by Emile DeWeaver
A poet—we’ll call him Dave—held a workshop in San Quentin and told the class, “We shouldn’t fool ourselves. Poetry is not going to change the world.” My eyes popped, and I casually dragged two fingers down my lips to keep from shouting, “Blasphemy!”
Despite the revolt against restraint occurring on a cellular level, I listened while Dave, whose work I appreciate, explained his poetics. My impression: For Dave, poetry was more about process than product. Writing poems was part existential expression, part therapy, part excellence. The first two parts sound like legitimate goals for early drafts, but a final draft that aims no higher than linguistic excellence sounds like a recipe for an indulgent poetry for literati sitting in pubs and coffee houses loving each other.
Don’t get me wrong, love among the literati is great. I can’t wait to wallow in the appreciation of fellow poetry lovers, but I need poetry that, in fact, does change the world. I think we all do.
I work with a guy—we’ll call him George—who idolizes men like Huey Newton and Malcolm X. He’s fifty-something, and any time people start talking about the Black Lives Matter movement, he likes to say, “Man, I don’t want to hear that shit, some black lives don’t matter. I see these motherfuckers out there with their pants hanging off their ass…” and he proceeds to vomit the narrative of a segment of America who attributes the epidemic of police shootings of unarmed black children not to a lack of respect for black life, but to the victims’ lack of respect for social norms (to whom those norms belong is another conversation). I stopped arguing with George a long time ago, but I still cringe when he says some black lives don’t matter. Similarly, I cringe when I hear poets like Dave say things like poetry won’t change the world.
The scariest legacy of oppression for me is how often the oppressed internalize the narratives of their oppressors. I don’t think the disdain from which poetry suffers in our country rises to the tragedy of racial oppression in America, but I make the comparison to isolate a principle because I believe internalized oppression can destroy an art form as easily as it can destroy people.
In an excerpt from “The Hatred of Poetry” (Poetry Magazine, April 2016), Ben Lerner writes about the embarrassment poets fuel. In Lerner’s estimation, poetry is inextricably linked to our sense of self during childhood, and essentially, poets enjoy the grandeur of remaining connected to their former selves while they feel embarrassed by the skepticism and ridicule of non-poets. Lerner argues these non-poets are just as embarrassed because they chafe at their alienation from poetry, which Lerner frames as a falling away from their former selves:
Apparently poetry repels non-poets because they’re actual people! Beyond the caricature, what I notice about this part of Lerner’s claim and popular explanations for why poetry is marginalized is that they locate the problem outside of the poet. Perhaps Americans spurn poetry because capitalism commoditizes everything; perhaps people don’t value verse because they’re stupid-heads, but maybe part of why poetry has a bad rep is because of the low bar poets like Dave set for themselves.
Poetry can change the world; it has changed the world. In 1934, Aimé Césaire, Léon-Gontran Damas, and Léopold Sédar Senghor created the Négritude movement within poetry. This movement was described as a revolt against colonial oppression, and it culminated with the independence of French colonies in Africa. In 1950, Robert Frost’s poems moved the U.S. Senate to pass a formal resolution wherein Senators describe Frost’s poetry as a guiding force of American thought. In 1988, N.W.A transformed the cultural landscape of America with gangster rap, and whether we hate or love rap, if would be difficult to credibly deny hip-hop’s impact on present day culture.
One might argue that in the examples I’ve presented, it’s the poets and not the poetry that changed the world. After all, many of the founders of the Négritude movement were also politicians. Senghor led Senegal to independence and became its first president, but it is unlikely that he swayed French Parliament with a book of poetry. Likewise, at a vital junction in the Cold War, President John F. Kennedy sent Frost to the Soviet Union as an ambassador, not as a poet. Such an argument presents valid considerations, but to say the poet can change the world while their poetry cannot rings oxymoronic. Poetry is an expression of self and how else do we change circumstances but through expressions, either in word or action. True, my words and actions operate in difference spheres according to different rules, but in a democracy—however tentative—where the domestic power is wielded through strategies of language, do we really doubt the power of words? Or do we need to stop doubting the power of our poetic selves?