Saturday, July 20, 2024

The Poetry Corner

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A Ritual to Read to Each Other

By Norah Christianson

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

By William Stafford

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

Some poems you have to work at to understand. But what you find in a poem is often very worth the effort. In “A Ritual To Read to Each Other,” William Stafford is talking about some deep things here. He’s telling us that if we don’t really know one another, personally, if we don’t really know the people in our community, then we’re very liable to go along with those old established narratives and stereotypes that others who went before us believed. We conform. This can result in our following the wrong “god” (or ideology), and in so doing, we may miss our “star” (our destiny or goal). 

Our minds can betray us. We are fragile beings, and we can be idle thinkers. We may hear about something that is wrong or unjust or even evil, and we shrug it off. So what? We think. What’s it to me? What can I do about it, anyway? What’s for dinner? The sequence of lessons in morality we were taught when we were young can break and, like a dyke breaking, all the meanness and selfishness of our childish selves spill out. We selfishly ignore what is going on around us. I hate to say this, but I know some “good” people, law-abiding, tidy folks, who have often said to me, “I didn’t want to get involved.” It disturbs me. It makes me sad. I understand that it’s their mantra, their philosophy, their armor against a troublesome world, their safeguard against the complications of life. But it also keeps them from being fully engaged in their community and, I believe, in their own lives. 

We are like elephants holding each other’s tails, just following one another, not thinking critically. And if one of us sets out on the wrong road and we all follow along, we are all lost as well. Stafford goes on to say, “I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty/to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.” That is, to know the truth, but to ignore it. To fail to speak up for the truth. To say dismissively (with Pilate), “What is truth?”

Stafford then appeals to that shadowy thing in us, that small voice—our conscience—to consider how we fool ourselves and each other by not acknowledging the truth. And how, by ignoring the truth of what’s going on, we lose not just our own soul’s life, but our community’s, our country’s, our world’s, our “mutual life.” 

So it is important that “awake people be awake” and not get discouraged. It is important to keep the line—that continuity of awareness and truth—unbroken. We must stay awake, keep informed and conscious, and not sleep through dangerous times. (One thinks of Hitler’s era. One thinks of racism in our own time and country.) We must communicate clearly and honestly to those in our community about what is going on. 

And oh, that last, electrifying line! “..the darkness around us is deep.” The darkness of ignorance, the darkness of lies, the darkness of evil.

William Stafford, born in Kansas in 1914, wrote this poem some days before his death in 1993. I find it interesting that he uses the word awake: “For it is important that awake people be awake.” It reminded me of the term “woke,” which was first used in the 1930’s by the American folk and blues singer Lead Belly (Huddie William Ledbetter). After recording his protest song “Scottsboro Boys,” Lead Belly urged Black Americans to “Be careful…best stay woke.” Later on, his word “woke” was used by the Black Lives Matter movement. Now, later still, “woke” is used in protest and activist circles to mean: Stay informed and conscious of social and racial and gender injustice. The term has since been adopted by some conservatives as a pejorative. The darkness around us is deep.

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