How poetry can change the world

A couple of weeks ago I was (very casually) asked to speak at an event, and then I was un-invited due to the time restrictions upon the event. I didn’t take it personally. But, as I’d already written out an outline, I thought I should at least share these thoughts with somebody… such as you.

The question I was asked was “what is the role of an artist in bringing justice?”

This group was highly concerned about poverty. And to be honest, I find this question entirely fair. It’s not immediately easy to see how a graphic designer can help in the many conflicts happening around the world. What can a sculptor do when the news declares another famine? How does a songwriter have anything to assist when faced with global climate change, when realizing that whole nations of the South Pacific are likely to be affected by rising seas?

Our world’s response to poverty has been thus far separated by a divide: spiritual solutions, and physical solutions.

You may have heard the phrase, “children can’t eat bibles”. And it’s true, of course. Children can’t rip out the pages and eat them. But that doesn’t mean a bible can’t play a role in a child’s development. It doesn’t mean that a bible can’t help form community values, creating a secure environment in which a child can reach their fullest potential. It doesn’t mean that a bible can’t teach someone Paul’s classic phrase “if you don’t work, you don’t eat” (2 Thess 3:10), or help them understand that God accepts our lament in its loudest, most raucous form (Lamentations 3). To reduce bibles down to their physical substance doesn’t do the ideas contained within justice.

But why would we reduce a bible down to just its paper and binding, its potential to fill a stomach? The answer is, sadly, because in our recent history, many missionaries have separated out the spiritual aspects of well-being from material ones, claiming that they were not responsible for the body, but only for the soul. They allowed a division of labour to be created, separating out ideas from things, and deeming that only the ideas (salvation, God’s presence) were going to be of real help. The idea of the person was more important than their dehydrated skin, or their lice-filled hair. This caused development workers to declare loudly that in fact, the things (rice, wells, malaria nets) were real despite what the missionaries said.

This seems ridiculous right? How could we get to this place? And so we travel back further in time to the ancient Greek world, with Aristotle, and his dualism that split the universe into categories to help us make sense of things and their essence. The chair separated from the idea of the chair. Similarly, working with ideas (or essence or spiritual substance) became theoria or theory, and this was separated from work with physical substance which was called praxis or practice.

Stick with me.

Because the thing is, no-one tells you that Aristotle had in fact three categories. This third one is rarely ever spoken about. He called it poesis and this is where we get the word ‘poetry’ from. It means “to make”.

This was the act of taking a thing and executing a theory with it – making it – into a new thing.

So, what is the role of a poetry of film, a poetry of watercolors, a poetry of words, a poetry of dance? How can seemingly luxurious vocations have any impact upon the poor?

By understanding the role of art as ‘re-making’. Art makes our world. And remakes it again.

But, in our society, poetry is deemed useless, even leisurely. It was the role of the upper class, with women relegated to cross-stitch and learning to play harpsichord. In some societies it was funded by patrons, and the role of the poet was dumbed down to simply begging a pay check from them. These tensions will always exist, of course – but as patrons became more powerful, and manipulative business people took over the art “scenes”, we forgot the power of our tools at hand. And now we must prove that we make music just for the love of it, and not for the cheque, lest we be deemed “commercial” and therefore useless at making.

But art is not art because it is free, or because it is paid. Art is art because it makes something into another thing.

Real art in our society is mysterious, and rarely in the places we expect it to be. It is not always found on The Art Gallery wall. It can be the notes of a song that wafts past us on the Spring wind.

But why does poesis have the power to transform our realities?

So here we find ourselves at the intersection of religion and development studies, which is where most of my work is located.

However I’m going to explain this by using a metaphor entirely outside of my scholarly discipline – a small disclaimer to say this is a poetic depiction of anatomy, or an anatomic depiction of poetry.

If the oil paints, and the easels, and the choreography, and the Protools sound bites, and the Photoshop images are all broken down beyond the real, we would quickly realize that they are powered by imagination.

And we would soon see that our imagination, if it were put under under a microscope, is filtered through frames we can call aesthetics, our way to evaluate everything we do. Aesthetics is our way of deeming what is beautiful, or important. It is the hidden ‘rule’ that underlies why a piece of clay is scraped off the wheel and started again. (It is of course a lie that artists work without rules. Rules turn ideas into new possibilities). The aesthetic frame determines when something is finished, or when it is still incomplete. It is the decider between the word kept silent and  the one spoken out.

It’s the reason artists (hopefully poetically armed with a glass of red wine) can retire at the end of the day to say, in the words of the Great Creator, “it is good”.

But, if we were to place our aesthetics under the microscope, we would find that these aesthetics, the frames we use, are made up of smaller units, which we can call values.

It is values that build the frame that determines if we pick up this brush or that calligraphy pen  – it is excitement about a globalizing world versus a commitment to traditional and ancient local ways. That sentence about the heroine is formed and measured against strong words, or sexy ones depending on our deep understanding about what a woman is, or can or should be. The chosen print that ends up upon the fabric is determined by our values – for whimsical play, or usefulness.

For example, my first ever solo album ‘Grace’ was written with ten evangelical songwriters in Sydney. I intentionally create music for communities. But my muse in this case was the stories from the margins. The unheard experiences, the questions, the excluded. When I told people about this inspiration for my music, they displayed one of two reactions: curious interest, or disgust. These guttural reactions were deeper than their intellect. They were instilled and rehearsed aesthetics, formed from values: either the embrace or the exclusion of the ‘other’.

When we break down our aesthetics, and we break down our values, we find symbols. Symbols make values concrete.

Symbols are things that have energy at the heart of them, that makes them quiver like the atom. They are things either alive and energized, or dead and abandoned. In other words, alive things become symbols.

Interestingly, they are alive or dead subjectively. This means that what is alive for some can be dead to others.

Again, as an example of this, my PhD with indigenous Australian leaders in Pentecostal churches shows me that to some, a particular movement or a sound, or a Lingo word evokes another thing, an ancient indigenous world. To some, these indigenous symbols quiver. Their use reveals possibility, and hope, and freedom. But to others, the same symbols are repelling.

What is the energy that quivers at the heart of a symbol? Desire.

And the role of the artist is to awaken desires.

We have in our hands the power of life and death.

We have the ability to breathe upon the small ember of a symbol, just enough that it becomes a flame, but that flame eventually ignites the world. Every creative person has the power to make.

I cannot imagine the difference if every artist were to choose a theory of compassion. Choose a theory that humanizes the poor, and make things into symbols. Depict the poor as unique. compelling. attractive. intelligent. capable. partners. In our films, in our brochures, in our press releases, in our copy.

We have the potential to draw generous lines. But our poetry now depicts the poor as smelly, stupid, incapable, undeserving. Our poetry deems that it is their choices that led to their demise, not the outbreak of war. Our poetry says that they took the easy option, that they stopped looking, fighting and growing. And so we turn away.

Making does not diminish the power or necessity to also give or practice, or to theorize or idealize. This work is needed too.

But only poesis can cause someone to desire to give. Only new poetry can cause politicians to want to rewrite laws that see justice enacted. Only a new song that permeates people’s brain and hearts can build their compassion enough to cause them to drive over to the other side of town.

Only new poetry can breathe life into symbols, can form our values, can reframe our aesthetics, and change our imagination.

If we can be a generation who make in a way that bestows dignity upon every human being, and who realize the power of that making, I truly believe we can change the world.

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