You can’t write about the human condition and be apolitical

Column by Andrea W. Doray
Posted 4/24/19

April is National Poetry Month. As a poet myself, I believe that poetry can be accessible, can speak with and for many voices, and can – and does – make a difference for the world we live in. …

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You can’t write about the human condition and be apolitical

Posted

April is National Poetry Month. As a poet myself, I believe that poetry can be accessible, can speak with and for many voices, and can – and does – make a difference for the world we live in.

Many of us probably have a favorite poem or two, perhaps even from our childhood days. Robert Louis Stevenson’s book, A Child’s Garden of Verses, is a treasure trove of memories. I learned Christina Rosetti’s poem “Who has seen the wind?” early in life, which I recall on almost any Colorado Day: “Who has seen the wind? / Neither you nor I: / But when the trees bow down their heads / The wind is passing by.”

I also revel in work that goes back centuries – John Donne from the early 1600s, William Blake – “Tyger Tyger, burning bright / in the forests of the night” – from the late 1700s, as well as in more contemporary writing, such as that of Wisława Szymborska

In fact, it was probably in discovering Szymborska, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996, that I truly entered a world of activist poetry. Szymborska’s themes of struggle and resistance stem from her years in Poland during World War II.

In 1865, Walt Whitman published poems of his own experiences in the Civil War, such as “Beat! Beat! Drums!” One poem that haunts me is Sarah Cleghorn’s “The Golf Links” from the 1910s: “The golf links lie so near the mill / that almost every day / the laboring children can look out / and see the men at play.”

In Maya Angelou’s 1983 poem, “(I Know Why the) Caged Bird [Sings],” the poet writes of a caged bird that “… can seldom see through his bars of rage …” but that “…sings of freedom.” Nikki Giovanni wrote about “Rosa Parks” in 2002, and Emmy Perez wrote in 2016 “Not One More Refugee Death.”

Consider the words on Bob Dylan, poet of the 1960s (and, yes, a musician), also awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

And what about the song “Four Dead in Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in reaction to the Kent State shootings of May 4, 1970? Or the unforgettable (if you’re in my generation) “Blowin’ in the Wind,” famously performed by Peter, Paul and Mary, and also written by Bob Dylan?

Although some of today’s poetry (and especially lyrics) does refer to – or actually incite – violence, that’s not the peaceful activism of which I write here.

The world lost a peaceful activist poet in the last year when poet Sam Hamill died, who had organized the movement, Poets Against the War, in protest of the Iraq war.

According to the Poetry Foundation, Hamill said in a 2006 interview – when responding to critics who doubted the place of politics in poetry – “You can’t write about character and the human condition and be apolitical … that’s not the kind of world we’ve ever lived in.”

Do the words of poets such as these truly make a difference? I believe they do, by articulating through literature the words that many of us in real life struggle to find to express the human experience in “the kind of world we’ve ever lived in.”

Andrea Doray is a writer who recommends Carolyn Forche’s excellent compilation, “Against Forgetting,” if you would like to learn more. Contact Andrea at a.doray@andreadoray.com.

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