An Essay for July 4th

by Conrad Martin

It being a national holiday celebrating something like freedom, let us voluntarily take upon ourselves the duties of free citizens, and consider how we should be serving the good of our society. Let us be relevant.

Most of the poems I receive daily in my inbox from Poetry Foundation speak to the social ills of the day. They deal in a particular kind of human experience: suffering under the oppression of systems more or less inhuman. This is relevant.

These poems are in good company; they remind me of many Old Testament prophecies—impassioned laments against violence and injustice.

But it seems that this valid use of art has in some minds all but overwhelmed art’s other purposes, and because there is nothing but human hope, an indefinite, totalizing negativity presides. Artists in time past shamelessly expressed the sheer beauty and innocent delight they saw and imagined, not scrupling to be naively happy, but today, art must be serious, or perhaps flippant, or else cynically both. Our most joyful works manage only a tortured celebration of the complexities of awareness.

A prophet is called to feel the weight of the burden of the people, and to speak out of that burden the truth which brings down the haughty and raises the downtrodden. Many have drawn parallels or even suggested equivalence between the classic image of prophetic calling and the modern concept of artistic vocation. Artists today, to the degree that they experience broader culture, will sooner or later feel the pressure to be socially relevant.

An internal pressure of this kind is a gift, but an external pressure is a debt. Question whether the burden is indeed yours to receive. Owe no man anything but love.

If I adopt blindly the enlightened conscience trending today, I might miss my own conscience. What is the work, gift, burden I am truly given? What is the need of the world which most compels me?

I have often felt that, if we could be consistently aware of the beauty of the common all about us, a major source of social sickness would be healed, in a deep, hidden cleansing. But this rationale is perhaps not the primary justification for writing joy. The primary reason is that a burden of joy is given, as other burdens are given at other times. I must know the Giver.

I am quite finite—irrelevant to most things. Let me care deeply about the needs within my reach, and let me often forget all in the joy of the Giver.

Artwork: The Pleasure of Memory, Claude Raguet Hirst, 1855-1942

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