Move lips, move minds and make new meanings flare.
— Seamus Heaney, “Beacons at Bealtaine”
During a time of political optimism in Northern Ireland when the peace process was beginning to take hold, Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney gave a talk at Queens University in Belfast about the potential power of poetic language. In a place where the “idioms of suspicion and accusation” were insidious and entrenched, Heaney hoped that a fluid approach to identity and language might provide an escape route from binary thinking and the “weary twisted emotions” of Northern Ireland’s “troubles.”
Heaney suggested that it was poets and other writers who could provide a “re-angling of perception” that might loosen the stranglehold the sectarian psyche had imposed upon the linguistic and political landscape. Given some room to move, a more unruly vocabulary could surface where Catholics might regard themselves as “Catestants,” and Protestants could see themselves as “Protholics” — slippages in language that might glide over into a more artful politics. Heaney was hoping a moment was arriving where “words would refuse to know their places.”
Binary thinking is the mode of the bureaucrat, the fundamentalist, the humorless and the fanatic. If something is this, it most certainly cannot be that. Robert Gottlieb, who is retiring this week as the director of Occidental College’s Urban & Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI), is the antithesis of the professorial bureaucrat, an intellectual and organizational jaywalker who has often stepped over the solid lines of conventional thinking.
Influenced by the French Situationists during a college year in France in the early 1960s, Gottlieb embraced the slogan “All power to the imagination” as a call to look at how politics might become a kind of public poetry — Heaney’s perceptive openness applied to our social life. If something is this, it very well could also be that.
Gottlieb’s numerous publications include Thinking Big, a book he wrote about the influence of the Los Angeles Times that is indispensable for understanding the history of Los Angeles.
He is also one of the architects of the ArroyoFest, which shut down the Pasadena Freeway for several hours one Sunday morning in 2003. The freeway was transformed into a walkway and bike path, demonstrating, among other things, that riding a bike from Pasadena to Los Angeles during rush hour could be faster than driving a car.
While directing the UEPI, he worked closely with the poet Lewis MacAdams and the Friends of the Los Angeles River to re-conceptualize what the river could become. He was also one of the main organizers behind the Farm to School movement that is now a presence in more than 2,000 schools nationwide, providing fresh fruits and vegetables to underserved communities.
In Situationist and poetic fashion, Gottlieb has demonstrated that the mind and body can think about and be in two places at one time. By challenging the tyranny of the automobile, he was proposing that a freeway might also be a walkway. A storm drain is transformed into a river when someone first declares the drain to be a river. A school can become a garden but remain a school. And a university can be a place of contemplation and research as well as a center of community and political action. Precision and unruliness bang together in language and in politics, widening the poetic and political imagination.
Heaney was cautious about bending poetry to the social causes of the day, reducing the demands of art to political catechisms. But he also insisted that poets had to stay in touch with the social and anthropological reality of their societies to have any staying power. Some of his most powerful and haunting poems, such as “Casualty,” grew out of the dark predicament of Northern Ireland. He believed it was possible to retain artistic self-respect by placing his more “public” poems “equidistant from rant and whimper.”
In political terms, this is the ground between the ideologue and the cynic – the former being someone who pushes every issue through a narrow funnel; the latter, a person who regards our situation as irredeemable and likens reform to bandaging a cancer.
Gottlieb calls himself a practical idealist, taking the world as it is but willing to attempt its transformation. Heaney, shortly before he died, made the distinction between naive optimism and hard-earned hope. Hope was a condition of the soul, he felt, a conviction that there were things worth working for regardless of the results of our efforts. There was something radical and affirming about Heaney’s insistence on “keeping going,” a stoic urgency and steadfastness that is also characteristic of Bob Gottlieb’s life and work.