I have to be honest and say that, in the light of yesterday’s US Election result, I am tempted to fuel the weariness I described earlier in the week with a combustible mix of sadness, incredulity and despair.
Instead, I choose to remind myself of what I consider to be my vocation, however ‘practically useless’ that feels on a day like today, with the words of the late Seamus Heaney, in what is my favourite of his essays, ‘The Government of the Tongue’, from his book of the same name. This is how the essay closes, with what I think is one of the great statements of faith in poetry’s scope, to use Sylvia Plath’s word, to ‘govern’ how we live our lives:
Here is the great paradox of poetry and of the imaginative arts in general. Faced with the brutality of the historical onslaught, they are practically useless. Yet they verify our singularity, they strike out the ore of self which lies at the base of every individuated life. In one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil – no lyric has ever stopped a tank. In another sense it is unlimited. It is like the writing in the sand in the face of which accusers and accused are left speechless and renewed.
[Poetry] does not say to the accusing crowd or to the helpless accused, ‘Now a solution will take place’, it does not propose to be instrumental or effective. Instead, in the rift between what is going to happen and whatever we would wish to happen, poetry holds attention for a space, functions not as distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves.
This is what gives poetry its governing power. At its greatest moments it would attempt, in Yeats’s phrase, to hold in a single thought reality and justice. Yet even then its function is not essentially supplicatory or transitive. Poetry is more a threshold than a path, one constantly approached and constantly departed from, at which reader and writer undergo in their different ways the experience of being at the same time summoned and released.
Seamus Heaney, from The Government of the Tongue (Faber, 1988), pp. 107-8