April is National Poetry Month, and we’re celebrating by featuring civic poetry from new and familiar voices. All month, we’ll be posting poems and discussing what it means to be civic through the art of words. Join us on Twitter at #civicpoetry.
Poetry is the most honest language I hear today. It can be unbearably honest. Such honesty is why even modest poems are useful — better a fumbling effort at truth than a slickly packaged lie — and good one’s indispensable. Against the sybaritic images of advertising that daily wash over us, against the sententious rhetoric of politics, poetry stands as “the expression of faith in the integrity of the senses and of the imagination.” (W.S. Merwin’s description). The poets I have met would be incapacitated if they did not write from a place of truth. Revelation is their reason for being.
If that were the only reason for poetry, it would be enough. In accepting the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature, Czeslaw Milosz said: “Our planet that gets smaller every year, with its fantastic proliferation of mass media, is witnessing a process that escapes definition, characterized by a refusal to remember.” A refusal to remember. Yet memory is critical if a people are not to be at the mercy of the powers-that-be, if they are to have something against which to measure what the partisans and propagandists tell them today. Memory is critical if, as democracy requires, we are to make midcourse corrections in the affairs of state and our personal behavior. — Bill Moyers
Our first offering comes from the Moyers archive: Wendell Berry’s “A Poem on Hope.”
A Poem on Hope
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
for hope must not depend on feeling good
and there’s the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
of the future, which surely will surprise us,
and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
anymore than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.
Because we have not made our lives to fit
our places, the forests are ruined, the fields, eroded,
the streams polluted, the mountains, overturned. Hope
then to belong to your place by your own knowledge
of what it is that no other place is, and by
your caring for it, as you care for no other place, this
knowledge cannot be taken from you by power or by wealth.
It will stop your ears to the powerful when they ask
for your faith, and to the wealthy when they ask for your land
and your work. Be still and listen to the voices that belong
to the stream banks and the trees and the open fields.
Find your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground underfoot.
The world is no better than its places. Its places at last
are no better than their people while their people
continue in them. When the people make
dark the light within them, the world darkens.
Watch Bill Moyers in conversation with Wendell Berry.
Share your thoughts on this poem by tweeting #civicpoetry.