The Poetry of Protest
Text of a speech delivered to the Wisconsin Fellowship of Protests, November 3, 2012, in Stevens Point, Wis.
I’m honored to be here among poets, an exalted tribe in my book. I’ve been fond of Wisconsin poets every since I took a course with Ron Wallace at the UW once I got to Madison and after I’d graduated from college. I’d like to honor the memory of Judith Strasser, who was in that class with me. She was great, and that class was great.
I’m a Zinnist, a follower of the great radical historian Howard Zinn, who taught us that poets can reach people on a different level than the ploddings of prose writers, and that a good political poem is worth a thousand editorials.
And I should know: I’ve written a thousand editorials.
If you look back over the past 100 years, you can see how vital poetry has been in the movement for peace and social justice.
Wilfred Owen’s anti-war poems during World War I, for instance, have inspired generations of peace activists.
Anna Akhmatova’s poems in the Soviet Union gave hope to millions there.
As did Lorca’s poems during the Spanish Civil War, and Neruda’s poems in Chile, or Roque Dalton’s in El Salvador:
Here is a snippet of Dalton’s “Like You”:
“I believe that the world is beautiful
and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.
And that my veins don't end in me
but in the unanimous blood
of those who struggle for life,
landscape and bread,
the poetry of everyone.”
Certainly, the civil rights movement wouldn’t have been the same without Langston Hughes’s “What Happens to a Dream Deferred” or his “Let America Be America Again,” where he writes:
I say it plain,
American never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!”
And the Vietnam War can’t really be studied without reading Yusef Komunyakaa, as my son is doing now down in Madison, or studying Bob Dylan.
And the feminist movement and the LGBT movement would not have been the same without Adrienne Rich, June Jordan, Robin Morgan, and Audre Lorde.
Wherever there have been movements for peace and justice, there have been poets who managed to capture the moment and inspire the movement.
And really that is all I have to say.
But rather than get off the stage right now, I thought I’d try to give you your money’s worth, so I’d like to tell you how I came to love political poetry. Because the encounter with poetry, at bottom, is always a personal one.
There are many doors into the house of poetry, though in high school I found many of those doors locked, or I couldn’t figure out the combination.
Frost didn’t move me, maybe because my older brother loved him and I couldn’t give him the satisfaction of liking him, too. (He liked the White Sox; I liked the Cubs. He liked John Denver; I liked the Beatles.)
And in college, Eliot and Pound were beyond me with their Greek and Latin obscurities.
But a college adviser introduced me to W. H. Auden, and I instantly fell in love, and it’s a love that has lasted.
And I was pleased to see that in the protests against the second Iraq War, the most common poem circulating on the Internet or at protests was Auden’s September 1, 1939, where he writes:
“We must love one another or die.” . . .
“Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.”
But I also adored Auden’s elegy for William Butler Yeats. My father died a year and a half ago and now Auden’s description of Yeats’s dying has a special resonance for me:
“The provinces of his body revolted.
The squares of his mind were empty.
Silence invaded the suburbs.
The current of his feeling failed: He became his admirers.”
As one of those admirers, I love the three concluding stanzas here.
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
And his elegy for Freud, too. Check out the humble recognition of the work we all do.
“Of whom shall we speak? For every day they die
among us, those who were doing us some good,
who knew it was never enough but
hoped to improve a little by living.
Such was this doctor…”
And Auden concludes, beautifully:
“One rational voice is dumb. Over his grave
the household of Impulse mourns one dearly loved:
sad is Eros, builder of cities,
and weeping anarchic Aphrodite.”
I’ve often said that if I could come back as any person throughout history, I’d like to come back as Auden in the year 1939.
From Auden actually I went to Ginsberg.
And yes, I loved “Howl” but also “Kaddish” and “America,”
As in “America, go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.”
And “America, I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.”
I had the great pleasure of interviewing Ginsberg once in his flat on the Lower East Side. He took down a book of Whitman, Sands at Seventy, shocked that I hadn’t read it, and pointed to some verses he’d underlined, including “garrulous to the very end,” and said, “Isn’t that great?”
