The poetry you need to survive 2020: it's all in your mind

Poet Laureate Joy Harjo arrives just in time to lead us through a Trump v Williamson race

vol. 1 issue 17

Photo: U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. 2019. Photo by Shawn Miller, Library of Congress.


On occasion, I succumb to amazon’s dark arts and explore the suggestions for what the behemoth’s secret mind thinks I “might like”. Since I haven’t purchased any poetry books online in the last year, I was puzzled but intrigued when the algorithm directed me to the poetry collection, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings by our nation’s newest poet laureate, Joy Harjo.

How would amazon have mistaken me for a holy being? Does the hidden artificial intelligence inside my account confer to it an ability to review my emails and my searches? The former of late seem to involve friends and family embarking upon or taking deeper their respective spiritual journeys; the latter of the two lately has included more of my own questions about what comes after the fall. Yes, that fall. The one we increasingly understand we are watching happen in not-so-slow motion.

Perhaps amazon’s artificial intelligence knows that both types of searches easily lead to Harjo’s poetry.

I bought the book.

Since receiving it, I have read at least one poem a day, usually first thing in the morning so that Harjo’s words are my shield against the coming diatribes of the day. They are so wise, and hurt so good, I often read them twice or even three times in a row.

I am only five poems from the end. When I am done, I will start over.

Harjo, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, published these poems in 2015, yet they clearly anticipated the meanness of our shadow monster selves that was soon to erupt into the light in 2016. The poems offer us ways to slay these monsters with truth, but never swords.

Collectively, the poems are both metaphorical and literal and thus, practical. They exhort us to see and own that we are the evil and therefore we are also the good in this world. If we don’t like what we’ve created, what we’ve become, then uncreate that and become something else. No matter what we choose, Harjo promises it will always be a homecoming if we keep focused on what connects us all. With The Source as our tether, we can travel far into individual terrain.

The Library of Congress’s librarian, Carla Hayden noted when she announced her reasons for choosing Harjo:

“To her, poems are ‘carriers of dreams, knowledge and wisdom,’ and through them she tells an American story of tradition and loss, reckoning and myth-making. Her work powerfully connects us to the earth and the spiritual world with direct, inventive lyricism that helps us reimagine who we are.”

From the very first line in the very first poem, “For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet”, Harjo literally demands we put down our distractions and pay attention. She then reassures us we are up for this, the “this” being what we she says we “must” do: “help the next person find their way through the dark.”

She soothes us even as she warns us:

Don’t worry.

The heart knows the way though there may be high-rises,
interstates, checkpoints, armed soldiers, massacres, wars, and
those who will despite you because they despise themselves.

The journey might take you a few hours, a day, a year, a few

years, a hundred, a thousand, or even more.

Watch your mind. Without training it might run away and
leave your heart for the immense human feast set by the
thieves of time.

Do not hold regrets.

You can read the poem, in its entirety here, at I hope that you do.

The poem has the power to aid you, me, all of us, with the need for conflict resolution I see coming when the run off in the next presidential election will be between POTUS45 and very likely to my mind, the self-anointed miracle worker Marianne Williamson. Are you laughing? Then you don’t remember the role the media played in getting Trump elected by not taking him seriously and instead giving him loads of airtime becuase, in particular, the broadcast media were entertained rather than doing their jobs which should have included examinging the impact of his supposed policies.

I have read an avalanche of commentary about her performance in the debates, and the words for and against her continue to slide from the mouths of many on high.

I am still sorting through it in my mind, but my first impression is that she and the current occupant in the White House are two halves to the same whole. Both are celebrity populist dilettantes, with an uncanny knack for leveraging social media to put the focus on themselves and sell you a message. I happen to like Williamson’s New Age-y message better than that of the raging man in charge now, and suspect she would not denigrate the office and our collective soul as he has.

Both are also of the fringes, but we no longer seem to tolerate centrism, so previously marginalized voices are the ones most likely to rise above.

Much as I welcome angelic inspiration, I am more likely to trust it when it comes from inside the cathedrals that poetry builds within me than from a guru with something to sell me, such as A Course in Miracles. My weary american heart says that Williamson’s soaring optimism cannot be countered by the impracticality of all the rest she would bring, and we would break into pieces. At least one other commentary I have read agrees, and says it would happen even before she would take office, much to the delight of the Russians.

