Air Traffic and What Poetry Cannot and Can Do for Us
Today marks the publication of the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Gregory Pardlo's book Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America. In a broad-ranging exploration of family and identity, Pardlo, born in 1968, recollects his father's involvement in the air traffic controllers' strike of 1981, and the lifelong upheaval—and formation of self—that resulted when President Reagan fired some 13,000 federal workers. The excerpt below, from a chapter entitled "Tolle, Lege" (the Latin "take up and read"), connects his father's beliefs as a labor organizer to what poetry can (and can't) do for us.
from Air Traffic
"If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live." So resounded MLK's maxim in my childhood home, pitching family life at the highest intensity level, no matter the adversity. I was twelve when I joined my father in the commitment that scarred his character and shaped mine. It appeared to me then, and I know it to be true now, that the air traffic control strike of 1981 was the defining moment in my father's life. A pivotal point for me by proxy; the strike still shapes how I understand all that happened before and after it in my life. My father was fond of reciting from memory the Rudyard Kipling poem "If":
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And—which is more—you'll be a Man, my son!
If I'm not willing to die for my dream of a new America, I am at least willing to be reckless for it. To recall the Kipling poem in my father's voice is to clear a path through the debris of self-doubt, if only long enough to move my life a few metaphorical steps in the direction of my American Dream.
I am a poet. Poetry and civic duty share a porous border in my mind. Being a poet doesn't make me virtuous. Poetry never prevented me from totaling a car. No shrink wrote me a prescription for poetry. Poetry never represented me in court. Poems can't keep me from getting mugged or roughed up by police. Poetry never cured a hangover, and it never paid a bar tab. Although I have wept and prayed to poetry to ease my burden in these and other regards, which have constituted, at one time or another, the core preoccupations of my daily life, poetry answers no prayers. Poetry is useless to me in all but one way. Reading it makes me a nicer person.
Reading poetry has improved my ability to intuit, and thereby negotiate more effectively, the needs and desires of others. I'm no mind reader, but poetry puts me in tune with the unarticulated registers of language, a skill that, through reflection, also helps me identify my own blind spots. The best poems model the kind of work I want to do on myself. It's difficult to identify my strengths and flaws on my own, especially if I've spent my life around people who think, act, and perceive the world in the same way that I do. Especially in diversity-poor environments, poetry is the best supplement to help getting out of one's own head.