If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from my time with The Reader Organisation, it’s to never underestimate the power of poetry. Yes, any kind of literature is important in acting as a port in the storm, an oasis in the desert of life. But there is something particularly special about the ability of a singular poem to transform and to elucidate, to give that little ray of sunshine on an otherwise gloomy day. To show that as the words of someone, even in a period of crisis, can survive and stand strong against adversity, so too can their spirit, and so can anyone else’s. Going through a whole spectrum of emotion and experience, revealing things that may not be otherwise spoken for fear, self-consciousness – whatever reason – and coming through that into a place of greater hope and clarity, all in a mere few lines. It’s no mean feat.
That’s why I’m not entirely surprised to discover that ink is flowing in the San Jose mine, just outside of the city of Copiapo in Chile: the place where currently thirty three miners are trapped underground and have been for nearly two months. In order to ensure survival – and no doubt, to maintain their sanity – each man has adopted for himself a special role in this unique community, this band of brothers who need to rely so strongly on each other as well as the outside world which will provide their eventual rescue. Amongst the electricians, the telephone-line manners, the medics and the pastor, one man – Victor Zamora – is the group’s ‘official poet’. Amongst their number there is also a biographer keeping a detailed record of each long and dark day, but poetry seems an especially suitable medium for such a desperate but also remarkable situation. It demonstrates the passage previously mentioned; the journey not through the physical space – as there is nowhere to go – but through the mind of someone who has nothing else to do but think. In his mind, Zamora has travelled to many places; from the raw, immediate emotions of sheer unbridled fear and despondency onto an acceptance and renewed optimism. Some of his most recent lines to emerge from the depths into daylight are as follows: “Under the earth there is a ray of light, my path, and faith is the last thing that is lost… I have been born again.” Words to stir the soul and proof of poetry’s underlying purpose – to help survive – if there ever was any. And perhaps evidence of the next Pablo Neruda…?
This week’s featured poem is another story of survival and the emergence of hope in a testing time. I think Victor Zamora and his fellow miners could well identify with the words of John Milton in this particularly powerful piece. First off, there is the lessening light contrasting with the overwhelming ‘dark world’, and the sense of being blind, which describes the miners’ situation perfectly, both literally and metaphorically. This was the case for Milton too, all too literally, as his sight was rapidly failing due to glaucoma and by 1654, he was completely blind. Then there is the matter of faith, the last thing that is lost, the thing that Milton struggles with – how can he serve God with the failing of a key sense, one so important to his talent “lodg’d with me useless”? But not only does his ‘talent’ still survive regardless, but so does his faith when he understands that his service is not measured merely by the amount of work one does but simply by his belief as he “only stands and waits” . At the moment, this is all the miners can do. But even in doing their individual activities, even in just enduring, they are serving; not just in a religious sense, but as an example and inspiration, just as Milton does also.
On His Blindness
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
John Milton (1608-1674)