Last night I attended a marvelous talk by Rachel Tzvia Back, called “‘This Bequest of Wings’ on Teaching Poetry in a Region of Conflict.” It was one of a series of lectures sponsored by Ray Lifchez in memory of his wife Judith (more about her later). Ms. Bach ia a vivid, insightful presenter with a beautiful speaking voice (you can hear her here).
She started with the question, what use is poetry in an environment of conflict. She said that her world, contemporary Israel, if filled with militaristic, politicized rhectoric. Racism, alienation, hatred of “the other,” are common. She teaches an introduction to poetry course in the English department that is compulsory and includes Christians, Druze, Muslim, Jewish and secular students who range in age from 18 to early 40s. In this somewhat hostile atmosphere–the students have to take the course–she starts with a poem by William Carlos Williams, “To Daphne and Virginia”:
Be Patient that I address you in a poem, there is no other fit medium The mind lives there. It is uncertain, can trick us and leave us agonized. But for resources what can equal it? There is nothing. We should be lost without its wings to fly off upon . . . .
She spoke of how her students could relate to the I of the poem trying to communicate with the you, trying hard to bridge the gap between us and them. She cited Langston Hughes response to Whitman’s great “I Hear America Singing”:
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
She spoke of how the students could all relate to the feeling of being marginalized, how poetry began to offer a different mode of discourse, a mode of exactness, of searching for truth, rather than the language of the politicians and the media. This new mode of discourse, she said, provides wings for her students to transcend the borders of race and class, even while new outbreaks and divisions break out around them.
It was an extraordinary and moving talk, and a fitting memorial to Judith Stronach, herself a poet and activist. Here is one of her poems.
The heart builds itself up by layers
First grief. Then anger. Then the monk
who brought compassion, taught how anger follows
grief in its conditioned path unless we shift,
make a difference in ourselves by doing
something differently. And then another layer from a man
who told you, “Every day that does not include mourning
is a day spent in revenge.” You have that
possibility, that shift each time anger visits
to move to grief instead of the other way.
Say your husband ate the soup you were saving,
say the city extends its bans on the homeless,
say the country ends its free meals program,
say the state does not stay the execution.
Each time imagine a different path
for your heart, say when the country
votes to end all health plans,
each time, even when the panda becomes extinct,
the red colobus monkey, the tipped newt.
Each time you increase the heart’s layers,
building up the deep sheen of history, its glazes
of tempera that are anger and grief, that the light
passes through until it touches something
at the very bottom and returns, dazed and dazzling.