Poets get the final word
I often recall the old adage that victors write history. There is some truth to this adage (thus why it continues to exist). The people of power have the ability to authenticate a certain version of events and what stories get told and what stories do not get told.
I remember for instance the first time I learned about the Philippine-American War. Don’t look to most U.S. History books to teach much (if anything) about it. We were the victors and we didn’t want to tell this story. After all if France had been as imperialistic in 1780 as we were in 1899 then our Revolutionary War would have ended with us being a French colony and not our own nation. We don’t want to tell the story about how we helped the Philippines win their independence from Spain only to “buy” them as concessions from Spain in the peace treaty.
I’ve always espoused the theory that victors get to write history books… but it doesn’t really last. In fact the real power lies in the poets. When poets get a hold of the stories (and the stories get a hold of the poets) real history is “made.” I had this thought (not for the first time but in a new way) last night when I was watching the 2010 Ridley Scott Robin Hood movie (I don’t recommend seeing it if you haven’t). The one thing the movie does as a nod to history is that it doesn’t paint Richard the Lionhearted as a good king.
Wait… what? Richard is always the hero. He was a great general, the epitome of the Christian leader bringing light in a time of great darkness.
Well… no. Not really… not at all.
He was perhaps a great general… but many historians recounting of him goes something like, “He was a bad son, a bad husband, a bad Christian and a bad king… (frankly even a bad Englishman)… but he was a great soldier.”
But it’s hard to really imagine him thus… because the poets chose otherwise. Richard is the valiant King who comes to save England from the poor rule of John? That’s what all the stories say, that’s the role he plays… that is who he is – right?
Sadly no, in fact it’s arguable that John was the better king… and Richard mostly bankrupted his country he didn’t even like (he much preferred life on the “Continent”) to fight wars with little purpose and effect other than to engender hatred and strife.
So what is my point here? My point is the poets – for the sake of story – choose to make John the miser and Richard the King. And it had nothing to do with actual history… and yet it’s a more living history than the “truth.” It wasn’t necessarily the victor that got to write history… it was the captivating story that won the day.
Stories are powerful, and poets prove the pen (and voice) is a more powerful shaper of life than the sword can ever be (though let us not be trite about this… the sword clearly isn’t powerless. But it its power has limits when it comes to squashing the poets voice). Poets provide the living memory… and they can endorse the tyrannical dictator and make him or her a hero, or it can subvert the foundations of authority and usher in revolution. Poets can make outlaws heroes (whether its Robin of the Hood, or rap music). Poets can decide we will sing the Star, Spangled Banner or Mary’s Magnificat.
Wait, there is Mary again. How did she get back in this? Because Mary is the voice of the poet shaping what stories we tell. Her story cries woe to the rich, woe to the powerful, woe to those who rule by the sword. Her poetry cries justice for the oppressed, exaltation for the shamed, and tangible presence of God to the forgotten.
And her poetry cannot be denied its voice… no Roman Emperor (or Pope for that matter), or Spanish Conquistador, or Western deistic imperialists has fully succeeded in silencing her song (though plenty of efforts with some success exist even unto this day). Her poetry gets picked up again and again to subvert the powers that oppress and seeks to bring good news to those who have none.
So with this final reflection on Mary I find myself examined by her to ask myself:
What kind of poet am I? What stories do I share, and what story does my life speak on my behalf?
The poet wields great power… and as we all know from Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The world cannot afford for us to deny our calling to be poets. And we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to one another, we owe it the world to let our poetry be in the service life and love.
Sing, dance, draw, play… poet us into a brighter tomorrow.