Art and Social Change

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about for some time: what is the role of poetry in a time like ours? For example, what are my obligations as a poet who is frightened and outraged by the recent events in Charleston? It’s easy to think that poetry doesn’t matter — in fact, the New York Times once asked in its column Room for Debate, “Does Poetry Matter?” (July 18, 2014). I know a lot of excellent writers who’d argue that assuming poetry or art doesn’t matter is a way to rationalize disengaging from current events. And I know a lot of artists of color who’d say that disengaging from current events has never been an option for them, whose entire identity is constantly the subject of — or subjugated by — white culture. And poets have always responded to historical events, to chronicle, to comfort: think Whitman’s “Oh Captain, My Captain,” after Lincoln’s assassination, or the work of Modernist poets — T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Yeats — responding to the dramatic events of WWII, with varying degrees of opacity. Sometimes the most powerful poems to change society are those in response not to external events, but other poetic texts, as when Langston Hughes invokes Walt Whitman’s  “I sing the body electric” in his poem “I, Too, Am America” (check it out here.)

Still, “Poetry makes nothing happen,” Auden says confidently in his elegy for William Butler Yeats. It’s a quote you’ve probably heard; maybe your tired English professor recited it in class one gray morning. But let’s not forget the next part, for Auden wrote “Poetry makes nothing happen: it survives, / a way of happening, a mouth.” By placing “survives” on the same line, he modifies his earlier statement. Poetry makes nothing happen as in, poetry does no harm, does not enact. But poetry is a way of happening: it catalyzes nothing, but is a way of existing.

In a recent article Louis Menand asked the question “Can Poetry Change Your Life?” (The New Yorker, July 31, 2017), which seemed to me a coy way to ask a broader, and more immediately important question: can poetry change lives? Menand writes, quoting another author whose book he is reviewing:

(Robbins) has a couple of ideas…. One is that the very excess of the aesthetic experience, the fact that it evaporates so fast upon contact with daily life, is a reminder of how impoverished daily life is. It seems that capitalism is to blame here. When capitalism is dead, Robbins suggests, we might not need poetry anymore.

Reading this, I realized I’ve often thought that poetry is a way to exist specifically inasmuch as it’s a way to resist. I didn’t think this way, generally, in political terms: rather, I thought reading and writing poetry was my way to resist the reality that so much of daily life “evaporates” fast, our perception and experience of the aesthetic unable to withstand the sieve of our errand-preoccupied minds. In other words poetry helped me resist the dulled senses that accompany adult life. But when I consider that next to what Menand says, I can understand it through a political context:  so much of that adult life is informed by capitalism. I mean, I wish I could just “waste my life”: lay in a hammock and watch the chicken hawk float over (see James Wright in “Lying in a Hammock in Martins Ferry Ohio”) but I gotta make a living, you know.

In that New York Times piece “Does Poetry Matter?” poet Tracy Smith writes that the reason we keep asking that question is because modern and contemporary poets have been overly preoccupied with irony, refusing to believe that poetry can change the world and have subsequently failed to “be brave or generous enough to risk failing at something that matters.” Is irony the problem? Maybe. I don’t know. One thing I do know is that our current political climate will inevitably give way to a ton of new and exciting art. Remember the Dark Ages? That period was followed by the artistic flourishing in the Renaissance. Maybe that will happen to us. Check out Love’s Executive Order, a website developed by poet Matthew Lippman in response to our most recent presidential election. Every week he publishes a poem about our current administration: https://www.lovesexecutiveorder.com

– Prof. Alison Powell

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