How Reading Poetry Helps Us Ask for a Better World

Jennifer Benka, president of the Academy of American Poets, on how poetry mobilizes us for change

Adapted from a keynote address by Jennifer Benka, president and executive director of the Academy of American Poets, at the LitTAP conference on October 1, 2018.

As I’m sure you’ve heard, but it bears repeating, according to a recently released arts participation survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, the readership of poetry nearly doubled in the past five years. In fact, 2017 was the first year in 15 years that the NEA saw an increase in poetry readers. And especially exciting is that the largest growth is among young people, with young people of color leading the way.

Now, there are multiple factors contributing to this rise in poetry readers, but you can be sure that those of us working at organizations that support poets through prizes, programming, mentorship, and publishing have played a role.

I don’t know about you, but if more people are reading poetry, I have hope for us.

Last month, as I was working on an essay about poetry in our present tense, I thought, “We are all bound up together.” And then I thought, who said that? Because even though those words were in my head, I knew I hadn’t written them. So I asked Google and landed on the title of a speech given by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.

If more people are reading poetry, I have hope for us.

Harper, an African American woman, was an Abolitionist, women’s suffrage activist, and noted orator. She gave that speech in May of 1866 on a stage in New York City as part of a rally in support of women being given the right to vote, which Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony also headlined.

“You white women speak of rights,” she said. “I speak of wrongs.” What a perfect expression of what racial privilege affords in justice work. And how revealing of historical exclusions that more of us don’t know Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.

Turns out she was more than a famed activist; she was also an accomplished and celebrated writer. According to several sources, she was the first African American woman to publish a short story in the U. S. She also wrote novels and poems, and was known to weave her poetry into her rousing speeches. Here’s one:

Let me make the songs for the people,
Songs for the old and young;
Songs to stir like a battle-cry
Wherever they are sung.

Not for the clashing of sabres,
For carnage nor for strife;
But songs to thrill the hearts of men
With more abundant life.

Let me make the songs for the weary,
Amid life’s fever and fret,
Till hearts shall relax their tension,
And careworn brows forget.

Let me sing for little children,
Before their footsteps stray,
Sweet anthems of love and duty,
To float o’er life’s highway.

I would sing for the poor and aged,
When shadows dim their sight;
Of the bright and restful mansions,
Where there shall be no night.

Our world, so worn and weary,
Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords
Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.

Music to soothe all its sorrow,
Till war and crime shall cease;
And the hearts of men grown tender
Girdle the world with peace.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper knew what we know — that poems have the power to reach us on a level of our humanity where pure, unfettered reception is possible.

She knew as we do — that poems, and fine writing, makes us feel. And our feelings, as Audre Lorde wrote, “are our most genuine paths to knowledge.”

Lorde wrote in her essay, “Poetry is Not a Luxury:”

Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock of experience of our daily lives. As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas.

When we engage with thoughtfully crafted language — when we let sonorous words reverberate with their layers of meaning, and sentences assemble in the mind — we exercise our imaginations and experience the elicitation of our emotions.

This process takes time and attention. And this is one of the gifts of reading — the act transports you out of ordinary time and into a space where other worlds and revelatory reflection are possible. It’s there where insights into the meaning of life are given — not in description but in feeling.

Reading transports you into a space where other worlds and revelatory reflection are possible.

What we are searching for is never spelled out. We must meet truth and look it squarely in the heart.

In addition to prompting emotions that can confer personal and solitary wisdom, great writing can also help prepare us to be agents of change.

Poetry and storytelling work against immobilization — the want to avoid being uncomfortable or rejected, the desire to anesthetize, the fear of having feelings for another human being.

The poet Mark Doty, in speaking about the role of poetry, once said:

The project of poetry, in a way, is to raise language to such a level that it can convey the precise nature of subjective experience… When people are real to you, you can’t fly a plane into the office building where they work, you can’t bulldoze the refugee camp where they live, you can’t cluster-bomb their homes and streets.

Bill McKibben, who wrote the first book about climate change, The End of Nature in 1989, wrote in an article in The Guardian a few weeks ago:

I’ve spent 30 years thinking about climate change — talking with scientists, economists, and politicians about emission rates and carbon taxes and treaties. But the hardest idea to get across is also the simplest: we live on a planet, and that planet is breaking. Poets, it turns out, can deliver that message… This science is uncontroversial. But science alone can’t make change, because it appeals only to the hemisphere of the brain that values logic and reason. We’re also creatures of emotion, intuition, spark — which is perhaps why we should mount more poetry expeditions (and) make sure that novelists can feel the licking heat of wildfire.

We’ve read — and probably even spoken ourselves — about the importance of empathy in these bitterly fractured times. And how the work of our nation’s poets and writers promotes understanding.

But I was struck by something the poet Natalie Diaz shared recently on social media reminding us that empathy is also something hunters need to successfully stalk their prey.

