Poetry Connects Us In Troubling Times: Why Poets Write and What We Can Do to Support Them

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Constantly risking absurdity

and death

whenever he performs

above the heads

of his audience

the poet like an acrobat

climbs on rime

to a high wire of his own making

From “Constantly Risking Absurdity,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti


Poetry has a pulse, a transformative power. It embodies rather than dictates, prefers to examine instead of observe. It waits to be cracked open and enjoyed. There is little poetry cannot do, no topic it won’t address. It is bold, innovative, insightful. It is raw, truthful, revealing. We need it now, more than ever.

The night after America stood reeling from a surprising presidential upset, the Women’s National Book Association brought together a group of female poets at Pace University to discuss “The Power of Poetry in a Complex World.” Never had a topic felt so timely, providing a chance to direct energies towards something greater than loss or fear or anger.

This was the Women’s National Book Association’s fourth collaboration with Pace, and they will celebrate their one hundredth birthday next year. Established before women had the right to vote, the WNBA aims to “connect, educate, advocate, and lead in the literary community,” according to their mission statement.

“The WNBA was founded on the belief that books and words have the power to enact cultural change for the disenfranchised, and throughout the last century we’ve seen just how right our founders were. Whatever your politics, there’s no denying we live in a complex and tumultuous time. The beauty of poetry is that it gives voice to the underlying emotion of our national discourse—whether the chaotic free verse of resistance, or the structured, musical rhyme of harmony,” WNBA president Hannah Bennett wrote to me following the event, elaborating on the panel topic and its critical relevance in today’s climate.

It’s a sentiment that has remained consistent throughout America’s long, complex history, and the evening’s tone echoed that sense of responsibility toward writers and their impactful art forms.

“Can literature influence social change? Can it reflect activism? Can a poem be a fulcrum for change?” asked moderator Amy King.

“Literature is a way of introducing ourselves to each other. A way of understanding lives that are not our own, human lives, and being connected to them,” explained panelist Camille Rankine, the first to tackle that multi-faceted question.

“[Poetry and language] are a way to destabilize the foundation, and elicit long term change. It’s why I keep coming to the page. Connecting through human experience has some kind of impact,” added panelist Deborah Poe.

I was especially taken by panelist Melissa Studdard’s thoughtful approach, noting that “poetry, the way it’s composed, has a tendency to get inside a reader and stay there differently than everyday language. It can affect change over time.”

This feels as if it hits the sweet spot between the written and spoken word. Instead of spitting insults or exploding in fear, poets gather thoughts and spur movement, capturing themes that can apply to a larger landscape. Poems emerge despite outside perils, and in fact, are often fueled by them. A poet’s words can be grounded in reality, but weighted with beauty, their images thought-provoking and even intimidating. Poetry does not discriminate, and the only demand it makes of us is that we listen. It’s not at risk of failing its readers because it comes from a place of conviction and honesty. When poets write about what they feel, it’s readers’ attitudes—and by association, their actions—that can be impacted.

These are the types of insights shared by poets and lovers of poetry alike, from the earliest writers to modern day. “I don’t look on poetry as closed works. I feel they’re going on all the time in my head and I occasionally snip off a length,” said John Ashbery, 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner. An abolitionist and feminist as well as novelist and poet, Louisa May Alcott declared, “let my name stand among those who are willing to bear ridicule and reproach for the truth’s sake, and so earn some right to rejoice when the victory is won.”  Emily Dickinson, most of whose work challenged the 19th century definition of poetry and form, felt “if I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” Lawrence Ferlinghetti, author of my favorite poem Constantly Risking Absurdity and many others, told his peers, “we have to raise the consciousness; the only way poets can change the world is to raise the consciousness of the general populace.” Poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou believed “words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.”

Poets continue to relinquish their thoughts to the page, but are readers equally as eager to engage with them? It’s true that some may find it hard to find an entry point into the literary genre. The WNBA discussion suggested the gap may lie in our initial experiences with poetry in the classroom, where we are taught how to read and categorize instead of how to appreciate and discover our own meanings. King talked about the limitations in teaching the art form, the attention to technical details like beats and meters that feel more like hurdles than immersive, personal experiences. “It’s the approach [that matters],” she noted. “Poets are always looking at how language shapes meaning. [When teaching], make students put things into poetry that they don’t think belongs in poetry. You can write a poem about anything.”

