Chard deNiord: Democracy and poetry both require imagination

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Readers: The following address was delivered at a 4 Freedoms Festival event at Manchester's Factory Point Town Green on Saturday by Chard deNiord, the Poet Laureate of Vermont. We thank him for sharing his essay with us, and reprint it here:

The first thing democracy requires is also the first thing poetry requires, namely, imagination. Without it, it's impossible to envision either memorable speech or a State where the genius of its people thrives in both personal and political freedom.

Like democracy, poetry is an ongoing experiment that tests its readers' ability to "get the meanings of poems" which convey "the main things" (Walt Whitman) in every new age. One of the main things, if not the main thing, that gets lost in demagoguery is a citizen's recognition of the other as him or herself. "The most sublime act is to set another before you," wrote William Blake in his poem "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell."

The poet, like the democratic citizen, finds a way to cross over from self to neighbor, self to stranger. "But I felt: you are an I, you are an Elizabeth,/ you are one of them./ Why should you be one, too?" Elizabeth Bishop wrote in the voice of her six-year-old self in her poem "In the Waiting Room"while identifying with her Aunt Consuelo who was in the next room undergoing a painful dental procedure. In democracy and poetry we are all "one of them, too," but only if we exercise our imaginations in acts that are both compassionate and metaphysical, both discerning and fearless, both common and radical. Such transport is human and thereby nation-saving business.

Poetry, as well as fiction, serve as literary vehicles for transporting citizens as readers "across" the transom of self to others where one discovers that he or she is "one [of them], too" and in so doing discovers the vital democratic calculus of the "common good." Thomas Jefferson called the ideal of equality a "self-evident" truth. Inherent in this truth is the secular belief in the citizenry's collective capacity to wed their imaginations to reason as not only a political ideal but a safeguard against tyranny. However, this intellectual marriage is always only the start of democracy.

Democracy's maintenance is the hard part, requiring continuous political balance on a high demotic wire in which citizens, despite their party affiliations, strive to sustain their vision of themselves in others, despite their ethnic, philosophical, and political differences, and in so doing expand themselves within the matrix of diversity into larger selves that, as Walt Whitman claimed, "contain multitudes."

Courage serves as that human gyroscope that keeps a people, a nation, steady on this wire. The man — Franklin Delano Roosevelt — who wrote the "Four Freedoms" that I'm about to read, said the following when the United States was threatened as never before by fascist enemies during World War II: "The one thing we have to fear is fear itself." Freedom begins in belief and the memorable poetic speech of its definition, and then secured by perhaps the most difficult freedom of all, namely freedom from fear itself.

Chard deNiord, the Poet Laureate of Vermont, lives in Westminster West.

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