Every few years or so, we are told by someone new that poetry is dead. I’ve been writing poetry seriously for about twenty years now, and I can recall at least five such elegies during that time. I’m sure they came before as well. I’m sure they will come again. Indeed, when my friend, Silvana, sent me a link to the latest such death knell (this week by Christopher Ingraham, in The Washington Post) I told her I had no intention of responding to it, because, well… I had poems to write. But then I remembered I was gifted this great platform this week and figured it was probably as good a time as any to address it.
In deciding how I’d enter this discussion, I wanted to begin straight off with a screed on how whiteness in the form of ‘evidence’ and ‘empiricism’ is always interested in reducing to cold, hard numbers, ideas and beauties that were never meant to be thus confined. I wanted to analogize Mr. Ingraham’s data, with the dismantling of public school education through the turning of our children’s educational lives into an argument of profit vs loss. I thought to talk about hip hop’s ubiquitous influence on the world as evidence that poetry is alive and well, sure as I am that rap is the most important (and rigorous) poetic form of the 20th Century, but I needn’t have searched so far to find my evidence. I walked into a South Side Chicago Elementary this morning, where I teach a theatre residency to second and third graders. One of my third-graders, in the bi-lingual class (they have been almost painfully shy this entire time) got up to share this response to the weekend poetry exercise I gave them:
I hear the voices of the dogs, the bears the snakes / I see the refuge in the eyes of cows. / My dreams are about fire and flesh. / Nobody knows about one graveyard under the stars in the skies in our world…
I’d introduced them to Federico Garcia Lorca on Friday past. This morning they introduced Lorca back to me. They invented and re-mixed. They found the break in Lorca’s music, looped it and re-imagined it. I could go on and on and share five or six of the more prodigious efforts from these young people (who are still struggling with expression in this, their second language), but it dawned on me that I have the good fortune every day to be part of the narrative evidence that states definitively that poetry is now, has been and always will be, alive and on the rise. Let me be clear; my instinct was to be dismissive of Mr. Ingraham, but I am betting that Mr. Ingraham does not get the gift that I got this morning, and get so often because I teach theatre and Creative Writing to young people.
Of course Mr. Ingraham’s article has graphs, has ‘irrefutable’ numbers, which suggest that less people read poetry now than ever. While I found some of his choices of reading the data to be flawed, I’m not interested in entering that struggle. Toni Morrison, one of the most lyric and lyrical poets of our time reminded us recently that some conversations are just designed to take us away from our work, and so we must remember our work and not indulge those conversations. Instead here is my work:
My mother introduced me to poems; the first of those being the poems of Linton Kwesi Johnson and Edward Kamau Braithwaite. Later she drove home the message of the significance of my being a black boy in the world with the poems of Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez, Derek Walcott and others that I then found on my own. I migrated to the U.S. from Trinidad and Tobago when I was 19, and all my attempts at art and verse ceased. It was another seven years before a friend dragged me late one winter night into a pre-gentrification abandoned building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn to hear poets do their thing. I was watching ESPN. I almost didn’t go. I left there that night, went home and immediately began writing again. That night (drumroll for the saccharin cliché), poetry saved my life, though it was many more years before I understood my desperate leap and grab at it. It was (and still is) a way for me to understand my world and make sense of its madness by bearing witness, by asking improbable questions, by remembering and re-mixing so that I can consistently draw lines between one aspect of myself and another, one aspect of my reality and another – and often when those realities seem so implausible as to appear surreal.
Put another way; for many of us it is impossible to go to anything but poetry in the world that has given us Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, Acai Gurley, Oscar Grant, Kimani Gray, Katrina, Gentrification, the West Bank, the GOP, 2 million incarcerated, private prisons, and the myriad other violences visited on us, and so we know that poetry isn’t ever dead. The question of course, is why the haste to bury it every few years or so. What does poetry do that someone is so often ready to declare it obsolete? The sadness of course is that often these prognosticators come from within our gates, but it is perhaps instructive that when they do, they are often on the waning side of their lives, careers and influence.
I know this blog entry will not be enough to stave off the next set of trumpet blowers marching around poetry’s citadel, but for those of us who need the comfort of being reminded that it’s all good, I want to let you know that in America this week, on the South Side of Chicago, a nine year old who speaks English as a second language, wrote this:
In the sky there’s nobody asleep./ I live in Earth./ a man finding a door to exist./ And my voices make fire or find refuge in one…
Let’s talk about some poetry for the next few days, shall we? It appears there is so much of it to consider.