A few years ago when my friend Peggy passed away, her daughter asked me to read a short essay I had written. Her mom had liked it, and the family thought it would be a touching tribute.
I was honored, and a bit horrified at the thought of reading my writing out loud in public. I much preferred the safety of a computer screen and the Internet to separate me from my audience. I felt the same way when one of my poems was used in a religious service. Thankfully, in that case I didn’t have to stand in front of hundreds of people and recite it. Instead, it was transformed into a video and set over a dramatic background with its own touching soundtrack. Watching people’s reactions while they read the poem to themselves was almost unbearable. In both cases, the work that was shared wasn’t written for a particular audience. It was just written. To have the work experienced in my presence seemed like a violation of the writer-reader pact.
When did I stop writing for others or in response to the events around me? And when did having others experience my work become such an embarrassment?
Poetry for a Private Audience
When I was younger, I often wrote poems and stories as gifts and tributes. Just recently, a friend told me she still has the poem I wrote for her when her father died. On many a Mother’s Day I presented my own mom with a gift of words. And though I blush to admit it, as a teenager I wrote quite a lengthy poetic tribute to the innumerable excellencies of a certain student teacher who was assigned to my high school’s physical education department. And I gave it to him.
Back then, poetry and writing connected me to people and events. I wrote in response to what was happening in my life and in the world around me. I offered up and read my words at any occasion that made sense: graduation speeches, school plays, choir performances, family meals. If I couldn’t pen words myself to express the public moment, I might select a poem or passage written by another to read aloud.
At some point, though, written words turned into something I hid behind, something far removed from public discourse. And when I looked back at my youthful displays of poetry, I felt they lacked depth and oozed sentimentality, a death knell for serious writing. Even when I began keeping a blog (which by its very nature was public) and now when I write for publication, I rarely consider the words might create conversation or change the course of history or speak directly into someone’s life by, say, extolling the many virtues of a certain PE teacher’s sweatpants collection.
Poets Changed the Heart of a Nation
In her book Fierce Convictions, author Karen Swallow Prior writes about Hannah More, a woman who never doubted the power of her words. Whatever cause she was championing at the time—education for the working poor, abolition of slavery, animal rights, morality in the upper classes—it was no mere sentimentality for her to cast her position poetically. Particularly when it came to slavery, “More did her part by continuing to wage war with the pen, ” Prior writes. Others with far more influence also were involved in the movement—politicians, preachers, philanthropists. But it was the poets who were recruited to “change the heart of the nation.” They served as the “unacknowledged legislators” Percy Bysshe Shelley described in his A Defence of Poetry.
What about now? As nations debate the most pressing issues of the day—economic disparity, health care, immigration, religious freedom, systemic racism, education, and others—we see the politicians, the preachers, the philanthropists weighing in. But where are the poets?
“Today, poets with a grasp of reality must start from the premise that nothing they write will be much read or have much influence on public discourse, ” writes Adam Kirsch in his New York Times Bookend piece, How Has the Social Role of Poetry Changed Since Shelley? He continues: “A poetry written under such circumstances may have its own virtues, but they will not be the virtues of the Romantics—conceptual boldness, metaphysical reach, the drive to bring religion and politics themselves under the empire of art. As if in recognition of this fact, poets in our time prefer to imagine themselves not as legislators, but as witnesses—those who look on, powerless to change the world, but sworn at least to tell the truth about it.”
In her counterpoint essay to Kirsch’s, author Leslie Jamison says that telling the truth might actually be a form of change, that if this is all the poet does, maybe it’s a lot.
“The documentary poet becomes a witness who might not legislate but might serve (if we hold Shelley to the fullness of his phrase) as one of the unacknowledged voices of influence beneath social change, ” Jamison writes.
As I see it, poetry as a whole suffers the two maladies that I suffer personally as a poet: First, too much poetry is written for no one about nothing in particular that others will understand. And second, we often feel relegated to sharing poetry with only ourselves.
How We Take Poetry Public
What would it mean for poets to step back into the role of unacknowledged legislator? Or to be invited to take an actual place in society’s meaningful conversations? Kirsch says that a lack of “cultural literacy” or general knowledge about poetry creates a major roadblock in this task.
“In the Victorian age, when a critic like Matthew Arnold addressed the public, he could expect it to know and care about the classics of English poetry. That is why writing about literature, for Arnold, could serve as a way of writing about society and even politics, ” Kirsch writes. “Today, no such knowledge can be taken for granted; neither the poetry of the past, nor still less the poetry of the present, can be readily invoked in public discussion, because only specialists are familiar with it.”
So we start by celebrating the ways that poetry naturally inserts itself into everyday life, outside of the classroom or the anthology. Sentimental though it may be, poetry read at the funeral service or offered during a graduation ceremony, verse inserted into speeches or scripted into prime-time television, this is where we start. When we see more poetry on sidewalks and buses and disposable cups at Chipotle, then we know we are getting somewhere. But we don’t stop there.
We go on to write poetry that captures the time and place where we live, that expresses the opinions and emotions of things that matter to us and others: rising healthcare costs, neighbors with expired visas who fear deportation, or educational standards that leave kids behind. Then, we share it with others. Sure, we read our poetry to those who come to open-mic nights, but we also share poetry at board meetings and write it on campaign posters and recite it at the groundbreaking of the new community center.
In other words, what if we started believing that what we write will or at least could influence public discourse? What if we strived to regain the “conceptual boldness” and “metaphysical reach” of the poets who went before us? And what if we started today?
There are wars being waged, there are hearts to change, and you there, with the pen: it’s time for you to act.
Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões. Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Charity Singleton Craig, co-author of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life that Lasts.
Learn more about Poetry for Life
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