A Poet Finds Moral Beauty in the Lives of the Poor

Peter Marin’s poetry portrays the lives of homeless people as sources of great artistic beauty. Marin sees nobility disguised under shabby overcoats and finds beauty hidden inside cardboard shacks, in the people that America forgot.

“Depression Bread Line.” George Segal’s sculpture at the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C., reveals the poverty of a nation.

by Terry Messman

For almost 30 years, Peter Marin has been fighting to protect the human rights of homeless people from never-ending attacks by politicians who employ every means at their disposal to banish the poor with an oppressive array of segregation laws.

It has often been a solitary struggle. Marin’s steadfast opposition to the efforts to criminalize homelessness has made him somewhat of an anathema to the merchants and city officials who try to eliminate street people from affluent seaside Santa Barbara.

Marin is an uncommonly intelligent analyst of the cruel conditions endured by homeless people in America. A former university professor, prolific author, poet, and journalist for Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, and Psychology Today, Marin is the founder of the Committee for Social Justice in Santa Barbara — and a man who has stood in solidarity with homeless people, in season and out.

Above all, he is a gadfly who stings the consciences of conservative and liberal lawmakers alike who try to legislate the poor out of existence.

Marin first stumbled upon the hidden landscape of homelessness — an immense and virtually unexplored subcontinent inhabited by the nameless and faceless multitudes cast out of mainstream society — after he graduated from Swarthmore College and Columbia University with a master’s degree in literature and an unquenchable case of wanderlust.

He soon enrolled in a new field of “post-graduate” study by hopping freight trains rolling through the night, riding hundreds of miles across the countryside while doing seasonal work as a crop-picker.

As a restless wanderer riding the rails, he came to greatly respect his companions riding in midnight boxcars and sleeping in hobo jungles. Those days on the road ended up etched indelibly on his mind and heart.

Looking back on those nomadic days in his recent article, “The Moral Beauty of Acts of Goodness and Justice” [Street Spirit, January 2014], Marin wrote that he witnessed acts of sharing and kindness from the hungry and ragged men riding the rails that contained more beauty than could be found in acclaimed art museums.

The men he met in hobo jungles were “quite willing to share with one another and with me their shelter and last bits of food and cared for each other in a way that those with homes often do not.”

Most people don’t enter the encampments of the poor to find beauty and truth, but Marin saw extraordinary examples of what he calls “moral beauty” in the lives of cast-aside people in hobo jungles.

A Moral Inventory

A sort of moral inventory emerged when he began reflecting on a list of what he has most loved in his lifetime: The Freedom Riders of the segregated South, the generosity of men in hobo jungles, the resistance of Rosa Parks, unarmed and impoverished peasants in Mexico and Peru who bravely stood up to armed troops, black schoolchildren “who walked into white schools while people screamed at them on all sides,” and certain Vietnam vets “who fought in a war I hated,” but also taught so much about courage, love of comrades, and sacrifice.

When he looks back at these crucial moments of inspiration, Marin can also see a small group of homeless friends marching slowly across the entire breadth of the North American continent.

On Martin Luther King’s birthday in 1989, they set out on a cross-country march from Santa Barbara, California, to the massive Housing Now! demonstration in Washington, D.C. It took the small band 10 long months to walk 3,000 miles from the West Coast to the nation’s capitol.

At some indefinable point, the march became something more than a protest for human rights. It became a pilgrimage, a procession that Marin found no less holy than the peace pilgrimages of Buddhist monks marching for the sanctity of life.

At heart, it was all about soul. Even people who don’t have a home anywhere on this earth, still have a home in the “far region inside” where the soul dwells. Marin describes that ultimate soulful destination of the marchers on their cross-country pilgrimage in his poem “The Walkers.”

“I believe now we crossed

not only the country

but a far region inside where

the soul has its home.”

These experiences on the road were crucial in the formation of his conscience, and his personal friendships with the homeless friends he traveled with on these journeys helped give his later activism a profoundly personal dimension.

Peter the Mariner

As he reflects on his years of advocacy, the insights that emerge are rarely of the comforting kind. They tend to be more unsettling than inspiring, as if his thoughts have taken shape in the dark night of the soul, like the troubled dreams of a dead-tired traveler on a midnight train.

Marin is a poet, and during our interview, I involuntarily recall the shipwrecked seafarer from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Ancient Mariner is a haunted figure, shaken by his own conscience, who has been condemned to wander the earth as a penance for killing an albatross on his nearly ruinous voyage.

For the rest of his life, the Mariner is compelled to teach the hard lessons he learned while adrift at sea — lessons about the darkness of the human heart and the saving grace of kindness. The Mariner calls for love and compassion for all things great and small.

He prayeth best, who loveth best

All things both great and small;

For the dear God who loveth us,

He made and loveth all.

