A poet’s view of power

Former Poet Laureate of Colorado and Professor of English at The Colorado College, Dr. David Mason is an extraordinarily gifted poet who offers us a clear-eyed, honest, often haunting vision of the world, through lyrics, libretti, and narrative poems.  He also recently penned a moving panegyric for the great Australian poet, Les Murray.

One of Mason’s most moving narratives, Ludlow, concerns tragic massacre from the annals of 19th century American labor efforts, in the struggle to unionize an immigrant community of miners. The poet’s description of hope-filled lives suddenly cut short is deeply disturbing, as the myriad players and mixed politics of the story reveal much of humanity’s crooked timber. 

Today I thought it fitting to explore Mason’s work, both because Monday is always a good day to muse on the poets, but more so because the American body politic is extremely fractured, at this time. The violent death of a fellow citizen at the hands of the police is unquestionably a perversion of our nation’s commitment to human dignity, and it must be addressed. Which is why Mason’s Ludlow came to mind, for the story’s conflict culminates in a massacre by lawful authorities of largely unarmed citizens. 

At present, the pursuit of justice must continue unabated. Which makes this the right moment for asking ourselves, individually and collectively, How do we hope to achieve true justice? And, we have need of soul-searching honesty, if we ever hope to experience heart-felt renewal of the common good. 

So, here’s where the poet’s vision might clarify. In “Song of the Powers,” Mason suggests that the crushing, snuffing, cutting exercise of the various powers in a simple children’s game may reveal the limits of our own vision, if power becomes our sole concern. Power we will always have with us. But, to what end? And, by whose lights will we determine a just exercise of power?  

For the poet, the powers themselves, “[t]hey all end alone.” A keen reminder that power is never an end in itself worth pursuing. If we are lucky, in this current power-struggle, we’ll find a way forward that renews our body politic with an exercise of power that aims at mercy-crossed” justice (to borrow another poet’s fine phrase). Else we end up all alone. 


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