I have been thinking a great deal lately about the intersection of politics and poetry. Politics in the broadest sense: personal, urgent, affecting issues. Poems that address, challenge, and witness to political issues are important and necessary. There are lots of poets out there writing them. And, right now, I am not.
If I had to pick three abstract words to describe what I’ve been writing about this year, they would have to be “beauty,” “joy,” and “sadness.” Poems seeking for understanding and catharsis. Poems for beauty and healing.
Perhaps this is the other side of the coin from “political” poetry: the problems and issues and crises that need to be addressed leave us in great need of all of those things.
Art is and must be a process of grappling with the world. Therefore it engages with ugliness and the people who are trapped in it. It describes, not just prescribes. That’s a given. But that’s not all there is to it. Art is meant for something more. And it is not meant to become a celebration of ugliness simply because that’s what the artist sees and knows (a trap so much art in recent decades has fallen into.) So setting that whole issue and all its contingencies aside for the moment:
In his 1999 “Letter to Artists,” Pope St. John Paul II wrote, “The artist has a special relationship to beauty. In a very true sense it can be said that beauty is the vocation bestowed on him by the Creator in the gift of ‘artistic talent'” (par. 3).
A vocation to beauty. There is an unfortunate and wrongheaded tendency these days, that has been growing for a long, long time, to believe that only evil is interesting. I think of Tolstoy’s line: “All happy families are the same.” And therefore, it’s implied, boring. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Happiness is unique because persons are unique. Joy is interesting and compelling because it elevates, frees, and ennobles; it offers escape, opportunity, and change.
What makes us better? What discovers the best within us and outside us? What reveals and connects purpose, meaning? Art that acknowledges where we are in light of where we would like to be, or where we should be; art that helps provide closure and new understanding; art that builds paths; art that provides a catalyst for interior change; art that provides a place of escape. Perhaps this might be called an “aesthetic of joy.” That is what I have been interested in reading and writing in the last year. Although I have sometimes doubted its usefulness or necessity, when shouldn’t I be writing about “more important” things?, I am finally settling down in the awareness–without negating the place and importance of art with a “grittier” character and purpose–that not only is an aesthetic of joy necessary and important, it is the grain in the heartwood of the artist’s charter.
If art is a great forest stretching across a varied landscape, grown together of many different kinds of trees, thriving in different environments, in different ways, then I am beginning to realize and appreciate where I am, right now, in the forest, and grow with the kind of tree that I am, rather than trying to be too many different things at once, that I am not, right now, equipped to be.
I would like to explore the concept and practice of an “aesthetic of joy” in the future. I’ve only barely begun to put words to it, and I have lots to read (and reread) what many great authors have had to say about it.