We asked some poets the question: What’s a poet to do living in a world increasingly angry, leaning towards fascism, war-torn, racist, sexist and willing to deny changes to climate?
Here are their answers.
—to bear witness, as poets have always done;
—to be a voice for those denied a voice;
—to cast a light into darkness so that others might see;
—to find words that will pave a highway through the wilderness for others
to make their way forward;
—to avoid the trap of righteous anger;
—to expose the unholiness of holy wars, the pomposity of bearded men
thumping their scriptures to control or denigrate anyone unlike themselves;
—to honor the cradle of life, the Earth, which greed has pillaged.
—to lie awake wracked with anxiety over each day’s news, vulnerable to
our biases, our insecurities, and the seductive embrace of anger and
—to lie there fully aware that our poetry indeed makes nothing happen,
though we wish that weren’t so;
—to toss and turn most nights with the detritus of that day’s drafted poem
tumbling in our head, trying to salvage the right word from the night’s
—to sleep, then wake, morning after morning, and still hold to the simple
faith: that our words matter—somehow;
Kimberly Ann Priest
I often ask the same question. It’s a different concern than wondering what a person is to do. As a person, I’m limited amidst the madness but have a few tools. As often as I’ve doubted prayer, sometimes prayer seems like the most viable thing I can do most days—beseech a higher power to care for vulnerable persons through any season, assuming there is such a power. I can also give a little money here or there to causes. I can recycle, listen well, be vigilant about my own tendencies to be temperamental, and vote smartly.
But what is a poet to do? I suppose all the same things since I am not a divided self, but the ability to say something well in writing also makes me responsible to community in a whole other way. However, I can’t speak for what every poet should do with their words as accountable speakers in the world in times like these. I can only speak for myself. My work is very personal, but as I write, I can tell you that I cultivate an awareness of the universal and try to make connections between my personal experiences and the cares of the local, national, or global community. I always start with what I know, holding it up like a mirror to what I see around me.
For me, universality is so important. I want my work to stand the test of time so that, eons from now when the peoples that roam Earth are experiencing fascism, war, racism, sexism, and climate change again or in other ways (as they will), they can look back to what I and others have written and find hope in the mere realization that the human race has survived these same stressors once before. I know this looking back is valuable because I do this. I look back at what has been written by others in the past to remind myself that we are not the first to encounter these evils and consequences.
As a poet, I also think about how I am not timeless, but my words might be. I contemplate what I am leaving behind (after I am gone) for audiences in the future. Maybe that audience will be just one woman in a bookstore desperately needing a story like her story and a voice like her voice and she finds a single worn copy of one of my books and feels companioned on a rainy Thursday afternoon. My book will be crushed between copies of other forgotten authors but, by chance, she will choose it, sit on the bookstore floor and read it, putting it back where she found it because she has no money to buy it, yet walking out into the mist she gathers a bit more strength to smile slightly and carry on. I’ve been that woman. I’m glad she and I have found each other. This is what poets can do.
Well, you're certainly not making this easy on a poet! And you're jumping right to the heart of everything, including what it means to be a poet! I love it. The world is not an easy place. As Paul Child's character said in the season finale of Max's series Julia, America has always been full of contradictions! And in fact, I think there's wisdom in following WWJCD (What Would Julia Child Do?). Julia would do what she loves, enjoy herself as she's doing it, not take herself too seriously, and thus it becomes obvious to everyone who watches that there's joy and inspiration in the process of doing what one loves. Especially in the face of totalitarian ideologies. I'm also reminded of a Nikki Wallschlaeger poem, "If They Wanted To," in which Tina Turner was asked if she ever stood up for anything, and she said she stood up for her own life. I don't think there's anything more radical than that. Especially for poets. Stand Up for Your Own Life. Do What You Love in spite of Career/Money/Briefcase Blues. Try to Write One Decent Poem. Then Try to Write Another. Read one Good Poem a Day. All that, plus give whatever money you can to organizations and people you believe in. And finally, for me personally, Spend Time Cuddling with Cats and Dogs, and Drinking Coffee in Bed with Your Love. Find and Appreciate all Your Loves. All over the place, All the Time. Including trees.
1. Tell all the truth but tell it slant. (Emily Dickinson, # 1263)
2. Imagine you wake up / with a second chance. (Rita Dove, “Dawn Revisited”)
3. There’s time, you can look back still… (Anna Akhmatova, “Lot’s Wife”)
4. Tell me about despair, yours, and I’ll tell you mine. (Mary Oliver,“Wild Geese”)
5. You could scream / Because mankind is mad. / But you, of all people, should not.
(Czeslaw Milosz, “Calling to Order”)
6. Reality demands / that we also mention this: / Life goes on. (Wislawa Szymborska,
7. Remember: even the departure to terrible battles / passes by gardens and windows /
and children playing, a dog barking. (Yehuda Amichai, “Anniversaries of War”)
8. If you ponder a rose for too long / you won’t budge in a storm. (Mahmoud Darwish,
“To a Young Poet”)
9. There must be some way out of here. (Federico Garcia Lorca, “The King of Harlem;”
Bob Dylan, “All Along the Watch Tower”)
10. ...from time to time, / (look) up in perfect silence at the stars. (Walt Whitman, “When I
Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”)