Poetry–like music, like theater, like many arts and community activities–brings people together. And when people get together, as the world screen has displayed prominently in the past year, stuff happens–good stuff. Empowerment. Liberation. Education. Social justice.
Political rallying is not the only kind of populist empowerment. Poets do it too. And the powers-that-be are threatened.
As an adult educator, I warn students that some of the sacred cows of their childhood are about to be put to pasture. Education is subversive. So is the message of Jesus (you know, the Jesus that tossed the money-grubbers out of the temple; that showed up the Romans by feeding the hungry that the powerful would rather conscript or enslave; that said, and showed, that love is a verb.) So poetry, too, is subversive.
Across the world, poets are still being persecuted, as truth-tellers always are. In China, Zhu Yufu has been imprisoned for subversion for responding to the populist movements with a poem that inspired followers to initiate a “Jasmine Revolution.”
Some exciting developments here in the States render clear and apparent the links, the possibilities, between poetry and justice. Split This Rock! in Washington, D.C. is a great example. There, March 22-25, poets gathered for “four days of poetry, community building, and creative transformation.” The lineup there includes such literary luminaries as Alice Walker, Jose Padua, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sonia Sanchez, and others.
And I was at the Colrain Conference in Massachusetts with Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo Press, Ellen Dore Watson of the Masschusetts Review and Smith College, and founder Joan Houlihan with a dozen other poets who constantly reminded me that poetry without authentic compassion is worthless. Poetry requires compassion.
Here’s to poetry. To subversion. To justice. To love as a verb. And to those who are willing to risk their freedom for the sake of truth, love, justice–and poetry.