War of the poets within
I learned there was this man, his name was Hafiz. Not his real name. His real name just wouldn’t get along with my spell-check. He was a 14th century, Persian poet. I was thinking about Hafiz because I was first thinking about Oscar Wilde, a 19th century, Irish poet who hasn’t a lick in common with Hafiz … and neither have a lick in common with me … except that other than “I’ve never seen a purple cow …” they are the only two poets I can quote.
Now, what strikes me is the contradiction between the two sentiments of the only two poets I can quote.
Wilde’s quote, from a 100 years ago, is gloomy, base, “…Yet each man kills the thing he loves, by each let this be heard. Some do it with a bitter look, some with a flattering word … Some strangle with the hands of Lust, some with the hands of Gold: The kindest use a knife, because the dead so soon grow cold.” See! Utterly depressing.
Then there is the Hafiz quote. It’s from a dialog he wrote 500 years ago. It’s happy. It almost dances. Hafiz is strolling through town and a young woman asks of him, “…Hafiz, what is the sign of someone who knows God?” Hafiz becomes quiet then looks “… deep into her eyes, then replied, My dear, they have dropped the knife. Someone who knows God has dropped the cruel knife.” Okeydokey then.
And I wonder how it is these two quotes, purple cow notwithstanding, would become the only poetry I can quote? The conflict between the two is…flummoxing. What does this mean?
One thing it means is that people grow. I was in my twenties when the Wilde words came to impress me enough to commit them to memory. I was yet young enough to visit and wallow in that gothic, cynical, dark moodyism of youth. But we outgrow such things.
I was in my 50s when the Hafiz words first came to impress me enough to commit them to memory. It seems a natural sort of thing. The lesser part of a life left someone, the more precious that life becomes…made less dark by its now apparent brevity.
But I still wonder how it is these opposing sentiments have come to co-exist in the same psyche? Be nice … be mean … be nice … be mean. It’s befuddling.
Another thing it means is that virtue and vice can exist in concentric circles. One of these will always be at the center … the core of what we are. Virtue, if it be our core, begins to dilute as we distant ourselves from that center. Often, how I consider those living within the walls of my home, the niceyness, is something far different than how I consider those just outside those walls in my neighborhood…and those in my neighborhood different than those in the community at large…and those in my community far different than those within my state, or party, or race, or religion. By the time I get to the national borders … seems I just run plum out of virtue …unless I expand my center to those borders.
I can’t imagine any of us thinking casually and blindly about doing harm to some anonymous person who lives down the street. Even though we don’t know them, know their affiliations or creeds, we wish them no harm. It’s the same with some stranger on the other side of the city … the county … the state …but on the other side of the world…we may begin to bend our ear toward a different poet.
The further away another is, the further away from our center, the less connected we feel. A Gallup poll released last September found that 58 percent of Americans are not opposed to war with North Korea. But it’s impossible for me to believe 58 percent of Americans want to kill someone. But somehow, these two poets are each speaking at the same time through the American psyche.
A comparison between the response we had to a hurricane hitting the American city of Houston and the response we had to a hurricane hitting the American island of Puerto Rico … and further … our response to the tragedy in Puerto Rico as compared to our response to genocide in Syria of Myanmar, or the famine here or there, the war here or there, is demonstrative of virtue diminishing as the circles widen. Like light from a distant star, these places are just too far away to really see … or care about.
It doesn’t really matter if you believe all humankind had her beginning in a garden somewhere between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers or somewhere beyond the head waters of the Nile. Either way, unless you are from another planet, we all come from the same place, are made of the same things, need and want the same things, we are family. Our circles are smaller than they seem.
There will always be two, if not a thousand, poets at once living within us. We can, we must choose the one we recite. This is all I have learned today.
James Wares lives in Marshalltown and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org