THE BLOG
12/24/2014 10:28 am ET Updated Feb 23, 2015

Agents of Hope

Jamie Grill via Getty Images

"Talk is cheap." "Actions speak louder than words." These idioms and many like them originated with good intentions but they've been transformed in a culture that has devaluated the precious potential of great language to empower and transform people into attacks on the power of language itself. Even the word "rhetoric" has come to acquire negative connotations.

Talk can be empty but it can also, in the right hands, prevent nations from marching to war, resolve family fights, enable men and women in parliaments, congresses and senates throughout the world to work together despite the minutia of political divides. Words can be mute but they can also, in the hands of our great poets, enable humanity to rise above the muddle present and touch something timeless and eternal. Rhetoric, at its best, has the ability to inspire generations and motivate positive change in the world.

But we live in an age in which the attack on language is endemic; an age in which techniques like the filibuster have been used to effect mass dysfunction in governance and prevent people from talking to one another. This is particularly ironic because of the fact that now, more than ever, the need for increased communication and understanding is vital. The challenges that face my generation are stunning.

We are a generation, at our most positive and our most negative that seem to be desperate for something to believe in. So it shouldn't be surprising that we live in an age of extremes: an age of great advances and boundless acts of humanity but also one of debilitating plague and astonishing conflict. When I contend with this in my art I'm consistently encouraged by some of my guiding lights. They are as diverse as Anwar Sadat and Naguib Mahfouz, Seamus Heaney and John F. Kennedy, W.B. Yeats and Benazir Bhutto. Many of these figures play a part in the narrative of my musical output which, at its heart, brings together my two main passions: poetry and statecraft.

In both our poetic and diplomatic lives I would argue for broad return to a love for illustrious language. As I've noted, poetry can give us a means to reach beyond the daily, confused present and touch something timeless and eternal. And since a lot of people across the world today, especially young people, are desperate for meaning it seems to me that a return to language is the first step in solving some of the larger problems of human communication and understanding that are manifesting themselves in conflicts from the Middle East to U.S. Congressmen and Senators unable to talk to one another.

I was once challenged by a critic who asked me why I couldn't just write a piece of music for the sake of writing a piece of music. The truth is that I could do that but it doesn't interest me at all. Beyond being uninteresting to me there's a deeper reason for why I am not an artist who creates "for the sake of art". Music has accompanied humanity from the very start of our journey and it has been intertwined with human society ever since. The idea of separating music from the aspirations of society is artificial to me. Beyond the basic utilitarian uses for music in our cultures (to march off to war, sing when the crops are brought in, serenade one's love ones, rock a child to sleep with a lullaby) there is an inherent storytelling aspect to music that is linked to the past and future of every society. Though some have tried to suppress it, there is no human civilization that is without music.

On the other hand, the idea of "abstract music" (music that is "just about itself") is a fairly new conceit, only a few centuries old. It reached its apex in 18th Century European Classicism and was resurrected in the 20th Century by some academic composers with a tiny audience of like-minded colleagues.

For me, some of the most vital roles for music and the arts in general are to fight corruption, inspire people to rise above their limitations, resist narrow specialization and remind humanity of the astonishing diversity of the world and the universe. It's no coincidence that the American president who held the arts in highest esteem was the same one who determined to put a man on the moon before the end of his decade.

The artist must be a defender of the merits of the individual voice and a devotee of justice. We must be committed to breaking down the walls that stifle creative sharing of ideas; the walls that define dark ages. Artists are leaders in every renaissance and vital ingredients to any truly democratic society. Just as we call for communities to return to great language, poetry, music and art, we artists should embrace our responsibilities within the broader human community.

So my call for a return to language is not a casual one. In times like ours, there is an imperative to use and value language more carefully and thoughtfully -- a need to listen to and admire thoughtful language as part of our day-to-day lives. Our highest forms of linguistic expression are a defining element -- and reflection of -- our humanity. Whether as powerfully revealed in Anwar Sadat's speech to the Israeli Knesset -- "fill the earth and space with recitals of peace... turn the song into reality that blossoms and lives" -- or in W.H. Auden's command to embark on the miraculous transfiguration that ends his famous Elegy for Yeats.

The Elegy's magnificent third section with which it ends is a direct resolution of Auden's line that "poetry makes nothing happen" earlier, in the second section of the Elegy. Here, poetry's triumph is its survival in a place "where executives would never want to tamper" rather than achieving any heroic transfiguration. When I set this poem to music I proceeded from the second to the third song without pause chronicling the journey of the poet. The third song begins, setting the final, metered section of Auden's Elegy. Here, I mark the score "austere and measured" and the metered chimes ring allegorically as Auden intones for the first time in the poem the name of William Yeats. After recapping the status quo and reaching its lowest point, the music starts to heat up. It's at the end of this poem that the miraculous transfiguration of traditional elegies happens for Auden as it did for poets of the past:

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress.

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

And we must also follow the path of Auden's poet otherwise the death of Yeats would have no meaning. It would simply be the loss of a great poet, a vital mouth, adding insult to the injury of a Europe on the brink of self destruction. The death of Yeats does have meaning partially because we are able to project beyond the current brink into a future that is productive and peaceful. That is also why the deaths of JFK, Anwar Sadat and Benazir Bhutto were not in vain. Anything less than working toward a common human destiny of enlightenment, liberation and dignity is not only immoral; it is unsustainable. Fundamentally, the artist can be an agent of hope.

President Kennedy's extraordinary remarks at Amherst College have motivated me since I first read them as a little boy. They still serve me as a foundational guiding light in my career. Like Anwar Sadat and Benazir Bhutto, JFK was noted for his powerful ability to deliver meaningful and transformative words. And also like the two other leaders, he was a singular visionary who was taken from us by violence too soon. Less than a month before his assassination, Kennedy delivered these deeply touching remarks about the role of the artist in society. The speech is a sort of music by itself. In it he notes that "Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much."

Kennedy continues that "When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure... In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role..."

"If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as Mr. MacLeish once remarked of poets, there is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style. In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society-- in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost's hired man, the fate of having 'nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.'"

Kennedy concludes this address with a visionary call:
"I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.

I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction."

Follow, Poet is the debut album of Universal Music Classics/Deutsche Grammophon's new Return to Language Series. Preorder from Amazon today!