Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Poetry, Order and Prophecy amidst Chaos

To create 'Order' from Chaos. There are few endeavours we humans strive for more deeply and continuously. Of course we continually, regularly - even orderly? - fail. Still, our mythologies, sciences, rituals and institutional structures strive - and do - order and re-order ourselves and our worlds.

When we stand amidst particularly strong chaos, she who can create a new order - an order that others can and do align their behaviour with - exercises great power and influence.

And one of our most powerful ways of doing so - especially if one is not the emperor and can thus order the world around one with relative ease - is through poetry. Metaphors become the keys to open endless doorways between the world as it is and the world as it might be

Which, Walter Brueggemann suggested, is how the prophets were as powerful as they are. The prophet, said the theologian, has the task of reframing "so that we can re-experience the social realities that are right in front of us. We exercise great freedom in whom God is now permitted to be among us."

In his interview with Krista Tippett, he quotes Isaiah 43: "Do not remember the former things nor consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?"
And apparently, what he's telling his people is just forget about the Exodus. Try to imagine that. That whole, babes and mamas leaving Egypt thing - just put it to one side and pay attention to the present moment.

Sitting with this passage a bit, I think of the discussions we have at work about a) the need to get beyond 'business (er, research) as usual' and the immediate, subsequent, b) continuation of business as usual. Of course, changing narratives - and thus action - isn't exactly easy. Those deep stories - 'there is no other way to get funding than the way we've been doing it and without funding we won't survive' can be harder to change than slaying a dragon.

We are so very focused on the past, no doubt obsessing about our own tendency towards path dependency. Turning ourselves towards the present - and thus the responsibility of choice and the potential of both failure and success - has never been modern society's strongest asset. Present moment awareness is one of the simplest and most challenging insights of most faith traditions, and, so far as I can tell, of the lessons coming out of the loose family of complexity sciences.

The passage above does not tell us to look at the future. The future and the present are quickly brought together. We are asked, 'do you not perceive it' - the emerging newness is here, before us, right now.

And yet right here, right now, there is so much to see. What do we pay attention to?

No, I'm not sure I do perceive it, Isaiah. There are a lot of signals around.

Weak signals, strong signals, the mass media, the inner quiet, the telephone call - we are awash with information signals. Coming into the present moment can be overwhelming and fragmenting.

Maybe that's just fine. Brueggemann beautifully describes us as collections of fragments that do not always fit together.

Poetry can pull together and re-arrange those fragments better than almost anything else.

Perhaps this is because poetry has something that we so often lack these days - play, and silence. There's a lot of noise out there. Maybe you're luckier than I am, but sometimes my head feels like the television used to sound when I pushed too many buttons on it as a child (back when TVs had one button per channel). In poetry, and in good ministry, it is the space between the words as well as the words themselves that shape the listening. Shape the listening and you shape the understanding.

I started regularly writing poetry a year ago, when I split with my partner of 6 years. I've written over 110 poems since then. Some have been published. Some have brought meaning to other people's lives. Some have helped me re-order my relationship with myself and learn to tell myself a different story of who I am. They have brought me to other poets - from the old testament to more recent poets, such as Pablo Neruda, and have formed and informed my ministry within Quakerism. I need no convincing of the power of poetry.

I do, however, need more practice in linking my poetry with real-world change.

In my most recent feedback from a social-sciency paper I'm producing for Future Health Systems at IDS, my supervisor suggested that sometimes I had a little 'too much poetry'. Aiming for versatility in my writing, I'm heeding his advice. (Though I'm still slightly miffed. I liked my 'cute' phrases.)

The real trick, I think, is in translation. As Snowden recently reminded me, it is narratives and heuristics more than rules that will guide our behaviour. Knowing when to use what metaphor to help which fragment re-arrange itself within the overarching framework of an institution requires knowing the language and meaning within each area. Keeping our language at the 'edge' means knowing what the shapes of any given audience is. Assuming (for a moment at least) that my supervisor is right - my audience might not be able to hear my so-called 'poetry'. To be heard, we must speak as close to the language of fishermen and policy makers as we can - but remember to which we speak.

This may be yet another aspect lying behind why so many 'blue print solutions' don't work - they lack the translators who can go from the blue print and translate it into the particularities of that situation. And when they do 'work' - it is because some un-sung meza-level manager has found a way to translate the macro to the micro. Translation takes skill - and time. We lack the time and the space to sit with the original piece of work and think, how can this really be used? What meaning do we want to take from this, today?

This is not easy. Those who sit with these uncomfortable passages, where we are asked to disregard the comforts of past patterns (especially those not working), and look to the next surprising edge of a continuously changing and morphing living Spirit are tasked with finding a 'radical' (root-centered) way of living.

Perhaps the work of prophetic poetry is a conversation, not a monologue.

A conversation with at least three actors: the prophet, the listener/reader, and that Being which both listener and prophet are seeking, who is springing forth amidst us, if we can let go of the past sufficiently to see this moment's Genesis.

As we face increasing 'chaos' (or at least something that resembles it), our collective capacity to be poetic prophets and deep - even intercessorary -listeners to and for one another will grow.

Get thee to thine poetry, oh change-maker. And to thine listening. And to thine acting.

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