After the chaos in Washington D.C. yesterday with what- an insurrection, a coup, a stand against democracy? I’ve been asked to speak today about what poetry can offer us right now. In my darkest, most alone moments, poetry is a friend. (I’ll say something way more fancy by 3:30 pm when I’m addressing the faculty but right here, with you, I’ll tell you the truth). The poets I read are speaking to me, through me, alive with me even when the poems have been translated from other languages, other places, across hundreds of years. I can hear them. They can hear me. They can read my thoughts. I am writing with them and through them. This is a little more complicated with living poets that I might actually know in person. I have to set aside some of the details of their lives so I can keep their voice and their poems here in this other world, that someone else might call imagined or made-up but to me is a lifeline, is the world I am actually living in when I close my eyes.
Point 2 – what I’m actually going to say is that poetry gives us each a voice, a place to speak and imagine and create the world as it should be, as we wish it to be. It gives voice to the disjunctures, erasures, and violence we live through. It’s a means to articulate injustice, to speak inequality, to name hostility, to put words to experience that we can then go on to address in structural and communal ways. It is a fumbling toward truth, an effort to know and voice and address. It can cross the chasm of how our internal experience differs from how the world sees us or how we are supposed to see the world. We can remember Russian Formalism and that even under censorship poets found ways to break the line, bend the language, and express their inmost feelings and their concrete realities. Poetry as a song, a prayer, a way knowing, a means of agency, activism, action, and realization. This is the vitality of poetry and it is accessible to anyone who comes searching, anyone who reads it or tries to add their own voice to the song.
Point 2 as well – poetry attends to our emotional lives (thanks, Bob Hass). A poem is working, is serving, is making the world better yes, as it works to change the world around us and how we see the world. But it is also working when it comforts us, when it brings us from our scattered busyness into a focused attention on our present moment. When through a poem we notice the light, the sky, the sounds of our neighbors, the lilt in a toddler’s voice learning to speak. When it bring us attention and beautiful and wonder.
After all this chatting, I’ll read a poem from the anthology America, We all Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience published by Sixteen Rivers Press. There are so many good poems to choose from. I’ll paste a few of the options below. Read with care. I am with you.
won’t you celebrate with me
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
Ode to the Heart
heart let me more have pity on
– Gerard Manley Hopkins
It’s late in the day and the old school’s deserted
but the door’s unlocked. The linoleum dips
and bulges, the halls have shrunk.
And I shiver for the child
who entered that brick building,
his small face looking out
from the hood of a woolen coat.
My father told me that when he was a boy
the Jews lived on one block, Italians another.
To get home he had to pass
through the forbidden territory.
He undid his belt and swung it wildly
as he ran, wind whistling
through the buckle. Heart
be praised: you wake every morning.
You cast yourself into the streets.
Let Them Not Say
Let them not say: we did not see it.
Let them not say: we did not hear it.
Let them not say: they did not taste it.
We ate, we trembled.
Let them not say: it was not spoken, not written.
we witnessed with voices and hands.
Let them not say: they did nothing.
We did not-enough.
Let them say, as they must say something:
A kerosene beauty.
Let them say we warmed ourselves by it,
read by its light, praised,
and it burned.