Sunday, July 27, 2014

In an Effort to Find Ways to Humanely Deal with Each Other

"Why must the living walk among ghosts?" poet Lena Khalaf Tuffaha asks in her beautiful and heart-wrenching poem, "History." This weekend, Lena and I read together at a fundraiser for the Middle East Children's Alliance based in California. I also recorded a couple of poems which will hopefully be approved for our local NPR station. In fact, I've been thinking a great deal lately about what makes a strong "political" poem ."Political" is in quotes because that word can be understood in many different ways. In many parts of the world poetry is expected to be political, not so in the US -- except in the vaguest of terms.

When I worked at Antioch University several years ago, I taught a seminar on political poetry for their Low Residency MFA Program. More recently I taught a course on the politics of social change. I dug up my notes tonight to see what, if any, wisdom I passed on to my students. Here are a few quotes I found.


“I keep thinking as did millions of other people, what can we do? Writers, believers in words, could not give up words when the going got rough. I found myself as did millions did, turning to poetry. Why should it be any surprise that people find solace in the most intimate of literary genres? Poetry slows us down, cherishes small details. We need poetry for nourishment and for noticing, for the way language and imagery reach comfortably into experience, holding and connecting it more successfully than any news channel we could name.”
                                                     ---Naomi Shihab Nye


“The moment when a feeling enters the body ---
is political. This touch is political.
By which I mean, that politics is the effort to find ways of humanely dealing with each other --- as groups or individuals --- politics being simply process, the breaking down of barriers of oppression, tradition, culture, ignorance, fear, self protectiveness.”  --- Adrienne Rich


I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connoly and Pearse
Now and in time to be
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly
A terrible beauty is born.

“Easter 1916,” William Butler Yeats


Political poetry as solace, political poetry as joining us together in a common humanity, political poetry as historical document. Solace, community, and memory as our touchstones. Not a bad place to live.

The past three weeks, when so much news out of the Middle East is gut wrenching beyond my wildest nightmares, words are perhaps all we have. I can write letters to politicians --- and I do; I can write blog posts, but perhaps most useful of all is to make the attempt to write poetry. Poetry is what grounds me. In some ways writing poems feels like a minuscule gesture. It won't stop the bombs falling but perhaps it will allow American readers and readers from around the world, another way to apprehend the conflict rather than try to comprehend it.


My daughter asks me to explain
but my words falter
I try numbers
dates of accords made and broken
defeats and victories
numbers of casualties and refugees
United Nations resolutions.
My daughter doesn’t want to know how
She isn’t asking about the play-by-play
of death that engulfs us.
The trails of the dispossessed I watched
in childhood are identical to the ones she sees today.
More limbs trapped and swelling
beneath crumbling concrete
More streets crowding with the dying
trying to outrun the dead
the Godzilla of sulfurous smoke
the bombs that rain a thousand miniature poisonous spears
chasing them down.
somehow all these decades later
all we can do is watch
with different lenses and on flatter screens.
My daughter wants to know why
Why must the living walk alongside ghosts
marching out of black and white photographs
and into the fresh rubble
still seething and blood-stained?
My daughter wants to know why
instead of Never Again
which she took into her tender heart
as a sacred oath nestled in the pages
of her history books
and surveying the smoldering expanses of human apathy
why it is always again and again somewhere,
why must we live forever in the dark prison of the past,
and gather at its alter for more bloodletting?

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha -- 7/22/14

And William Stafford: 

Entering History

Remember the line in the sand?
You were there, on the telly, part of
the military. You didn't want to
give it, but they took your money
for those lethal tanks and the bombs.

Minorities, they don't have a country
even if they vote: "Thanks, anyway,"
the majority says, and you are left there
staring at the sand and the line they drew,
calling it a challenge, calling it "ours."

Where was your money when the tanks
grumbled past? Which bombs did you buy
for the death rain that fell? Which year's
taxes put that fire to the town
where the screaming began?

William Stafford

Sometimes I Breathe, 1992


I will end, for now, with Adrienne Rich who wrote so eloquently:

“A revolutionary poem will not tell you who or when to kill, what and when to burn or even how to theorize. It reminds you (for you have known, somehow, all along but may have lost track) where and when and how you are living and might live – it is a wick of desire. It may do its work in the language and images of dreams, lists, love letters, prison letters, chants, filmic jump cuts, meditations, cries of pain, documentary fragments, blues, late night long distance calls. It is not programmatic: it searches for words amid the jamming of un-free, free market idiom, for images that will burn true outside the emotional theme parks. A revolutionary poem is written out of one individual’s confrontation with his/her own longings (including all s/he is expected to deny) in the belief that it’s readers or hearers ( in that old, unending sense of the people) deserve an art as complex, as open to contradiction, as themselves.” Adrienne Rich

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