The emphasis on writing is an interesting point that Studdard touched on again later. “If you’re writing poetry, you start loving it, even if you don’t continue on [writing]. You love to read it.”

Searching for a sense of belonging was the strongest influence among WNBA panelists for turning to poetry to illustrate their worlds, suggesting that the conditions feeding our desire to write are truly universal. Poetry speaks for us, gives context and helps us process. After all, as Rankine imparted, “the idea of self-care in this society is a challenge. Poetry is casting out that line to understand the world we live in.” Why not join in the conversation? Invoke our limitless power to create, to engage, to read, to educate.

Is it enough to write down our truths and experiences? It’s surely a question many have wondered about in the context of both personal and social change, and it’s worth examining effects on both the creators and the receivers. For Studdard, poetry showed her that she had a voice and something to say. “Growing up, I was a writer but didn’t realize it. I was making up poems and dialogue in my head. I had no idea a girl could be a writer. I spent the beginning of my life listening to others, and [now] I share what I think feels incredibly empowering.” Poetry can awaken a desire to communicate, to impart wisdom and ideas.

For Rankine and Poe, poetry remains a way to add deeper layers to daily conversations. “Day to day, a lot goes unsaid, unseen, or unacknowledged. [Poetry] is calling out a reality, or aspect of experience, and sharing it,” Rankine said. Poetry steps in to bring issues of all sizes to the forefront, and prompts us to reconsider our situations. Poe explained, “I don’t write from the answer, don’t write in narrative [form]. I ask big, arching questions and pull until I have something to understand more in depth than before. Poetry is a way to process life experience as if with a friend.” Instead of a private discussion in America’s living rooms, poetry is a public platform to ignite social conversation in a productive, peaceful manner.

It’s possibly panelist Ellease Ebele Oseye who said it best: “A crossroads—life to death, even social death—that’s the moment that becomes the heart of the poet.” Poets rise to the occasion to illuminate the cracks that don’t match up, regardless of obstacles.

If poetry brings us together and preserves our sanities, allowing us to remain inquisitive and engaged and understanding on the fight towards fixing our problems, then there’s no question that it’s a priceless tool for change. This is where the movement starts, where feelings are recognized and matched, a record of the struggles of our time and evidence of how many of our experiences and beliefs are shared.

Poetry has always had a dedicated audience, but recent international bestseller lists suggest a wider receptiveness towards the genre. Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur has been on the New York Times Bestsellers list for over thirty weeks. The Universe of Us by Lang Leav was recently on Singapore’s Straits Times list.  News outlets shared collections of poetry suggestions following the election results, including Huffington Post’s 18 Compassionate Poems To Help You Weather Uncertain Times, Vox’s Feeling terrible right now? Maybe some poetry will help, The Atlantic’s The Poems That Help With Sudden Change, and The Guardian’s Words for Solace and Strength: poems to counter the election fallout and beyond.

“Do artists have a responsibility to point out nakedness, what others don’t see?” a WNBA audience member asked at the end of the night.

Panelist Rosebud Ben-Oni was quick to respond. “The best poets can’t help it. They’re going to say it, and there’s something to be said about craft. There’s an innate [desire] within the poet.”

If we’ve seen anything come out of the past few weeks, it’s that we all have something to say. People who may not identify themselves as political activists now recognize the strength of their opinions. People who rarely donate or volunteer are signing up to support organizations they believe in. We’ve deepened our commitments to what’s most important to us, and recognized how much we care about one another and the progresses we’ve made. We shouldn’t feel helpless. We shouldn’t feel like one more voice won’t change anything. We shouldn’t feel like people aren’t ready to listen.

There’s no shortage to the amount of ways we can ask important questions, and no limit to the number of people who will give strong, thoughtful answers. As publishing professionals, we can seek out these writers whose ideas and commentaries add depth to social conversations, and help to amplify their messages. Through our marketing, sales, and publicity efforts we can connect new readers with a wide variety of authors, past and present, during a time when we’re most desperate for hope, perspective, and change.

This article was contributed by YPG member Sarah Woodruff. For more information, visit our Contributing Writers page.

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