Putting aside whether there is any validity to Williamson’s metaphysical claims, her candidacy should not come as a surprise. To me, a Course in Miracles lady presidency is the natural conclusion along the utopian vector we’ve traveled since the Puritans with their ideas too extreme for the king. Soon after the Pilgrims came the Quakers and their populist rejection of the bossy “pointy-headed” elite of their day. Each group arrived on these shores intent on creating their own version of utopia where those who believed with all their heart were sure to become future saints.

Kurt Andersen recently wrote a book called Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire. He essentially likens our history to a tale of one form of magical thinking leading to the next. At times, Andersen’s tone is mocking, which is unfortunate because his perspective is legitimate and scholarly, and I think, correct: We are a nation built upon the magical notions of generations of disgruntled dreamers who think it is their right to choose their own adventure.

The fine print on that tends to be, but not always, “And the rest of you can just sod off.”

Let’s put the epithets of racism, gay-bashing, trans-bashing, sexism, chauvinism, and all other acts of inhumanity aside a moment and consider that this kind of tribalism is fueled by the relativism inherent to our post-modern world where, for example, biology no longer provides the defining characteristics of gender. This kind of fluidity isn’t easy to live with, particularly for people who aren’t exposed to it regularly. It is only logical that people who seek to know the edges of their playing field will despair and look for a referee.

If we cannot rely even upon eminently verifiable science for our “there-there” the world becomes too chaotic for many to trust.

To continue on with this example, for those who experience alienation as a result of their nonbinary sexuality, this is maddening – there are higher levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide among transsexual groups than in the general population; but for those who don’t know what to make of the “other” they resist what they perceive as attempts to control them into seeing things from a set of boundaries that are always shifting. Both groups are unsettled, not at peace. In pain. The natural inclination for a person in pain is to find a way to end the pain. Sadly, some of us in this country want to end this pain by inflicting it on others.

The pain is what I think feuls the dogmatic, black/white thinking that now subsumes us. It takes immense fortitude and is exhausting to live in an inchoate place. Most Americans are not willing or able to achieve this. This is not a character flaw, even if it is a weakness. It is the natural outgrowth of decades of outsourcing our citizenship to the cult of brands — including religions and political parties — whose leaders uncouple our individualism from our citizenship, and then give it back to us reshaped into the “identities” we accept in our numbed states as received wisdom.

I view it as this: We are numbed because the more we invest in others selling us an identity, the less access we have to the greatest resource of all, our minds. That is where our imaginations and our sense of being an individual connects to the source that animates us and then, naturally, connects us all.

What threatens to happen at this moment of history, as these two seemingly disparate candidates Trump and Williamson ask us to give them our power (or in one case, threaten to bully it from us), is either a thundering discussion about our Constitutional guarantee to the protection of and definition of our inalienable rights, especially the right to “the pursuit of happiness”; or, the fear of that discussion such that we default to letting one of these candidates make the decisions for us.

Because of their respective fringe status, a Trump-Williamson race will force this choice, which has bearing on us as a nation and as individuals. The other Democrats running againts Williamson are re-treading the middle, which is why I am hedging that she will win the nomination: there is no evidence this country has an appetite for taking it easy and talking about problems for another four years. An op-ed in the LA Times even suggests the other Democrats steal Williamson’s platform because it is what Americans want to hear, but maybe with a little less woo-woo. David Brooks in the NYT also asks Democrats to please learn from Williamson.

A strong man is exciting and promises something will happen, even if it’s nothing good. Conversely, angels and love bombs are also exciting, and maybe even good, but for any governing principle to be enforceable, meaningful, and enduring, Americans will continue to yell from the margins if we cannot untangle the knots around just how much happiness the angels or anyone else guarantee us at the expense of others.

Put another way: relativism is reaching it’s breaking point. What will be the new boundaries?

Whatever they are, I agree with Harjo:

Watch your mind.

Our minds are what connect us all and offer us the opportunity — with maturity and wisdom — to live within the paradox of boundaries that contain us, while also letting us surpass them.

When we let others lay claims on our minds, tell us what we think, say and repeat what we want to hear, we have weak minds.

When you say you know something, are sure you are the one who thought it? Have you have tested your thoughts by sharing them with others in dialogue not diatribes?

It is our collectively and individually sound minds that will lead each other out of the dark.

I trust we can do this even without artificially generated algorithms prompting us to be holy beings. Maybe even despite them.

Your Friday funny

You know it’s true.

Thanks for reading. Happy weekend!