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Friday, February 18, 2011

Of Poetry and Noble Lives

We don't much talk about living noble lives. And, in our time, we certainly don't connect the word "poet" with the word "noble."

It all seems so old-fashioned.

Which is to say uninteresting. Which is to say unsurprising. Which is to say boring.

It appears our age doesn't mind heroes--as long as they give us long as they make us feel lucky or blessed or excited or uplifted or just downright special.

Please understand, I'm not taking issue with real heroes. We have plenty and I am grateful to them. The intern who saves his Congresswoman. The airplane pilot who lands that craft perfectly in the middle of the river, thus saving scores of lives. The fireman who saves the infant. The soldier who sacrifices for her buddies.

I am suggesting, however, that heroes reflect onto us a certain specialness.  And we are happy to be distinguished by that light.

However,  if  we define "noble" as "possessing outstanding qualities" then those who live these kinds of lives seem to me to exemplify what it means to be truly human.

Moreover, these noble lives ask something of us. These noble lives cast a big question mark over our heads.

When we read of Rosa Parks, we can't help but wonder about our own courage. When we think of Nelson Mandela  we have to  ask ourselves if we could survive 27 years in a prison without being broken. We look at the list of names on a wall--any wall--in Europe which honors those who resisted the Nazis and we have to wonder if we could have done the same.

In terms of poetry, the metaphorical Rockers and Stoners--the "bad boys" and "shocking girls" of literature seem to take center stage in our minds. To say that certain aspects of our poetry world are so very different from our popular culture--the Lady Ga Ga's and such--is to be either dishonest, cloistered or clueless.

Yet there are other stories in our poetic collective narrative. Of those  who write--or wrote--wonderful poems--sometimes even eternal poems-- and who live or have lived a noble life as well.

The story of John Keats is well known.  He was a young man; he was a dedicated writer; he wrote great poetry; he died in his early twenties.

As I am fairly certain John Keats did not plan to die young, from a horrible, painful, lingering disease, in a foreign country, broke, in the presence of one kind and good acquaintance, without the comfort of his own true love,  without any real recognition for the poems he had already written, with the knowledge that the poems he could have written will never, ever find their way onto the I am certain this ending was not scripted by the John Keats to insure his place among the great poets,  the well-known and famous story of this person makes me wonder.

The people of his  time might not have known what caused the disease, but they did know it was catching and deadly. Which is why they would burn the clothes and even the houses of those who died from the disease.

So I have to assume John knew what he was doing when he took on the care of Tom --which translates into John putting his dreams for his own life, for his own poetry on the line.

And then I have to wonder if I could have given up my own dreams for a full life and all the hopes for my own poetry so knowingly and so completely.

But John Keats did.

And, in doing so, not only is the way in which he lived his life the stuff of poetry--it is the very definition of the word "noble."


Wanda Joseph said...

I found your blog while searching for an old poem, "Noble Lives".

My mother in law who is 99 was reciting the poem today. I found the poem in this collection (pg 29)

It really speaks of what you write here. and I had the same thoughts that we don't speak about or encourage character development in the way that is referenced in the poem, Noble Lives. I have no idea who the author is. My mother in law learned it as a song. I find it all very interesting.

Wanda Joseph

Lois Roma-Deeley said...


Thank you for posting this. My observation--as a writer and a teacher--is that there is a hunger today for poetry that reflects our lives in ways that are not cynical nor sentimental. And I really do believe that poetry, in general, is making a slow turn back to this kind of Romantic (that is, Wordsworth/Keats etc.) view of the human condition. Flawed, yes. But beautiful as well.