Saturday, January 7, 2017
Drawing in the Sand
One of the reasons that I've always been attracted to the poetry of Seamus Heaney is that he created poetry at a time when his country was so deeply divided, with sectarian murders occurring, that any kind of peace or resolution to the conflict seemed impossible. He wrote in his essay, "The Government of the Tongue," "Here is the great paradox of poetry and the imaginative arts in general. Faced with the brutality of the historical onslaught, they are practically useless. Yet they verify our singularity, they strike and stake out the ore of self which lies at the base of every individual life. In one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil--no lyric has ever stopped a tank. In another sense, it is unlimited. It is like the writing in the sand in the face of which accusers and accused are left speechless and renewed."
Heaney, in "the writing in the sand," refers to the story of the woman caught in adultery from chapter 8 in John's Gospel. When the woman is presented to Jesus, he bends down and writes in the sand. When pushed again to respond, Jesus says, "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." Then Jesus bends down and continues to write in the sand until everybody has disappeared.
The poet goes on to write, "The drawing of those characters is like poetry, a break with the usual life but not as an absconding from it." Of course, we don't know what Jesus was doing in the sand. The gospel story says he was "writing" but he could have been doodling or drawing.
Heaney continues, "Poetry, like writing, is arbitrary and marks time in every possible sense of that phrase... [I]n the rift between what is going to happen and whatever we would wish to happen, poetry holds attention for a space, functions not as distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves." So poetry and the imaginative arts can make us "a bit better...for the moment," as Heaney says elsewhere in "Stepping Stones." But we can reject that opportunity provided by art. If the accusers of the woman had no shame or integrity, they could have started to throw stones. So the success of art is fragile and tentative (like writing in the sand), but it is so foundational to our humanity
Interestingly, the story of the accused woman almost didn't make it into John's Gospel. It is found in some of the early manuscripts but not others. Some early Church Fathers wanted to exclude the story because they found Jesus too forgiving.
The accompanying image is an 11x14 pastel on pastel multimedia artboard. It shows a view of a famous rock on the Ogunquit shoreline.