Illustration by Kathryn HyattThese are what the Chinese call "interesting times." Sped by new technology, events seem to blur past us at a near-indecipherable pace. Not two years have passed since Colin Powell suggested publicly that it might be time to consider lifting sanctions on Iraq. Today, Baghdad has fallen, and the talking heads say Saddam Hussein is either dead or hiding. Not two years have passed since the Sept. 11 attacks, and violence still permeates every cave and mud hut in Afghanistan, where we've supposedly already won. It feels like decades of violence have been condensed into a few exhausting months, and still there's likely more on the horizon.
Millions have taken to the streets in protest, more even than protested Vietnam, and many of those are turning to poetry to make sense of the madness that has engulfed the world. As evidence, consider the success of such "instant" antiwar anthologies as Northern California poet Sam Hamill's Poets Against the War website (www.poetsagainstthewar.org), which contains more than 13,000 poems from some of the country's most prominent poets.
"The poetry is always there, seething quietly, until it's roused by some CNN-touted conflict," says Patricia Smith, a poet/journalist/author who will be reading at the Five Penny Poets series as part of the Orange County Poetry Festival. "We seek out what we need in the times we need it. When we need poetic outcry against war, we go looking for it—in the voices of others, in our own voice. And it rises up from where it has been sleeping."
Certainly, Smith's own writing has always portrayed the world in its horror and whimsy. Whether descending into the mind of a racist skinhead or whispered in the corridors of a Paris museum, her words don't rant against the issue of the day so much as sharply tear away the world's illusions, leaving us with the often-dazzling reality beneath. "We grieve you wandering toward death. We celebrate you clinging to life," she writes in "Praise Be These Old Black Men." "Open your bony, dark-veined arms and receive me, your daughter, who is taking on your last days as her very blood, who is learning your whispered language too late to stop your dying, but not too late to tell this story."
Smith's poetry is a sort of emotional journalism, a compelling recounting of the voices within each of us, a recounting that burns with its vividness, a quality often lacking in less-accomplished poets who mistake an opinion for the transformative viewpoint of poetry. "I'm not a big fan anymore of 'writing to topic,'" says Smith. "As writers, we live what our pen says. Every time we step in front of an audience to speak, choose the work we want the public to hear and see, we are saying—in a million minute, precise and extraordinary ways—'This is who I am.' I certainly don't need Sam Hamill or [prominent poet] Wanda Coleman to write an anti-war poem in order to know how they feel. In this instance, however, when we are being called upon to tout our collective strength, I don't see how we can turn away. It's time this country learns what so many countries already know—poetry is no plaything. It's a gale force."
This is the lesson first lady Laura Bush learned when she canceled the White House's Feb. 12 symposium on "Poetry and the American Voice" for fear that several invited poets would protest her husband's policies. That event led Hamill to found Poets Against the War.
"Was the White House soiree ever anything but a teeny nod toward National Poetry Month?" asks Smith. "It's not like there was this big outstretched hand—'Ah, poets, come into the fold.' My guess is they started getting jittery after [New Jersey Poet Laureate Amiri] Baraka told them to kiss his ass. Suddenly, we weren't those cute tweedy types anymore. And they had no way of knowing that because they don't read or listen to poetry written by real people."
It's tempting to see the situation of poetry as a reflection of society—as a measure of the distance between the rulers and the ruled. But Smith says poetry has a long way to go before it becomes "the voice of a nation in this nation."
"I remember traveling to Berlin, where dozens of poets from all over Europe had just completed a transcontinental train trip," she says. "The entire train was theirs. They stopped in tiny town squares, huge community halls and theaters, libraries, schools, all over Europe, and they read their work. They'd been at it for a month. Berlin was their homecoming. There were so many people crowding the rail station that regular service had to be postponed.
"When each poet emerged from the train, he or she was hoisted upon the shoulders of the crowd. There was weeping and singing, and people straining forward to simply touch the poet. There was a reverence and respect I have never seen, and I don't expect to see here—unless, of course, Justin Timberlake or Shakira suddenly decide to bear their poetic souls."
But still, hope springs eternal. And that, too, is a start.
Patricia Smith reads with local poet Naomi QuiÑonez as part of the Orange County Poetry Festival at Golden West College, Community Room 102, Lot H on Gothard Street, Huntington Beach, (714) 968-0905; www.ocpoetryfestival.com. Sat., 7 p.m. $3.
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