The Humanity of Poetry

Take it from Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple. “Poetry can be sharper than a sword in cutting through lies.”

Every day, our politicians and pundits lie to us. They argue that our differences as Americans are greater than what we have in common. That we are retreating from one another. That there’s only one way to be a real American.

Poetry tells a different story. When our politics encourage us to shut down, poetry helps us stay open. It awakens our minds to our beautiful, broken world. Walker and hundreds of other poets are celebrating this power of poetry at Split This Rock Poetry Festival. From March 22-25, we’ll convene in Washington, D.C. to restore hope in the possibility of change, to tell each other our stories, to bridge our differences, and to engage our full humanity.

Of course, there are many kinds of Americans and many U.S. experiences. This variety is part of what makes our country so vibrant and alive. Poetry can help us learn about one another and discover that we’re not enemies. In fact, we’re living in a golden age of poetry, when voices of all kinds are telling the many stories of our time in a gorgeous flowering of inventive language.

(Jill Brazel Photography / www.splitthisrock.org)

(Jill Brazel Photography / www.splitthisrock.org)

Here’s Minnie Bruce Pratt, another poet participating in the festival, on the Great Recession and the outcry against the greed and corruption that landed us in this mess:

In another city, some foreclosed people got so angry
the big finance company had to hide its sign, AIG.
The people were so angry. That makes me feel more
safe, the people come out of their houses to shout:
We demand. Not rabble and rabid, not shadow, not terror,
the neighbors stand and say: The world is ours, ours, ours.

And Naomi Shihab Nye, another one of the festival’s many poets. She riffs on the indignities of modern air travel:

Such a swift lump rises in the throat when
a uniformed woman spits Throw it away!
…obviously she needs a relaxing shower
and a stiff gin and [a guard] needs something like a long trip
into a country full of foreign soldiers and we all need
to swallow hard again so the lumps dissolve
and pressure eases and our worlds mingle kindly
and he no longer feels the gun in his back.

And finally, in her poem “After the Storm, Praise,” Kathy Engel reminds us of what we have, no matter the crisis we face:

To criss-cross corn stalk, potato sog, ocean rock and whip, and to
this family, and to these friends, gathered at the table, where we begin.

Poetry pries open our imaginations. It lets us dream of possibilities other than the ones foisted on us by unimaginative pundits and politicians. With poems, we can travel to a world in which “the air [is] thick with confetti/from all the shredded fear laws,” as Margit Berman writes, a world in which love makes you “forget each/last defense, the guns rusting along the beach,” as Holly Karapetkova puts it.

The festival’s 500 poets come from all walks of life and all levels of education and training. What other big gathering draws veterans, stay-at-home moms, English professors, prison workers, peace activists, and mathematicians? We’re uniting to bring our creative ideas for change to our nation’s capital. With our politicians failing to provide a bold and hopeful vision for the nation’s future, it’s time to listen to the poets.

Sarah Browning is the director of Split This Rock Poetry Festival and an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. www.splitthisrock.org
Distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org)