Here’s a snipped from our conversation:
"Q: Do you ever get tired of being Allen Ginsberg?
Ginsberg: No, there’s no Allen Ginsberg. It’s just a collection of empty atoms.
Q: But in several of your latest poems, you seem to be wrestling with immortality.
Ginsberg: No, I’m not wrestling. I’m saying, ‘Immortality comes later,’ by definition. It’s a joke.
Q: What’s the big deal about immortality?
Ginsberg: There’s no total immortality. However, it is important if you have the impulse of transmitting dharma or whatever wisdom you’ve got, writing “so that in black ink my love might still shine bright”—Shakespeare. There is a Buddhist reason for fame and for immortality, which is that it gives you the opportunity to turn wheel of dharma while you’re alive to a larger mass of sentient beings, and after you’re dead that your poetry radio continues broadcasting dharmic understanding. To the extent that your ambition is to relieve the mass of human sufferings, that can be accomplished through art.”
I also interviewed Adrienne Rich, whose work has been so influential.
I’d like to share with you the last stanza of her final book, “Later Poems.”
The signature to a life requires
The search for a method
Rejection of posturing
Trust in the witnesses
A vial of invisible ink
A sheet of paper held steady
After the end-stroke
Above a deciphering flame.
I like her echo of Auden’s “affirming flame” there. She, too, liked Auden.
And she introduced me to Irena Klepfisz, daughter of a Polish Jew who threw himself on a Nazi machinegunner during the Warsaw Uprising.
Here’s an abbreviated version of her poem “Bashert.”
“These words are dedicated to those who died
because they had no love and felt alone in the world
because they were afraid to be alone and tried to stick it out
because they could not ask
because they were shunned
because they were sick and their bodies could not resist the disease
because they played it safe
because they had no connections
because they had no faith
because they felt they did not belong and wanted to die
These words are dedicated to those who died
because they were loners and liked it
because they acquired friends and drew others to them
because they took risks
because they were stubborn and refused to give up
because they asked for too much
These words are dedicated to those who died
because a card was lost and a number was skipped
because a bed was denied
because a place was filled and no other place was left
These words are dedicated to those who died
because someone did not follow through
because someone was overworked and forgot
because someone left everything to God
because someone was late
because someone did not arrive at all
because someone told them to wait and they just couldn't wait any longer.”
Along the way, I knocked on the door of Walt Whitman and found it unlocked and full of treasures, though in high school he was frowned upon.
On the stove in my kitchen, on a magnet, is this famous injunction.
“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.”
Whitman’s disciples include not just Ginsberg but you could hear the echo of him in Klepfitz, as you can in Martin Espada, whose early poetry, as in “City of Coughing and Dead Radiators,” with its landlord-tenant poetry, or hostile judge versus new immigrant poetry, grabbed me by the tonsils.
Espada’s “Alabanza” is the crowning poem of the 9/11 period.
So I’ll give you this excerpt:
“Alabanza. Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,
like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.
Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen
could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:
Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana,
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen in the morning,
where the gas burned blue on every stove
and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers,
hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs
or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans.
Alabanza. Praise the busboy's music, the chime-chime
of his dishes and silverware in the tub.
Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher
who worked that morning because another dishwasher
could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime
to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family
floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs.
Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen
and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.
Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan to Kabul
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,
mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:
I will teach you. Music is all we have.”
Another poet who touches me deeply is Marilyn Hacker, who has written so powerfully about AIDS and cancer. Here she is with her poem, “In Year’s End.”
“Men and women, mortally wounded where we
love and nourish, dying at thirty, forty,
fifty, not on barricades, but in beds of
Tell me, senators, what you call abnormal?”
Then there’s June Jordan, who wrote for The Progressive for many years, mostly essays but some poetry. I remember when I met her. She was giving a talk at Helen C. White in Madison on a sweltering, suffocating evening, but I was so enthralled with her that I bought three of her poetry books in the hallway after her talk and then the next morning convinced the stolid editorial staff to take her on.
