“The cloud-seas of the heavens are riled by waves.
The moon a ship rowed into hiding behind a forest of stars.’‘
This waka-style poem was written some 1,300 years ago. It is included in the “Manyoshu” (“A Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”), the oldest extant collection of Japanese poems.
Today, we have sent human beings beyond the reaches of Earth’s atmosphere; we have stood on the surface of the moon. Yet, reading this poem, one has to wonder if people in ancient times didn’t sense the presence of the moon and stars more intimately than we do today. Is it possible they lived richer, more expansive lives than we, who for all our material comfort, rarely remember to look up to the sky?
Immersed in material concerns, clamor and bustle, contemporary humanity has been cut off from the vastness of the universe, from the eternal flow of time. We struggle against feelings of isolation and alienation. We seek to slake the heart’s thirst by pursuing pleasures, only to find that our cravings have grown that much more fierce.
This separation and estrangement is, in my view, the underlying tragedy of contemporary civilization. Divorced from the cosmos, from nature, from society and from each other, we have become fractured and fragmented.
Science and technology have given humanity undreamed of power, bringing invaluable benefits to our lives and health. But this has been paralleled by a tendency to distance ourselves from life, to objectify and reduce everything around us to numbers and things.
Even people become things. The victims of war are presented as statistics; we are numbed to individual realities of unspeakable suffering and grief.
The eyes of a poet discover in each person a unique and irreplaceable humanity. While arrogant intellect seeks to control and manipulate the world, the poetic spirit bows with reverence before its mysteries.
Human beings are each a microcosm. Living here on Earth, we breathe the rhythms of a universe that extends infinitely above us. When resonant harmonies arise between this vast outer cosmos and the inner human cosmos, poetry is born.
At one time, perhaps, all people were poets, in intimate dialogue with Nature. In Japan, the Manyoshu collection comprised poems written by people of all classes. And almost half of the poems are marked “poet unknown.”
These poems were not written to leave behind a name. Poems and songs penned as an unstoppable outpouring of the heart take on a life of their own. They transcend the limits of nationality and time as they pass from person to person, from one heart to another.
The poetic spirit can be found in any human endeavor. It may be vibrantly active in the heart of a scientist engaged in research in the awed pursuit of truth. When the spirit of poetry lives within us, even objects do not appear as mere things; our eyes are trained on an inner spiritual reality. A flower is not just a flower. The moon is no mere clump of matter floating in the skies. Our gaze fixed on a flower or the moon, we intuitively perceive the unfathomable bonds that link us to the world.
In this sense, children are poets by nature, by birth. Treasuring and nurturing their poetic hearts, enabling them to grow, will also lead adults into realms of fresh discovery. We do not, after all, exist simply to fulfill desires. Real happiness is not found in more possessions, but through a deepening harmony with the world.
The poetic spirit has the power to “retune” and reconnect a discordant, divided world. True poets stand firm, confronting life’s conflicts and complexities. Harm done to anyone, anywhere, causes agony in the poet’s heart.
A poet is one who offers people words of courage and hope, seeking the perspective — one step deeper, one step higher — that makes tangible the enduring spiritual realities of our lives.
The apartheid system of racial segregation was a grave crime against humanity. In resisting and combating this evil, the keen sword of words played an important role.
Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali is a South African poet who fought against the iniquities of apartheid with poetry as his weapon. He writes: “Poetry reawakens and reinforces our real, innermost strength; our spirituality. It is the force that makes us decent people, people who are filled with empathy for those in need or pain, those suffering from injustice and other wrongs or societal ills.” Nelson Mandela read Mtshali’s poems in prison, drawing from them energy to continue his struggles.
The Brazilian poet Thiago de Mello, lauded as the protector of the Amazon, also endured oppression at the hands of the military government. On the wall of the cell in which he was imprisoned, he found a poem inscribed by a previous inmate: “It is dark, but I sing because the dawn will come.” They were words from one of his own poems.
Amid the chaos and spiritual void that followed Japan’s defeat in World War II, like many young people of my generation, I gained untold encouragement from reading Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” The overflowing freedom of his soul struck me like a bolt of empathetic lightning.
Now more than ever, we need the thunderous, rousing voice of poetry. We need the poet’s impassioned songs of peace, of the shared and mutually supportive existence of all things. We need to reawaken the poetic spirit within us, the youthful, vital energy and wisdom that enable us to live to the fullest. We must all be poets.
An ancient Japanese poet wrote, “Poems arise as ten thousand leaves of language from the seeds of people’s hearts.”
Our planet is scarred and damaged, its life-systems threatened with collapse. We must shade and protect Earth with “leaves of language” arising from the depths of life. Modern civilization will be healthy only when the poetic spirit regains its rightful place.