The eighth graders were restless this afternoon. Every poem inspired a volley of verbal fire with the cannons to the right of them, cannons to the left. Not at all sure that I was connecting with any of the 250 of them crowded onto the library floor. Questions and answers went better than the presentation — thoughtful questions (maybe they were listening?) and then one student from the way back: Do you ever write political poems?
I was immediately transported back to a conversation I’d had at a polite gathering of poets in Cleveland a couple of weeks ago. Professor One was bemoaning the fact that Nikki Giovanni had actually written a poem for the Virginia Tech family. “I call this Polaroid poetry,” he haughtily declared. “What she should have done is find a poem from the past and read that one at the memorial.” I questioned this as did another poet standing in attendance at his proclamation. Another professor chimed in, “yes, I don’t believe in political poetry at all.”
My friend said saomething along the lines of “Eh? You kidding?” She was more polite than that, but direct. “No,” he continued — political poems may possibly be written but not until maybe 100 years after the event. It takes that long to get perspective.”
One hundred years later? Who cares 100 years later? No wonder so much poetry is seen as irrelevant if that is the academic attitude toward contemporary commentary in the form of poetry.
I questioned professor #1 citing Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry on child labor and how that was read in Parliament and helped to change the laws. He looked at me blankly and then he looked over my head to see who else had entered the room. That was the end of the discussion.
Times of crisis (is a massacre a political event?) are exactly the right time to reach for poetry — to call on our poets to put attempt to put words to the feelings we share. I thought calling on Nikki Giovanni was EXACTLY the right thing to do and that she was able to offer verbal comfort, encircling the wounded with her verse.
Do I write political poems? Yes. And I will continue to do so. In a world where every activity from schools to bees to peace have become political hot potatoes — how can any writer not be political? In fact, I have a goal. I want to write a poetry book that gets banned in schools for being politically forthright. I’m bored with getting banned for being satanic and anti-familiy values and some of the other goofy things I’ve been labeled.
Poets are supposed to stir things up. It’s a proud tradition that apparently our eighth graders recognize as being important, if not our “scholars.”