The Power of Poetry

This is a story about one of the newest forms of communication—social media—and one of the oldest—poetry—and how the two joined forces for social change.

Power of PoetryOn April 20, 2010, nine students chained themselves to the Arizona state capitol building to protest Arizona’s new anti-immigrant legislation, SB 1070. Their slogan: “We are chained to the capitol just like our community is chained by this legislation.” While others chanted and gave speeches, the nine students sat silently and with dignity as police officers cut the chains and arrested them. Of course their protest was posted on YouTube, and when a friend sent the link to Francisco X. Alarcón, a prize-winning poet and professor at the University of California–Davis, Alarcón responded as poets have for millennia when they witness acts of courage in the face of oppression: He wrote a poem.

Alarcón posted “For the Capitol Nine” to his Facebook page, addressing the young people directly: “you . . . / chain yourselves / to the doors / of the State Capitol / so that terror / will not leak out / to our streets. . . / your courage / can’t be taken / away from us / and put in jail / you are nine / young warriors / like nine sky stars.”

So many “friends” and “friends of friends” responded to the poem that Alarcón decided to create a Facebook group and invite other poets to post poems on the subject.

The word went out over Facebook and Twitter and poet to poet, so that by August 2011 “Poets Responding to SB 1070” included more than 1,200 poems by prominent and emerging poets from all over the country and around the world. Eight volunteer moderators now manage the site, keeping up with submissions and choosing poems for a weekly feature on La Bloga, the Latino literary blog. They also are preparing a hard-copy anthology.

The site has received more than 600,000 hits, and dozens of readers comment on poems. “For me,” says Alarcón, “our poetic project is almost a digital return to the directness of the oral tradition. How many books or poetry anthologies could claim 600,000 visits?”

Poems on the site are angry, tender, mournful, and celebratory, in English, in Spanish, and often in both. Some take on SB 1070 directly, along with other discriminatory legislation—such as HB 2281, targeting the teaching of ethnic studies in Arizona public schools—while others range widely across the immigrant experience, the Chicano story of border crossing, the necessity of resistance, and the vision of a united people.

Poets have always played this role, naming injustices and imagining alternatives, acting as visionaries for a society. In the United States, this tradition begins with our great democrat Walt Whitman and continues through the 20th century, through the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, and also through the Beats, feminist poets, and the Chicano Art Movement. Poetry and other art forms can combat despair, inspire those working in the trenches of social change movements, humanize those we are taught to fear, and build bridges across our differences, telling our human stories. A poem can be a history lesson—sometimes the only one we have.

Sarah Browning, director of Split This Rock and DC Poets Against The War, is the author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden (The Word Works, 2007).