Newsline , Society

Poetry, Politics, and History

Posted on Thursday, March 7, 2024
by AMAC, Robert B. Charles
Book of poetry

Poetry is odd and often offers light, that is my view. Sometimes it flows off the end of a poet’s pen, the way an honest, unexpected description of a sunset, place, or person does, one person’s life experience collapsed into a few words, perfectly fitting the mood of another, prompting a nod.

Other times, it seems to stand alone “like a candle in the wind” – to borrow from Elton John’s description of Maralyn Monroe, formerly Norma Jeane Mortenson – bright but flickering, capturing one’s attention, bringing new perspective and, like that song, causing you to think.

Poetry these days – if you read anything – is often downbeat, self-pitying, all about being the victim, and blaming someone else for life. Politics seems to have gotten into the act and polluted it.

Not all modern poems are political, but many are. They forget poetry is art, like watercolor, sculpture, or music, and does not have to be political.

Not only should all our art not be political – including poetry – but when you make politics the point of everything, including poetry, you lose bigger things, beauty, wisdom, and insight, things that enhance our character and elevate life, not deplete it.

So, why talk about poetry? Because what we need now, more than ever, is a better perspective on ourselves, on this nation, how this moment fits into the arc of Western history, and – more personally – how we fit into this moment, which fits along that arcing trajectory.

Where do we go from that perspective? History books, novels, documentaries, maybe the meaning buried in paintings and old statues – if they are not torn down, possibly the lyrics to old music.

These do offer perspective on where we are, for better or worse, but there is more. Poetry may be the real loadstar, an untapped reservoir of worldly wisdom, a perspective worth revisiting right now.

The poet W.H. Auden, writing in 1939, eulogized W.B. Yeats. In that reflection, he famously wrote, “Poetry makes nothing happen,” meaning poems are not rousing political speeches or manifestos, just a way to make sense of the world and elevate our understanding of ourselves. They make us pause.

Here is the nub:  If you really want to see how far we have drifted from True North, go back to a poem, look at what was prioritized in that poem, and then apply it to yourself right now.

Ironically, by looking at art’s trajectory, any form of art, we can sometimes learn more about politics or how we are governing ourselves, collectively and individually, than reading another news article.

My favorite example of this, like it or not, is Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.”  Why? That one poem, written 130 years ago, tells us about those ideals men – and women – held high at that age.

Moreover, it conveys ideals that we, in the dark night, can still hold high. It captures how discouraging, disheartening, challenging, and unfair life can be, yet what the right answer to that is – not negativity, not self-pity, and anger, but dignity, discipline, and courage, the sort that raises us, makes us leaders within ourselves and within any room. That poem is what is “real.”

So, with no further need to explain, here is Rudyard Kipling’s “If.”  Tell me … if it resonates.

“If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too:

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same:

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss:

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much: f you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”

There it is, in a nutshell. Little more needs to be said. We are at a point on the trajectory of history, of Western civilization, when we either understand these words, their power, moral force, and wisdom or the forest will close in on us because we let it.

Poetry offers light, even in this busy world, and is worth reading sometimes. Or that is one view.

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.

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2 months ago

This is one of my favorite poems- and I still think of it occasionally! Our teacher made us learn and memorize this poem- maybe in 7th grade-it resonated with me then and it still does today. Thank you for writing about this, Mr. Charles. We need to remember, and work to rescue our country!

Rob citizenship
Rob citizenship
2 months ago

A great source of those very important qualities – courage, strength, wisdom and understanding – poetry can be made by anyone ,at anytime , on any topic – so it helps in ways that can make life worthwhile , under all manner of circumstances. At the age of 17 , Ronald Reagan wrote some poetry that he entitled ” Life ” , here is one example one what he could do ( long before any ideas about being President I reckon ) – ” Millions have gone before us And millions will come behind So why do we curse and and fight At a fate both wise and kind ?” I found this in ” Ronald Reagan ,Poet and Poems ,a Retrospective Tribute and Memorial ” by Michael Burch. A good friend , that is another way of thinking about what poetry involves . And it sure enough can help to keep life in balance too. Great article Robert, as you wrote – ” Poetry offers light ” – that is always a good something to look forward to.

2 months ago

Out of all time poetry this one is the perfect, inspiring choice.for this time.

2 months ago

The Wisdom books in the Bible are poetry that offer the insights we all need to live a fruitful and productive life. If only we would heed them. Mostly the poetry I read in these chaotic times…

An older blonde women laughing in the kitchen with a grey haired man.
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