When I mention that I'm a poet, some think I'm absorbed in matters mysterious and esoteric. What is poetry for? they ask me. How is it relevant to real life, especially now?
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith addressed these questions, stating that poetry is of paramount relevance as a vehicle of expression during times of social distress. During the months following 9/11, the remaining walls and slabs surrounding Ground Zero gradually filled with lines of poetry — the scrawls of New Yorkers and visitors worldwide attempting to speak their unspeakable pain, to verbalize their outrage and their love.
There is, in fact, a body of creative work referred to as the poetry of protest, intended to inform, provoke, and inspire action on issues ranging from civil rights to gun violence to climate change. George Floyd's recent murder has sparked not only demonstrations against police violence, but also a worldwide explosion of poetry — written, spoken, shouted, screamed.
Whether printed in newspapers or spoken during rallies, such poetry compels its audience to look at what's most uncomfortable — the injustice in the world and the suffering of the people around us. Because this poetry of protest responds to the events and issues of our time, its relevance is clear. But all poetry, not only the poetry of protest, makes us contend with who we are in the midst of those events and issues, and how we wish to respond to them.
Given a political and social climate that fosters hatred and hopelessness, it's not surprising that, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, the number of adults reading poetry has doubled since 2012. As I, too, figure out how to hold on to my own humanity as the conversations around me devolve so rapidly into incivility and intolerance, poetry provides powerful guidance.
Poetry allows me to witness.
Poetry opens up the lives of others with its immediacy and emotional poignancy. Through the words of Langston Hughes, I can view his struggle against racial inequalities; through Anna Akhmatova's, the shock of an empire falling; through Pablo Neruda's, the horrors of civil war.
A particularly moving experience of poetic witnessing for me was reading Patricia Smith's Blood Dazzler, portraying perspectives of those affected by Hurricane Katrina — victims, survivors, officials — and even of the hurricane itself. Though I do not presume to understand the anguish and intensity of those who experienced this catastrophe, the poems do allow me a moment to see through their eyes.
I believe that such witnessing is an act of humanity — after all, only a human being can choose to inhabit the life of another, however temporarily, and share her pain. Only a human being can then act in response to what she has witnessed.
Additionally, for me, each act of witnessing makes it more difficult to turn away from a troubling situation simply because it doesn't unfold directly in front of me.
Poetry acknowledges human complexity.
Poetry does not allow simple conclusions about people — it excavates the human mind and heart, reveals both our beauty and our flaws. In fact, Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" finds meaning and joy within our contradictions and inconsistencies, declaring they are part of the human experience: "I am large, I contain multitudes."
In "A Brave and Startling Truth," Maya Angelou grapples with the realization that the same human hands can both kill and heal: "Out of such chaos, of such contradiction / We learn that we are neither devils nor divines."
Against the backdrop of today's political turmoil, as my fears for my family's safety increase, so does my tendency to label others while knowing little or nothing about them and their lives. It is during such times that I grasp Angelou's words like a lifeline — they remind me that each of us is capable of terrible deeds, but also of great kindness and loyalty and love. Her words make it a little easier for me to forgive.
And when my frustration with my own flaws makes me freeze, makes me wonder whether I deserve to send my voice into the world, Angelou's devil nor divine is a gentle spur. The words remind me that I can be full of defects, yet do good in the world. I can lack answers, yet still act in a responsible and meaningful manner.
Poetry holds up a mirror.
As Roger Housden, editor and curator of numerous poetry collections, explains, "if we are in the right place in ourselves to hear it, it [poetry] can . . . offer a mirror into the core and the truth of our own life."
For me, poetry is a call to shine a light inward, to understand my own strengths and failings, and, as William Stafford describes in "The Way It Is," to hold tightly to a thread of conscience and self-knowledge regardless of circumstances. Rumi's verses echo this message, urging a "return to the root of the root of your Self" — and Derek Walcott's "Love After Love" describes the beauty of that return.
As I conduct my self-examination, as I seek my own "root of the root," I must ask myself many uncomfortable questions. Am I actually following the principles I believe to be important? Am I living up to the qualities I value? Am I showing up in the world with authenticity and integrity? Am I holding on to Stafford's thread?
After this inner scrutiny, I can turn outward again and look at the world with greater understanding and consciousness. I can look at those around me with more empathy and less judgment. I can look for the truth from a place of humility.
And now, in this time of divisiveness and discord, I can stop expecting the world to grow and change without also committing to grow and change as an individual.
Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus" — quoted extensively these days in response to the current migrant crisis — put a lump in my throat when I read it as a child, made me feel welcome though I was from an immigrant family. Her poem assured me that America had the heart and the love to embrace me — it promised that I belonged.
Re-reading it now, as those in power sort out who belongs in America and who doesn't, as children and families occupy cages and camps at the country's borders, I don't feel the same reassurance it provided me long ago.
Instead, for me, it has become the poetry of protest. I feel its call to action — to prevent this American experiment from failing, to preserve the ideals and ideas that could light up the world.
Thank you for reading! I would love to hear from you -- scroll further down and click on "Login to leave a comment." -Dheepa
Poems Listed Above:
Angelou, Maya. "A Brave and Startling Truth." A Brave and Startling Truth. Random House, 1995.
Housden, Roger. Ten Poems to Set You Free. Harmony Books, 2003, p.10
Lazarus, Emma, and Gregory Eiselein. "The New Colossus." Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems and Other Writings. Broadview Press, 2002.
Rumi, "The Root of the Root of Your Self." Awakin.org http://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=2299. Accessed 13 July 2019.
Sikoryak, R., and Walt Whitman. "Song of Myself." Whitman: Song of Myself. R. Sikoryak,
Smith, Tracy K. Quantum Leap Poetry Tour by Indiana Humanities. Central Library,
Indianapolis. 29 November 2018. Lecture and Moderated Discussion.
Smith, Patricia. Blood Dazzler: Poems. Coffee House Press, 2008.
Stafford, William. "The Way It Is." The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems. Graywolf, 2006.
Walcott, Derek. "Love After Love." White Egrets: Poems. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.