Sunday, January 29, 2012

Poetry and politics intersect

Philoctetes, by James Barry

Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

History says, Don't hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there's fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
It means once in a lifetime
That justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

from The Cure at Troy by Seamus Heaney

The Cure at Troy is Heaney's version of Sophocles' play Philoctetes, a Greek hero who was left wounded by the Greeks on an island where he was forgotten about until the final stage of the Siege of Troy. Philoctetes owns an invincible bow that the Greeks need to win the Trojan War, so they are forced to return to the island and ask for Philoctetes's support.

The back of my copy of the book says this about Heaney's work: Heaney's reading of Philoctetes is particularly responsive to the Greek playwright's understanding of the relations between public and private morality. "The Cure at Troy" dramatizes the conflict between personal integrity and political expediency, and it further explores ways in which the victims of injustice can become as devoted to the contemplation of their wounds as the perpetrators are to the justifications of their system.

I've read this part of this poem over and over during the last twenty years, and each time it speaks to me in a different way. During my first reading, the third and fourth stanzas leaped up and out, resonating with me as I began my arduous journey with Sophie -- Believe in miracles/ and cures and healing wells -- then those perfectly beautiful rhymed Call miracle self-healing:/The utter, self-revealing/Double-take of feeling. 

What's so fantastic about poetry, and this piece especially, is how it speaks to both one's private experience and to the larger culture. I am sure that we read into the words, taking what we want or wish or understand -- at least in our own very personal lives --  but I also think the poetry speaks strongly to our current political climate, doesn't it? Wouldn't it be amazing if our political leaders would stop talking about family values, money, American exceptionalism and all that bullshit and, rather, listen to a poet like Heaney who is able to articulate what it means to be human, to be working towards a common good, to be rhyming hope and history and justice?

(Yeah, I know. My head is in the clouds and I'm flying my poetry freak flag over here.)


  1. Elizabeth- Thanks for sharing the poem and your musing about it. Feeds my poet soul.

  2. Your poetry freak flag is my positivity freak flag today - I love it. Common good, seems like so much common sense, and seems so absent from everything from the political stage to the playground - at least where I live. But recently I have turned a corner on it and I'm trying to take more personal responsibility for it all -- seems to be helping.

  3. OH YES! I so entirely heartily agree with this. Thank you.

  4. "So hope for a great sea-change
    On the far side of revenge.
    Believe that a further shore
    Is reachable from here.
    Believe in miracles
    And cures and healing wells."

    and today, this part is speaking to me... calling me to continue in hope.

  5. I couldn't agree more about our political leaders. I always wonder why they drone on about the things they do. And I haven't read any Seamus Heaney before now, so I appreciate the poem! I must follow up with some of his other work...

  6. Well, it would be something if that could happen but I seriously doubt it would mean a thing to most of the politicians running for the Big Offices these days.
    This is the sad truth of it.

  7. Absolutely. This is where I think we choose our humanity. Do we listen to the poets or the zealots?

    Thank you for feeding my current fascination with poetry, by the way. I've been sucked up in the world of novels and short stories (and so much non-fiction) for so long that I've almost forgotten how much truth is out there. Since you commented on my post I've been addicted to listening to the poetry archive's recordings of famous poets. Love to you. xoxo

    Chrissy ~ (Open ID is being mean, so I'm using my Far Away Login)

  8. I have trouble imagining politicians reading anything at all.

  9. Not warrior-poets, but poet leaders. Yes, I love this idea. Yes yes yes.



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