In fact, empathy isn’t an emotion but the ability to imagine and even predict another’s emotions. It is a kind of emotional appropriation.

Perhaps “empathy” is the wrong word.

Perhaps what our country and communities and families need — and perhaps the greatest gift our poets and writers can offer — is more fundamental.

To guard against division and hierarchy, writes philosopher Martha Nussbaum, all decent societies need to cultivate sympathy and love.

“What if the mightiest word is love?” Elizabeth Alexander asked in her poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” which she wrote for and read at President Obama’s first Inauguration. “Love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light.”

Memorist and activist Dorothy Day wrote: “Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up… If we love enough, we are going to light a fire in the hearts of others.”

In an interview Gertrude Stein proclaimed, “Love can end the war.” And the reporters laughed and laughed.

We can’t understand the stakes until we feel them — deeply.

We can’t understand the stakes until we feel them.

And sometimes in order to encourage the level and quality of feeling that is transformative, in addition to radiant light, sometimes we need lightning, even flames.

In her book, Moving Politics, about the emergence in the late 1980s of the AIDS COALITION TO UNLEASH POWER (or ACT-UP), Deborah Gould writes:

Affect. Being affected, being moved. Emotion. Motion. Movement. From the post-classical Latin movementum, meaning “motion,” and earlier movimentum, meaning “emotion,” and then later, “rebellion,” or “uprising.” The movements in social movements gesture toward the realm of affect; bodily intensities; emotions, feelings, and passions; and towards uprisings.

Gould argues for the “confrontational” methods ACT-UP employed, often drawing on deep emotions including fear, shame, and despair, which were necessary to address what was “an exploding crisis,” while elected officials were slow to act.

AIDS was first identified in the United States in 1981, the year that Ronald Reagan became President. He did not mention AIDS, however, until 1985 after 20,849 Americans had already died. Two years later, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 50,280 Americans had acquired AIDS and 96% — or 47,993 Americans — were dead.

Two years after that, on October 6, 1989, hundreds of people in San Francisco met in the streets to protest the government’s seemingly disregard of the growing AIDS epidemic. One of them was the novelist Alexander Chee. He recalls the events of that evening in his recent book, How to Write An Autobiographical Novel:

Everyone is running now, and everywhere batons rise. The screams lift out of the street… I am watching a boy I know… the V formation of police approaching (the crowd) breaks as they charge. The point man swings and his baton glances off my friend’s forearm to strike his forehead. My friend crumples, his face already bloody, falling on the sidewalk… I am afraid he will be trampled. He is unconscious and not in view of the panicked crowd. I go to his side… I bend down and say his name softly. Mike, I say. His eyes open and he is already crying. This is his first police riot, mine too. The blood is always heavy on any head wound, I say, remembering something random as I try to calm him. And I tear off a piece of my T-shirt to press against his head.

People surround us, and soon a medic appears. I follow them as they take my friend to the ambulance. “Are you with him?” they ask me, and I say yes, because it is the best thing for me to do. “Put your hand on the ambulance,” they tell me, “so the police won’t arrest you,” and I do.

I stand there, my hand on the ambulance, and a television news crew arrives and asks me to describe what I’ve seen. As I tell the story, I keep my hand on the ambulance the entire time. After they leave, I think about how, up to now, I have thought I lived in a different country from this. But this is the country I live in, I tell myself, feeling the metal against my fingers. This is the country I live in.

In our country, the role of the artist, the writer, and the journalist are key. That is why the framers provided for freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. Democracy relies on checks and balances and an informed citizenry, and the arts, as well as journalism, are a way in which information is shared.

And in our country, which has not yet been able to admit its origin story — all efforts by the people toward the dissemination of truth are essential.

“I love America more than any other country in this world,” said James Baldwin. “And, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Poets and writers have a supporting role in maintaining Democracy, and by supporting I don’t mean lesser, I mean foundational. Historical correction and forward progress — whether it be incremental, notable, or monumental — needs the culture — our collective understanding, knowledge, beliefs — to ready the way.

As Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “Art is action, but it does not cause action: rather, it prepares us for thought.”

“When communication has broken down,” she wrote, “then it is time to tap the roots of communication. Poetry is written from these depths; in great poetry you feel a source speaking to another source.”

So in this time when language is being manipulated, when people are being duped, when the public debate is made up of barbs. We have an even greater job to do as the keepers and stewards of stories and artfully crafted language, imbued with undeniable meaning.

We have an even greater job to do as the keepers and stewards of stories and artfully crafted language.

We know the secret to survival. It is saying. It is naming. It is telling. It is recording. It is singing. To soothe our fears. To fuel our inner fire. To remember all those who came before on whose shoulders we stand. To illuminate and ignite new guiding lights.

We need to recall the mission statements for our country our poets have offered.

As Emma Lazarus pleaded, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free!”

And as Langston Hughes beseeched in his poem, “Let America be America again”:

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain — 
All, all the stretch of these great green states — 
And make America again!

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