Politics, Religion

Lech Lecha: a meditation on poetry

This is the day that God has wrought, let us rejoice and celebrate in it.
There are times when poetry is called for, when the simple act of trying to match words with events in something resembling a linear fashion is not only impossible, it is a desecration. There are times when we can only rely on the deep song of the soul, revealed in the chance encounters which poetry allows. At those times we might fashion the silver filigree, and hope to glimpse the golden apple of truth, as the poet wrote in the Song of Songs.
That most anti-poetic of writers, Maimonides, feared just this about language—that it had a surplus of meaning which could not be controlled and might be misunderstood, misconstrued and misused. Maimonides expended an enormous amount of effort in the Guide to the Perplexed attempting to nail down meaning so that it would not loose itself in fits of mythical ecstasy. Yet, when caught by the fervor of memory or hope, Maimonides’ own quill sometimes let go. The Sages of old, Maimonides wrote, would “kiss the stones and roll in the dust” of the Land of Israel. Maimonides begins and ends the Guide itself with verse. “God is very near to everyone who calls, / If he calls and has no distractions; / He is found by every seeker who searches for Him, / If he marches toward Him and goes not astray.”
Frederick Douglass
Henry Louis Gates tells us that when “Frederick Douglass, the greatest black orator in our history before Martin Luther King Jr.,” heard that the emancipation proclamation was signed, he  “said that the day was not a day for speeches and ‘scarcely a day for prose.’ Rather, he noted, ‘it is a day for poetry and song, a new song.’”

When John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, on a cold and bright winter day upon which so many hopes were pinned (many to be dashed) he asked Robert Frost to sing. Frost, had penned the following lines:

It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young amibition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.

The sun blinded the aging poet, however, and the words he spoke instead from memory that day were perhaps more prescient. “The deed of gift was many deeds of war”. The power that led from pride led to bloodshed for the next decade.
When Bill Clinton was inaugurated, he asked Maya Angelou to summon song. She summoned humility.

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

Once again we find ourselves at a juncture at which only poetry will suffice. In his victory speech, Barack Obama summoned Lincoln and King as his muses and the poetry of farmworkers as his refrain. We stand on the shores of a new epoch, and God seems to be telling us “Go forth.” How do we rise to this challenge so that, truly we might be “a blessing?”
On that dark and frightful evening, as the sun set and sleep overtook Abram, God appeared as fire and smoke (as God would later appear at Sinai) and cut a covenant through the assembled sacrifices, promising exile and redemption. Abram would not live to see it, but the fourth generation would return to the promised land. And yet, in the very next moment of this story, Abraham acquiesces in the persecution of Hagar. In the shadow of Sinai the Golden Calf is built.
Once we get beyond Hallelujah and the wordless niggunim of joy, who might be summoned to sing the joy and limn the hopes and possibilities of these next four or eight years? What might they sing?
Sing to God a new song; play sweetly with shouts of joy.
For the word of the LORD is right;
God’s every deed is faithful.
God loves what is right and just;

(x-posted to jspot)

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