Sunday, September 11, 2005

Where the Mind Goes for Hope: Can Art and Poetry Elevate the Spirit in Times of Tragedy and Despair?

Several years ago, during an intense emotional crisis from which I believed only in fleeting moments I might recover, I spent a lot of time in the rooms dedicated to small French paintings at the National Gallery of Art. The moment I walked into these quiet galleries, my mind was calmed and the turmoil gripping my heart subsided, if even for a short time. A favorite landscape painting by Corot, or a portrait by Berthe Morisot of her sister, Edma, seated on a wall along a riverbank, or a still-life of an arrangement of flowers by Eduard Manet painted only days before his death transported me, however briefly, to a place in my imagination invulnerable to despair.

I also found comfort in reading Joan Didion's magnificent 1967 essay called, "Goodbye to All That," in which she chronicles her move as a recent college graduate to New York City from Sacramento, California. With stunning precision, she captures the awe of an outsider in a mythic place, and traces her initial infatuation with the city to a late state of supreme disenchantment. While it's a melancholy story, her writing is mesmerizing. I loved losing myself in her descriptions of the city's unique characteristics, and also the way she conveyed the hope of youth encountering the innumerable opportunities of New York City.

Poetry, too, gave me reprieve from sadness. Wendell Berry's "The Peace of Wild Things," Jane Kenyon's "Let Evening Come," Philip Levine's "Trees," and Anthony Hecht's "Sisters" and "Proust on Skates," pulled my mind into the world's their words created.

I was reminded of all of these pieces of comfort this week when I received a letter from my friend Ada. In it she included a poem by Langston Hughes called "To You." Ada and I share the philosophy, along with many others, that art and literature have the power to transform lives. Obviously, exquisitely arranged words or masterpieces of art alone cannot rebuild cities or restore life. What they offer is intangible and unquantifiable, because those kinds of works most often touch a person's soul—something that cannot be comprehended by science or medicine. The arts inspire courage and action, sooth desperation, ignite passion, or express love. They are, therefore, about the abstractions of life, which often, I think many poeple believe, renders them insufficient as remedies for the troubles and afflictions inherent in it.

It's a shame, really, that more attention isn't given to equipping people with the tools that can carry them through episodes of crisis. Thousands of Americans have struggled with despair these past two weeks as many of them lost every piece of property including their homes and all the personal possessions that filled them. All that's left when those things are taken from us is our imagination. And, properly equipped, it's the most powerful mechanism for escape from the worst of circumstances. Poems, the mental image of a favorite painting or other work of art, scenes from movies, passages from songs, lines from books—these are all mobile means for inspiring hope during dark periods in our lives. Every single one of us has the capacity to restrain despair, if only for a moment.

Hughes's poem speaks of the expansive canvas the imagination can cover with dreams. Poetry, or any art form, is not going to change the world, rebuild a city, or bring back what was lost. Together with the human imagination, however, poetry, literature, and art can empower and encourage people to believe themselves capable of making change happen.

To You

To sit and dream, to sit and read,
To sit and learn about the world
Outside our world of here and now—
Our problem world—
To dream of vast horizons of the soul
Through dreams made whole,
Unfettered, free—help me!
All you who are dreamers too,
Help me to make
Our world anew.
I reach out my dreams to you.

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes photographed by Gordon Parks