Time spent on the arts in classrooms is declining. One study found that a third of elementary students in our state get less than one hour of arts education per week.
IN my first months as Washington state’s poet laureate, I’ve participated in many events and heard poems by published and unpublished poets. I’ve seen audiences of a few hundred and audiences of nine. I’ve witnessed joy and grief, as well as confusion and understanding on the faces of people around me.
Poetry — art — can show us how we are connected to another person’s version of what it is to be human and can allow for those moments when, as Elizabeth Bishop wrote, we take “A sharp, indrawn breath, / half groan, half acceptance, / that means ‘Life’s like that. / We know it (also death).’ ”
It’s sublime, really, to see a diverse group of people listening to one another, really listening, and then sighing, smiling or (from time to time) sobbing. Sometimes all at once.
I think that many people in Washington hunger for more of these encounters, glimpses into how others feel, think and live: a sense of what Gwendolyn Brooks called “life distilled.” Why? I don’t know for sure, but John Keats, a working-class poet from 19th-century England, wrote about “negative capability” in a letter to a friend, and perhaps this concept is relevant. Keats thought that negative capability was necessary for creative thinking — it’s a state where we are “capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reading after fact and reason.”
So many cultural forces shove us toward immediate certainty: from quick trivia fixes via smartphones to the rhetorical bombast of talk radio. Fewer people seem willing to dwell in a cloud of unknowing — of “maybe,” “could be” and “I dunno.” Think about the difficulty in saying, “I’m unsure. Let me get back to you on that in a few days,” or the last time that you heard, “I don’t understand this, but that’s OK. I want to live with it for a while.”
Unsurprisingly, political discourse has regressed to literal brawling in arenas and rioting in the streets. Dialogue about race and gender is equally fraught. Czeslaw Milosz, Nobel laureate, poet and survivor of the Warsaw occupation, asserted that the great enemy of humanity was generalization — the quick answers that a Google or a wiki might give. As long as instant certainty prevails, then the slick slide to generalization will be open, and that descent leads to misunderstanding and misdeed.
Mystery and doubt can check reactionary thinking, and the arts can help us inhabit uncertainty. Unfortunately, arts funding in our country has declined precipitously. According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, Washington is currently ranked 46th in the nation in state funding of the arts. Washington’s per capita support is just 16 cents compared to neighbors Oregon (51 cents) and Idaho (46 cents). The highest? Minnesota ($6.26). Lowest? Arizona ($0).
Time spent on the arts in classrooms is also declining. A 7-year-old study by ArtsWA told us that 33 percent of elementary students in our state are getting less than one hour of arts education per week, a number that I’m sure has only diminished since that report was issued.
What if the prevalence of diatribes over dialogue connected to a lack of art in our lives? What if the ability “to exist in a state of uncertainty” connected with poetry and the other arts could foster empathy and understanding? What if listening to music and making sculptures, and engaging in creativity and experiencing creativity would allow for a counter energy to absolutism, for an awareness of differences without judgment, for those sighs and sharp indrawn breaths when we can hear the mysterious rhythms of someone else’s life? What if (since we so love our sciences) we tried an experiment during which every one of us spent daily time focused with the arts?
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I know that recently, at a poetry event in Olympia, I heard many readers share their poems. Some readers performed high-energy raps. Other readers shared quieter poems about childhood. One reader quoted Emily Dickinson, another Kendrick Lamar. Everyone engaged perspectives not their own; everyone sighed and laughed, breathed with half-groans and half acceptance, which is, of course, the stuff of which empathy is made — a mysterious quality that seems harder and harder to find.