I can’t help but realize how closely Marin’s very name echoes that of the Mariner, and how his life’s journey seems reminiscent of the haunted seafarer: Peter the Mariner. Both mariners saw the tragic suffering and deaths of their friends. Both came to understand the central significance of kindness. The key difference is that Peter Marin’s journey took place on land, rather than at sea. Or did it?

Marin’s narrative poem, “The Walkers,” described this 3,000-mile march in images that make it seem like the experiences of a small band of sailors lost at sea. In Marin’s poem, in the midst of the great American landmass of prairies and mountains, we suddenly see a disturbing echo of the Ancient Mariner “shipwrecked, driven wild by thirst,” and seeing “imagined rescuers” on the horizon. This passage from Marin’s “The Walkers” is strangely evocative of the Ancient Mariner:

By the light of our fires we

heard men speak of lost children

or the pain of exile

with no hope of return.

In sleep they cried out to us

as do those shipwrecked

driven wild by thirst

who see on the horizon

imagined rescuers.

Just as Coleridge’s Mariner was compelled ever after to warn about the urgent need for love and kindness, Marin’s poetry and activism have become a lifelong call for more compassion, more love.

Marin’s epic poem cycle on homelessness, “Margins,” is an odyssey through the back alleys and broken dreams of what sociologist Michael Harrington once called the “Other America” — the hidden America of poverty. Marin’s poem cycle is just as important as Harrington’s renowned indictment of economic inequality.

The Geography of Loss

In every state of the nation, Marin and his fellow marchers witnessed homeless men arrested for sleeping on riverbanks, homeless women falling victim to hunger and illness and cruel weather, and parents struck down by the loss of their children.

In Marin’s unforgettable phrase, such daily tragedies formed “a geography of loss” that encompasses an entire nation.

The grieved faces melt into one

the cities combine skies

become a single huge roof

above a chamber of sorrows

stretching from sea to shining sea.

These hauntingly beautiful poems serve as an elegy for the oppressed, a reminder of their humanity, and a shocking jolt to the conscience of a nation gone wrong.

Painting by Maynard Dixon. Alone and forgotten, a desolate-looking man is avoided and ignored by passers-by.

The Personal is Political

The personal is political, as the saying goes. In the case of Marin, the personal is poetical. Marin’s poetics and his political activism both stem from his personal connections to homeless individuals.

In a land where homeless people are endlessly persecuted by every cop, politician and businessman, it is almost a revolutionary act when a poet finds beauty in their lives, and restores their stolen dignity.

After my own 30 years of homeless activism, Marin’s poetry is one of the few things I have discovered that is of lasting value. His poems enable us to see the sacred beauty of people living on the streets all around us. That is an amazing accomplishment in a culture that has almost unanimously concluded that the lives of the poor have no value at all.

Renaissance artists often painted beautiful portraits of the nobility and royalty. Marin’s poetry turns that world upside down by portraying the lives of homeless people as sources of great artistic beauty. Marin sees nobility disguised under shabby overcoats and finds beauty hidden inside cardboard shacks, in the people that America forgot. His poetry illuminates and transfigures, so that we no longer see only victims laid low by poverty. Rather, we see into the human soul — shining, sacred and somehow everlasting.

That is not to say that his poem cycle romanticizes homelessness. His poems offer stark glimpses into the despair and ugliness of poverty, the cruelty and violence of the streets, the lonely men suffering in hospital wards, the agony of parents who have lost their children. Dante’s underworld, with no hope for deliverance.

Yet, just as often, he portrays selfless acts of kindness because he has personally witnessed this kind of moral beauty on the streets, time after time.

Sell-Out Social Workers

Marin condemns career-oriented social workers who sell out the interests of the poor people they supposedly serve, and refuse to oppose anti-poor laws so as not to jeopardize their careers.

“They don’t know any of the homeless people,” Marin said. “They know them only because they sit across the desk from them as social workers and service providers. They have a program to which people have to apply and they have hoops through which people have to jump. But they’re not out on the streets living with people or helping them day by day. They are good members of the privileged class. They don’t identify with the poor.”

The Freedom Riders who risked their lives in the civil rights era found the strength to continue because of their personal bonds and friendships. Marin said, “What the Freedom Riders had on their minds were their sisters and mothers and fathers and brothers. So I think true advocates are speaking for their friends. And I think service providers are the people who sit across the desk from you, whether they work for the state or a private agency.”

Tenderness

Marin’s words remind me of the importance attached to love and friendship by the liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez. In his book We Drink From Our Own Wells (Orbis Books), Gutierrez wrote: “It is a work of concrete, authentic love for the poor that is not possible apart from bonds of real friendship with those who suffer despoliation and injustice. The solidarity is not with ‘the poor’ in the abstract but with human beings of flesh and bone. Without love and affection, without—why not say it?—tenderness, there can be no true gesture of solidarity.”

