense our place in the world and our relationship with others, they illuminate our capacity for gratitude, awe, and wonder. They provide the language to search into the mysteries of nature, and open to us surprising ways to find comfort and the strength to move beyond our personal circumstances. As Seamus Heaney’s poem “The Rainstick” wisely says, poetry teaches us to “Listen now again.”

Writers need to develop a language that seeks to illuminate the dilemmas we face today as a society. They must imagine creative forms that engage with pressing questions: what is ethical literature? What is public emotion? How does the writer create language that affects the conduct of the society? Is disaffection a tenable position in today’s world that is driven by social media and celebrity cult? The position of the writer as an outsider somehow absolved of any responsibility towards published language—meant for public consumption—is no longer viable. What are the ethical parameters under which the writer (as any researcher) probes, questions, qualifies and quantifies language and its effect on public emotion? How can literature meet culture and civilization in a meaningful way? Should the teaching of literature include a segment on practical ethics and literary language? Does thinking offer consolation? Does literature prepare us for life?

The position of the writer as an outsider somehow absolved of any responsibility towards published language—meant for public consumption—is no longer viable.

These questions are necessary in the process of re-orientation and in fashioning the narrative and the language of recovery that must include knowledge derived from other arts, social sciences, medicine, and pure science. Because the COVID-19 pandemic has affected all aspects of human health and our perspectives on life as a global community, the future must be approached with integrated thinking. Literature has a crucial role to play by offering stories that resist easy generalizations and inspire with that “word, fitly spoken”.

Among the poems that express that sense of rebirth with a newly-gained appreciation for the fragility of life, freedom, and love is Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”, which contains the thrill necessary to take the first step forward:

”Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,

Healthy, free, the world before me,

The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.”

It is in this spirit of beginning a fresh journey, and having agency over that journey, that we must search the language of poetry, as we chart our future. I offer here a poem about my own sense of a new beginning.

First of May

                    For Kathy

 Io retornai da la santissima onda

rifatto sì come piante novelle

rinovellate di novella fronda,

puro e disposto a salire a le stelle.

–Dante, Purgatorio, Canto XXXIII 140-145

 

One week of furious flowering, when forsythia

burns in gardens, magnolias open like butterflies,

the ground fills with blue wild pansies, violets,

and then the winds come stealing all the petals

with their scented spells: the grass, a meadow

of rhododendron blooms early in the morning,

the edges of the garden, coloured. Spring

is passing once again, leaving chicks in nests,

us outside planting just as lilacs begin to bloom,

and summer shade of maples leafing.

 

I try to hold my thoughts to all these images

like I lift fresh curtains up to hang on windows,

where light will pass through, sheltering the eye

from too much sun but letting it also see outside,

where forsythia changes from yellow to green.

The Orthodox Easter Lent at the end,

praying with my children over new seeds we planted

and the robins blessed with their songs,

I emerged from the holiest waves

restored even as new trees were  

renewed with new leaves,

pure and prepared to rise to the stars.*

 

*my translation of the Dante’s verses quoted in the epigraph

Feature image by Magnus Lunay on Unsplash

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