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From conception, a poem is put into the world with a purpose in mind: to give and take thoughts, experiences, and wonders. To put its finger on the pulse of what it means to be human.
For poets, dreamers, and metaphor-seekers, poetry feels more like a safe harbor than an unsteady sea. While I share this sentiment, it’s not the case for everyone. When you subject people to a rigid approach toward poetry, the art itself becomes bereft of its relevance, a relic of an abstract realm beyond classroom walls.
Not all of us are readers or writers, much less lovers of the written word or detectives of hidden meanings—but, while we are not all natural wordsmiths, we are all participants of humanity. Like it or not, political and cultural currents run through our lives, taking us into improbable futures; when that happens, we need to dig our heels into the ground. So how does poetry step into the picture?
Well, if we explore the history of this written art form, we end up getting a glimpse into the history of social change.
Poetry has been bent to suit various groups of people fighting to shape their own narratives throughout time. Think of the political and identity poems of the Harlem Renaissance; everyone knows of Langston Hughes changing the narrative of African-American identity through the use of language, significantly presenting their dreams as valid in poems such as “Let America Be America Again” and “Dreams.”
The poeticized oppression of American Indians arose as a mass reaction against laws and policies that stripped Indians of their rights and cultures—such as opening acres of Indian land to white settlers and forcing them into reservations. Poets such as Wendy Rose, Paula Gunn Allen, Leslie Silko, Philip Minthorn, and Maurice Kelly threaded their culture into their poetic voices, namely through using traditional music (such as the Ghost Dance) as a companion to political poetry.
Women, likewise, use poetry as a medium through which they can shine. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s feminist poems, such as “First Fig,” gave a raw, authentic view of female sexuality that scandalized many people in her time, but nevertheless shaped her legacy as a brave poetess. Lucille Clifton’s poetic work is an homage to the women of her roots, from the West African Kingdom of Dahomey that gave her strength and pride in defying racial and gendered stigma.
Adrienne Rich famously declined the National Medal of Arts of 1997, declaring that her poetry would not be held hostage by the corruption of the administration from which this medal was issued. Rich was an avid feminist and activist, whose poetry upholds the power of not just women, but other minorities such as Jews and women of color.
There is something about poetry that lends itself to be claimed by the conflicting voices of humanity; perhaps its fluid beauty makes it a candid reflection of human struggle. Although we can say that about all forms of art, poetry is always changing. Poetry can be structured, freeing, perfect, and unexpected. It can be experienced in literature classes and in real life. It can be used to voice personal narrative or the heart of a community.
It is as politically and socially relevant now as it has ever been in the past. This relevance is perhaps reflected best in the art of slam poetry.
Slam poetry functions as an artistic outlet as well as a political one, first arising between November 1984 and July 1986, in the Green Mill Jazz Club in Chicago. It brought with it a resounding wave of poets clamoring to voice the truths of their identities, not through the written word but through the spoken one.
If you look at the YouTube page for Button Poetry (a collection of spoken word performances), you can see a fiery trail of slam poems pertaining to relevant current issues: mental illnesses, sexual abuse, body image, gender dysphoria, diversity, Islamophobia, and racism. Poets are literally given a stage to voice their minds through the art of words.
Slam poetry integrates theater and literature, but it is not about pageantry: the performance is a delivery of the poet’s self, unabashedly raw and true, and, inevitably, their political and social message. Their experiences and values inform the construction of these poems, and their performance allows the words to transcend the stage and touch the audience.
The rise of spoken word in popular culture, from Sarah Kay’s work appearing on the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why on the topic of teen suicide to the booming online popularity of slam poet Savannah Brown, contradicts the idea that poetry is untouchable art. Truly, anyone can write a poem if they have enough passion.
One of my favorite contemporary poems, “If They Should Come for Us” by Fatimah Asghar, combines these two main elements into a heart-wrenching and defiant slate of art. Asghar’s poem was written in the aftermath of the 2016 election as a lamentation on the status of her people (and herself) in America.
The closing lines are:
my people I follow you like constellations we hear the glass smashing the street
& the nights opening their dark
our names this country’s wood
for the fire my people my people
the long years we’ve survived the long years yet to come I see you map
my sky the light your lantern long ahead & I follow I follow
I can feel the blade of her sorrow, despair, and love for her people through the edge of these words. In many ways, a poem is a declaration of self, a way of humanizing the oppressed due to its fundamental nature. As an art that has no gatekeepers, poetry is free to be utilized by everyone. And today, it is utilized by young voices like Asghar.
This is an interesting literary occurrence because poetry seems to defy the idea that it is a function of love, romance, and lightness. Poems may be one of those things, but constraining the bounds of poetic power into what it is supposed to be has always been, and always will be, a hopeless endeavor. In fact, I think the true strength of poetry lies in its dynamic straddling of personal and external worlds, the space where your inner war comes crashing together with the order of the universe.
In one of my favorite slam poems, “Dreaming Boy,” Sarah Kay—in her typical fashion—makes use of the artistic voyage that her personal experiences have given her as a way to sail into the societal norms that bring her subject to light. Take this bit, for instance:
“And just like that, I did not crave language I always thought I needed. And just like that, a hand reached backwards into a faraway dream and said, “come on then, we’ve got a maiden to save.” I guess what I am saying is you make me feel like a boy, like the boy I have always been. At night, I climb trees and wear cargo shorts. I steal buildings and I build fires. When I wake I am curled around your back, the happiest big spoon in my drawer. You are naked and heavy breathing, the man I love. I hold your body like the gift it is, and safely sink back into dreams.”
This poem stuns me for many reasons, primarily because its beautiful and delicate handling of language draws in political elements through the personal—namely the rejection of sexuality labels that can restrict the full complexity of people. Sarah Kay’s experiences are not universal, but through capturing them in art, they transcend her memories and touch the chord of truth in others.
Poetry excels in the art of human connection and rapport, and humans are affected by the political currents of this world no matter where they stand in terms of literature. I fully believe if people are exposed to a diversity of poems, written or spoken, and are allowed to determine its meaning, poetry can truly flourish in the classroom as well as in the political landscape.
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