Tenderness. Gutierrez, the tough-minded liberation theologian who courageously denounces government repression in the slums of Lima, Peru, calls out for tenderness. Tenderness is a trait that poets are often accused of, almost as if it were an affliction. Tenderness is exactly the word I would use to describe Marin’s poems about heartbroken and homesick wanderers.

Marin founded the Committee for Social Justice to help represent people who ran afoul of anti-homeless laws. The Committee also proposed innovative solutions to homelessness, including safe camping zones, legalized vehicular camping, and a county loan program to enable homeless people to purchase vehicles to live in — a readily achievable approach to creating the most low-cost housing of all.

Some of these solutions worked, others were turned down by county officials, but they were all based on a practical commitment to helping neighbors in need, rather than brewed up in an academic study of demographics and sociological statistics.

After four people froze to death in a 10-day span a few winters ago in Santa Barbara County, Marin and a few activists succeeded in opening emergency warming centers. The Board of Supervisors had been debating the issue for three years until the activists packed their chambers and demanded the funding to open the centers.

Four years later, the emergency warming centers are still operating — and still saving lives. The centers open when temperatures drop below 35 degrees at night, or when it is raining. With their emphasis on giving life-saving help, the warming centers are emblematic of the “tenderness” that Gutierrez valued so highly.

In 1987, the Homeless Coalition in Santa Barbara succeeded in forcing the city to temporarily suspend its sweeping anti-camping laws after threatening to organize a huge march with renowned activist Mitch Snyder that “would make Santa Barbara the Selma of the ‘80s.”

During that struggle, Marin’s seminal article, “Helping and Hating the Homeless: The Struggle at the Margins of America,” was published in Harper’s Magazine. It was then passed from hand to hand through advocacy circles all over the country.

I still remember how strongly his article affected me. It was almost clairvoyant in its vision of what was ultimately at stake in the struggle over human rights. Marin exposed the officials who pretend to “help” homeless people by scouring away every last vestige of their presence from tourist destinations and pleasant shopping malls, in a mad effort to drive them out of sight and out of mind.

In describing how a woman named Alice had become homeless in Los Angeles, he wrote that her life was destabilized by a series of catastrophic blows, followed by smaller traumatic events, “each one deepening the original wound,” until homelessness became inevitable.

Marin also reported a deeper truth that only he saw with such clarity at the time — a truth of immeasurable importance about a society that produces massive numbers of homeless people. He wrote: “You are struck continually, hearing these stories, by something seemingly unique in American life, the absolute isolation involved. In what other culture would there be such an absence or failure of support from familial, social, or institutional sources?”

This is why Marin insists so strongly that impersonal social workers with their endless, dehumanizing regulations are not the solution to homelessness. Rather, they are only one more facet of the alienation and isolation in American society that reduces vulnerable people to despair.

Peter Marin has been married to Kathryn Marin for his entire life, and the couple has two children. He taught literature at Hofstra University and Los Angeles State College, and was a professor of journalism at USC in Los Angeles and at the University of Santa Barbara. He was a fellow at the prestigious Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, a think tank run by Robert Hutchins that analyzed major social and political questions in the light of Western history and philosophy.

When he became the director of Pacific High School, a radically experimental high school in the Santa Cruz mountains, Marin believed in freedom and let the students make the rules for this “school of the world.” As a result of that experience, he wrote widely about education and was even the keynote speaker at the National Convention of the PTA. An influential essay he wrote for The Center Magazine, the publication of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, entitled “The Open Truth and Fiery Vehemence of Youth,” was sent all over the country and was later published in his book of essays, Freedom and Its Discontents.

Later, Marin spent years writing about veterans and the war in Vietnam. His article in Harper’s, “Coming to Terms with Vietnam,” made a big splash and drew a lot of attention from veterans organizations. Marin was one of the first writers to investigate the deep sources of guilt and remorse that plagued many veterans about what they had seen and done in Vietnam.

“People who had shot women and children in the war, would come home and think about what they had done during the war, and would be extremely troubled. That’s something you can’t undo. You can’t bring the dead back. So I thought a lot of what they hygienically call PTSD was anger and guilt. People couldn’t live not just with their relatives, they couldn’t live with themselves.”

The Vietnam War not only caused countless deaths, physical disabilities and diseases from exposure to Agent Orange, but also resulted in many deeply troubled veterans ending up as homeless casualties of a war that is still not over.

After a lifetime of pondering the tragic victims of war and working with those persecuted as homeless outcasts, what gives Marin any hope for the human condition?

A poetic passage in his Street Spirit essay on “Moral Beauty” nearly sings about the beauty of the human condition. There is a light that still shines in the darkness, even on a midnight train.

“Wherever and in whomever we find love, courage, sacrifice, generosity of spirit, resistance to power and injustice, the telling of truth and a faith kept with others — ah, it is there that beauty appears, shining forth.”

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