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  • John Diamond-Nigh

Politics, poison and poets

Updated: Aug 3, 2019


17th century poet #Robert Herrick coined a wonderful phrase–#a wild civility.


That lyrical romanticist of food, MFK Fisher, whom I adore, wrote this: There is food in the bowl, and more often than not because of what honesty I have, there is nourishment in the heart, to feed the wilder, more insistent hungers. We must eat. If in the face of that fact we can find other nourishment and tolerance and compassion, we’ll be no less full of human dignity.


Underline wild. It seems to be a summer theme. I’ve mentioned Robert Macfarlane’s book, The Wild Place.


On top of that, I’ve undergone a three-week French Revolution with poison ivy and discovered, under the arboreal guidance of a friend, the glories of chanterelle mushrooms trickily hiding in the leafmeal gullies of Dupont Forest.


Then underline #civility. It’s so easy to grow tired of both left and right and their political and opportunistic incivilities. #Wokeness? I like #enlightenment better. Wokeness (and salvation) were the themes, sixty years ago, of fundamentalist religion. Under that flag of social and spiritual redemption, we have marched straight into Donald Trump. So I’m skeptical.


A ‘wild civility’ puts into a nutshell what I love about art. What if we took the whole conceivable spectrum of wilder, insistent hungers–for meaning, for equality, for dignity, for food, for love, for happiness, for the raw wealth of existence and brought them within the enclave of those two intriguingly mismatched words? Wild? I think we all more or less understand what it means. Civility? At the root, lies the latin word civilis, meaning “befitting a citizen.” Alas, no longer such a familiar notion.


What is civilization but a civics class in culture? Another civilis word. Then modify, break, bend, spur to continually improve and advance it. We are all so many things. What friend do I know who doesn’t have some wild, some tame, some left, some right, some wisdom, some folly, some center, some fringe, some justice, some injustice woven through her soul. Wokeness? The difference between the religion of my childhood and the humanism of my life is that the former ‘awoke’ you, the latter asked you just to keep growing, a little more each day, into your humanity, your civility, your moral responsibilities. Those natural hungers of which Fisher spoke, far more than any fresh political pieties or old material satieties, will guide us.


My other problem with ‘wokeness': I love great books, great music, great conversation–all those wild, wild, wilderness things. So much right now is being written about art and museums that seeks to refute all that art has been for me–an enlightenment, a paradigm of tact, a relentless spur to citizenship, a perpetual step beyond the thresholds of the status quo. A tie-me-up-in-knots brain-teaser.


#Tact–close to tactile and the luscious tangibility of art. Tact is how you hold someone within the circumference of any encounter. Tact may be our default mode. Wild tactfulness is the right, even boisterous right to challenge, but also to listen. To grant silence. Think of Matisse; think of Stravinsky. Tactlessness? Sometimes appropriate, but not often. Not in a habitual way. It lacks the beautiful stringencies of #wildness.

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