Can poetry save the world?

Friday, December 8, 2017

Wendell Berry says he doesn't want his words to be reduced to a bumper sticker. In the slogan-steady city of Melbourne tonight, a new film on Berry's life and work is being premiered. It's called Look & See.

I considered joining mates and travelling down to the "city that looks like every other city" to celebrate this global elder's work, but instead I chose to stay home, far away from bumper stickers, their cars and the brightly lit billboards. Not exactly news. In fact it's exactly this non-news that I crave, and that stays present to what could be Berry's greatest bumper sticker of all, It All Turns on Affection.

Four years ago Rasha Tayeh made this film highlighting many of the themes Berry has been writing on for decades. The Growing Food Project features my poem Step by step and numerous other voices that call for action in the present, not to wait in blind hope for governments to act. Rasha's film champions poetry's potential for such autonomous storytelling. It gives another kind of voice in articulating the rarely spoken assumptions of our time and culture. Like the Look & See trailer, Rasha's film suggests that poems might have a role in the grand attempt to save the world.

Peter Minter, writing about my work, asks: "Can poetry save the world? Jones’ poetry is challenging, perhaps not for everyone, but the world he is saving is the same one you’re living in." Berry sees it differently: “Maybe we could give up saving the world and start to live savingly on it.” And, in the same piece (Our Only World, 2015) he writes:
“Oh, oh, oh,” cry the funerary experts, looking ahead through their black veils. “Life as we know it soon will end. If the governments don’t stop us, we’re going to destroy the world. The time is coming when we will have to do something to save the world. The time is coming when it will be too late to save the world. Oh, oh, oh.” If that is the way our minds are afflicted, we and our world are dead already. The present is going by and we are not in it. Maybe when the present is past, we will enjoy sitting in dark rooms and looking at pictures of it, even as the present keeps arriving in our absence.
Be we an optimist or a doomer, there is always trouble. What we do in response to the sticky material of trouble that dwells in the living present is the making of us, and the making of the/our world. Berry expresses the hopelessness of blind hope, as much as he expresses the agency of people to live savingly and presently, with little and with much. 


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