Here’s from her “poem for South African women”:
“And the babies cease alarm
as mothers raising arms and heart high
as the stars so far unseen
nevertheless hurl into the universe a moving force irreversible
as light years
traveling to the open eye
And who will join this standing up
and the ones who stood without sweet company
will sing and sing
back into the mountains and
even under the sea:
we are the ones we have been waiting for.”
(Somehow I remember a Presidential candidate sometime back using that line…)
I’ve also had a big tender spot for Wendell Berry, whose Vietnam War poem, “Sowing Clover,” has comforted me on many dark occasions. Here it is, in its entirety:
“February 2, 1968
In the darkness of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter, war spreading, families dying, the world in danger, I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.”
Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” has also inspired many people in the environmental movement:
Here’s the command at the end:
“… As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn't go.
Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.”
You can detect an echo of Whitman there, as you could in Ginsberg, of course, and in Klepfitz, too.
These are some of the poets I’ve loved the most over the last 35 years (not to sound like Julio Iglesias or anything), but I’m always looking for new loves.
And I’ve found some of them in the Poetry Slam scene.
There is Saul Williams, whose “Not In My Name: Pledge of Resistance” became an anthem of the anti-Iraq War movement for many.
I also adore this verse from his poem, “Excerpt”
“i laced my shoes with sorrow
and walked a weary road
dead end streets
don't come undone
with double knots
wing tipped shoes
that walk on air
through vacant lots.”
And I had the pleasure of interviewing a young poet name Aracelis Girmay a few years back, whose “Arroz Poetica” also put George Bush in his place.
Here’s a chunk of that poem:
“I got news yesterday
from a friend of mine
that all people against the war should
send a bag of rice to George Bush,
& on the bag we should write,
"If your enemies are hungry, feed them."
But….This is no wedding.
This is no feast.
I will not send George Bush rice, worked for rice
from my own kitchen
where it sits in a glass jar & I am transfixed
by the thousands of beautiful pieces
like a watcher at some homemade & dry
aquarium of grains, while the radio calls out
the local names of 2,000
US soldiers counted dead since March.
&, we all know it, there will always be more than
what's been counted. They will not say the names
of an Iraqi family trying to pass a checkpoint
in an old white van. A teenager caught out on some road
after curfew. The radio will go on, shouting
the names &, I promise you,
they will not call your name, Hassna
Ali Sabah, age 30, killed by a missile in Al-Bassra, or you,
Ibrahim Al-Yussuf, or the sons of Sa'id Shahish
on a farm outside of Baghdad, or Ibrahim, age 12,
as if your blood were any less red, as if the skins
that melted were any less skin, & the bones
that broke were any less bone,
as if your eradication were any less absolute, any less
eradication from this earth where you were
not a president or a military soldier.
& you will not ever walk home
again, or smell your mother's hair again,
or shake the date palm tree
or smell the sea
or hear the people singing at your wedding.”
And so, just as there are many doors to poetry, there are many windows to political poetry, and so long as there be protests, and long live protest, there shall be poetry.
And I’m reminded again of Howard Zinn. For every time I heard Howard Zinn speak, he would recite poetry, usually from Marge Piercy, so I’m delighted to say that we’re publishing an original from Marge Piercy in the next issue of The Progressive.
It’s called “Hope is a long slow thing,” and the last stanzas read:
“We are droplets in a wave. Maybe
I cannot with my efforts displace
a rock but the energy of a movement
can force it from the way. Look back:
My great grandmother was killed
in a pogrom. My grandmother gave
birth to eleven children in a tenement
eating potatoes only sometimes. My
mother had to leave school in tenth grade
to work as a chambermaid that salesmen
chased around dirty beds. Nothing
changed by itself but was changed by work.
History records no progress people
did not sweat and dare to push. A long
‘we’ is the power that moves the rock.”
And, if I may add, a long poem, or even a short one, can move that rock, too.
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story “No Tears for Petraeus."
Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter
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