A few years ago, I saw the Oriental Institute exhibit on the history of writing. I felt a sense of awe as I saw myself, one small person, one small voice, connected to a chain of storytellers that stretches almost 6000 years into the past. Buffalo, elk and wolves roamed widely here when the ancient Sumerians made the spoken word visible.
Writing probably developed so accountants could keep track of land and livestock ownership, but it quickly became the purview of poets. And it is to poets, to musicians, to artists that we turn when we celebrate our joys or need help in enduring our sorrows.
We are enduring bleak times, indeed, in these United States, and we need the arts today as we never did before.
In the aftermath of 9.11, musicians from America’s great symphonies went to Ground Zero, where they played through the night to support the hard work of the first responders. No one sifting through rubble for fragments of human bodies wanted to hear someone read an accounts payable list, much less an ideological diatribe. They needed music, they needed poetry.
When you are out of work, or ill, or grieving, you need a sense of an enduring beauty, one that transcends our changeable mortal condition. In these hard times, I turn to the poet Akhmatova, whose work helped her fellow Russians endure Stalin’s tyranny. I turn to the American poet Mary Oliver, whose deep digging into the natural world gives me new ways of thinking, seeing, feeling.
My own most moving moment as a writer came one evening at a reading I’d given here at the Newberry. A group of women stayed after everyone else had left. They told me they were married to steelworkers who’d been out of work for over a decade. These women worked two and three jobs to support their families. They told me they hadn’t read a book since graduating from high school, until they heard that my books take place in their scarred and wounded neighborhood. They came to hear me read, they said, because my words gave them courage to face the hard hand life had dealt them.
That my work spoke to them in such a way does me more honor than I can rightly express. The Fuller award is for me a shorthand for every writer, every storyteller, poet, painter, singer, whose art has helped another person endure the dark night of the soul.
Around 600 BCE, the Spartan poet Sappho wrote, “Although they are only breath/Words, which I command/Are immortal.”
We don’t today know the names of Sparta’s accountants, nor what they had to say about poets and poetry. We know the name of Pericles, a statesman from Sparta’s rival city, Athens, not from his tweets, but because he funded some of the greatest art the world has ever known.
Sappho lived through times as turbulent as our own, but what we remember from those times are not the account books. We remember the poetry and the sculpture. If we want to create a lasting legacy, it will be through the support of that word, the word cherished by every reader in this room, that word which is only breath; in the end, it is poetry which endures.