Friday, November 14, 2008

from "The Cure at Troy" by Seamus Heaney/Thinking about Collective Subjectivity, Whitman, and Tempered Hopes

With the election of Barack Obama, many of us have felt that some tide of history has shifted, and some great possibility is awakened in us again. I came across Seamus Heaney's poem, "The Cure at Troy," and it reminded me again of that byword of the Obama campaign, "hope," which was employed to such moving effect with the song and video called "Yes We Can," by's piece echoes and tunes itself around a speech by Barack Obama, in ways that evoke and embody the collective voice (the "we" of "yes we can") that the speech invokes.

In a powerful way, the song "Yes We Can" brings us into the nationalist project of Whitman, which "contains multitudes," and sings the larger song in which each of us participates--drawing back through the history of struggle--and forward into what the future holds. Relatedly, Heaney's poem, with its suffusion in classical Greek sources as well as the background of the Troubles of Northern Ireland, has the kind of tempered hope that feels appropriate to the moment--perhaps even more so--given the challenges ahead.
from "The Cure at Troy " by Seamus Heaney

Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted or endured.

The innocent in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home.

History says, Don't hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.

Call the miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.
If there's fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.
It means once in a lifetime
That justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

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