I am a poet. I am a writer. I am an English teacher. I do not have a degree in political science or public policy. I have never worked for the federal government in any capacity. Despite my assiduous attention to current events, history, and politics, I do not consider myself a pundit, journalist, or wonk.
In 1821, English writer Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his essay, “A Defence of Poetry”, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai stated, “I’ve often said that all poetry is political. This is because real poems deal with a human response to reality and politics is part of reality, history in the making. Even if a poet writes about sitting in a glass house drinking tea, it reflects politics.”
Lately, even before the election, I have been wrestling with the role the act of writing, specifically the genre dubbed “creative writing”–fiction, poetry, and drama–as a form of activism plays today in this electronically interconnected, “post-fact” society where we literally have the world’s knowledge at our fingertips yet still manage to remain willfully ignorant. In this “brave new world” we have inherited, is creative writing as viable form of protest and activism as it once was? In an America arguably on the precipice of an economic, environmental, and societal catastrophe, I wonder what I am contributing to the national dialogue teaching and writing short stories, novels, plays, and poetry. Is it true what W.H. Auden said: “Poetry makes nothing happen”?
Obviously if you’re reading this, you already possess an appreciation for the printed word and politics. Maybe I’m preaching to the converted. Likely, though, you have also grown weary of corporate media outlets that present only what their Wall Street, fossil fuel, military and prison industrial complex overlords deem acceptable for public consumption. You come to sources like this because you still have faith a humble writer like me is informed and articulate enough to meet your desire for political discourse. For that I thank you. As long as the First Amendment remains intact, writing is and must remain a substantial outlet for our right to redress grievances and maintain a free press. Obviously, journalism falls into this category. The press is the only industry the Constitution specifically invokes. History texts are in line with it as well. More imaginative forms of writing can be arguably more potent, or at least as permanent, because of their general critique of institutions and basic human experiences history helps foment. History is the study of what was; literature is the study of what could be based on what is happening or has already happened.
For example, I have books in my personal library about George W. Bush, written during the Bush administration, that provide criticism and insight into what the writers felt noteworthy enough for posterity. Well, Bush left office eight years ago, and, although we still can learn a great deal about our country, presidential power, and historical events Bush’s administration helped shape, as soon as those books were published, they were dated. They still, however, provide insight into how we got where we are and permit us to draw lessons from which to learn. We can reflect on policies and procedures so to chart a future course. This is why we study history. History is the study of “how?”
Literature is as palpable a study of cataloging what happened as it is of “what if?” Poets have used verse to broaden knowledge of and express views about controversial political events for thousands of years, evident in the Bible, classical literature, romanticism, and the Beat Generation. William Blake, Walt Whitman, Percy Shelley, Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, Carl Sandburg, are all noted for their politically driven poetry, providing current generations with primary insight into America under particular political milieux. We do not need to have lived during the dark days of McCarthyism to empathize with Ginsberg’s Howl. There are parallels in our lives. Ginsberg, a Jewish-turned-Buddhist homosexual, screams from the rafters about the “best minds of his generation destroyed by madness” through drugs, social and political ostracism, racism, and poverty. Langston Hughes was one of our nation’s most important writers, creating inimitable art at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, reflecting on the elusive American Dream and the paradox between personal responsibility and social opportunity. We do not need to have lived in eighteenth/nineteenth-century London to connect with William Blake’s disillusionment over the burgeoning industrial economy; or America during that time contending with the existential crisis embodied in the Civil War that provided Walt Whitman with painful lyrics about experiences as a field hospital nurse, navigating his way through a nation equally attempting to straddle the world stage. Who did not read the play The Crucible in high school and learn to appreciate Arthur Miller’s Salem Witch Trial allegory for the Red Scare dishing out another witch hunt three centuries later when Miller was writing it? Who has not studied George Orwell’s Animal Farm with an eye on the endless cycle of avarice that has arisen from revolutions throughout history? And who can ignore the premonition of our current surveillance state articulated in Orwell’s 1984?
What is most important about literature is not its ability to artistically encapsulate a moment, though, but to infuse that moment with timeless questions and conflicts that, if done well, encourage readers to ponder issues transcending time periods in which the literature was created. This does not only possess the power to inform, but anger, sadden, energize. It encourages activism. Indian activist and novelist Arundhati Roy said, “In the midst of putative peace, a writer can, like I did, be unfortunate enough to stumble on a silent war. The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it.”
The most difficult task ahead for writers and, of course, teachers, is to make that connection. The more history repeats itself, as we know it is wont to do over the next four years, for sure, the more we can turn to our literary sages for insight, direction, solace, and hope in a more progressive tomorrow since much of the road we’re traveling now we’ve been down before.
If you are so inclined, check out my “Top Twelve” list of works I encourage my students to read at some point in their lives.
Keep on keeping on, my friends.
Top-12 Books, Poems, and Plays Every American Should Read (in no particular order, and subject to addition):
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
- 1984 by George Orwell
- It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (So many parallels between Buzz Windrip and Donald Trump!)
- A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
- Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen
- Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight by Thom Hartmann
- Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- Howl by Allan Ginsberg
- Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
- A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
- They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer