“Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anesthesia or reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.” – John Berger
I’ve heard Matt read this passage a couple of times over the past week or so. And it struck me, the nature of poetry, the nature of artistic endeavor that Berger is describing here is in essence the root of what moves me to engage in activism.
That is, what Berger speaks of here is being present. Of poetry, of the poet, being present to and acknowledging human experience.
I’ll be transparent here and say, I am not a poet. I am a chaplain. When I speak about what poetry is or what purpose it serves I am projecting. But I am also simply speaking about what it means to be human. As humans, we have a duty to show up for each other. For me, in my Christian vocation, that means sitting with people, being present to the hurt and joy that is experienced in the world, and responding to human need by loving service. For poets, this means, in the words of Berger, using language to acknowledge experience.
This acknowledgement can be being present to something internal, the personal. The pain experienced in childhood, the heartbreak that comes along with being in relationship with other humans, the self-discovery and claiming of identity, a statement that what you know is real.
This acknowledgment can also be of something outside of yourself. A recognition, a naming, a calling out of the way the world is a mess. An understanding you have gained by being human in the world.
I would argue that the desire to acknowledge is the same thread that draws us into activism. In activism, as in poetry, we show up to be present to some hurt in ourselves or in the world. We give experience a name, we lament the suffering it inflicts.
Now, Berger writes that poetry transcends past, present, and future in its acknowledgement. Activism is not transcendent, it is particular. In activism, we have envisioned a change, we are calling for reform, we are working to change the world, activism has a vision for the future. Regardless, activism and poetry begin with the same seeds of acknowledgment and presence.
There is a specific way of approaching art or activism when you are attempting to be present to something in the world that you do not have lived experience in. When you show up on Death Row. When a non-native person shows up at Standing Rock. When a cis person shows up at Transgender Day of Visibility. When a man shows up at the Women’s March. When a white person shows up for Black Lives Matter.
You show up with an acknowledgment that you do not know. When you do not have lived experience, you do not know the hurt, the need, the hope. You do not get to set the agenda. You do not get to determine the value system. You do not get to provide commentary or to tell people whether the way they are showing up is acceptable.
But that does not mean you cannot be present to it. I would argue when you are a witness to something, you have an obligation to be present, you must acknowledge it exists.
When Matt goes into prisons, he probably already has some ideas about our criminal justice system. Yet, he does not bring this agenda into the work that he does. He does not go into prisons with the sole intent of reforming the prison system or denouncing our country’s understanding of justice. He shows up in prisons to acknowledge and recognize the human experience of the incarcerated. This is his role as a poet.
When we went to Standing Rock, I already had some ideas about native rights and colonialism. Yet, I did not show up to liberate the colonized or denounce our countries problematic relationship to native peoples. I showed up at Standing Rock to acknowledge and recognize the human experience of the Lakota people. This is my role as a chaplain.
From this acknowledgement and recognition, we are then moved to action, to activism. But activism does not come first. First, we are present, we witness, we acknowledge the human experience. We certainly do this by showing up physically. We also do this by writing and speaking to our showing up.
As poets, and for me as a chaplain, there is an implicit assumption that we will have an audience. Some of our work will die never having been seen or heard by another. But some of our work will certainly be shared, read, spoken, published. You write because it affects you. You also write because it will affect others.
Having an audience is a responsibility. Having a platform where people listen to you is a privilege. What you show up for, the way you show up. What you acknowledge, how you choose to acknowledge. What you recognize in your writing, the way you recognize. These things matter.
I invite you to think about what you are being present to in your writing. To reflect on how you are showing up for yourself and others. And then to move beyond the transcendent use of language to consider how your art might inform the particular.