top of page

A Role for Poets

Updated: Jul 27, 2022


What is a useful role for a poet writing in times like these, amid the realities of what feels like permanent war, a soft never-quite recovering economy, tainted social and political and governmental structures, and widespread public and personal disaffection? 

These are things we note implicitly or explicitly in our art as we engage the world. They don’t make our art, of course, but they are part of the environment in which we work. We include or exclude them, but one way or the other we engage them or are engaged by them. We have no choice.  They are inescapable, the air we breathe, the life we live.

I should add that when I say “useful,” I mean the word in its broadest humanist sense, a meaning to be applied in public as well as private spheres.  We know that art can accurately and importantly describe or challenge the world, or act as a parallel creation, that it can always remind us of our vast human possibilities and our definite responsibilities, can always call us to be more human.  That is part of its virtue.  Every time we create, all the possibilities are in front of us as we write, even as we erase—all the good, all the evil, all the choices between.  It’s one reason why creating makes us better people.  We see in those times life in its possibilities and promises and incredible beauty.  

Beauty is one way in which art does this, calls up all these possibilities, makes them available. Aesthetic accuracy is another help in developing this essentiality. And here’s another word, though it may seem an odd one, for our list: effectiveness. Some things are beautiful and accurate but they do not move us; so we can say that they are not effective. 

Anyway, without putting up an entire essay on the usefulness of art (it would be a very long essay), I’d like to suggest that one useful role for a poet might be to be an historian of the present.  


This is an idea I’ve had for awhile, and I come to it by an odd route. I’ve been thinking about political poetry, or better said, politically involved poetry. Of the good poetry written with political or polemical intent, it seems to me that in general the strongest poems are those that take cognizance of the total life of their times, or at least the large share of it that affects the moment, and that thus operate beyond the instant event or judgment.  Those poems capture the ambiguity and variety of complex considerations that are always a part of any human activity and thought.  Nothing needs be consistent in this effort.  In the real world we always operate with our contradictions intact.  

So to say it more simply:  Poems become more powerful and effective as they honestly confront the times, and even, as necessary, their authors.  By including those difficulties and complexities, the authors become historians of the present.  They write the history of today, of life as actually lived as we make our commitments.  To be honest about it is to confront the messiness of the commitment process, and even the messiness that lingers after the commitment is made.

“Easter, 1916” by W.B. Yeats is a poem that does this kind of confrontation brilliantly. Robert Bly’s “Sleet Storm on the Merritt Parkway” is another. There are several by Rexroth that impress me in exactly this way.  I don’t suggest that these are greater poems than others written by these poets, only that they bring a power and richness to the work and an effectiveness that their other poems lack, because of how they are involved in the world. (There are exceptions, and we should note them: a one-dimensional poem like “Counting Small Boned Bodies” is incredibly effective, achieving its effect by compression of the world to a desktop and the exclusion of everything except the madness of the speaker). 


Here is the Yeats poem: 

Easter 1916

I have met them at close of day

Coming with vivid faces

From counter or desk among grey

Eighteenth-century houses.

I have passed with a nod of the head

Or polite meaningless words,

Or have lingered awhile and said

Polite meaningless words 

And thought before I had done

Of a mocking tale or a gibe

To please a companion

Around the fire at the club,

Being certain that they and I

But lived where motley is worn:

All changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

That woman’s days were spent

In ignorant good-will,

Her nights in argument

Until her voice grew shrill.

What voice more sweet than hers

When, young and beautiful,

She rode to harriers?

This man had kept a school

And rode our winged horse;

This other his helper and friend

Was coming into his force;

He might have won fame in the end,

So sensitive his nature seemed,

So daring and sweet his thought.

This other man I had dreamed

A drunken, vainglorious lout.

He had done most bitter wrong

To some who are near my heart,

Yet I number him in the song;

He, too, has resigned his part

In the casual comedy;

He, too, has been changed in his turn,

Transformed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone 

Through summer and winter seem

Enchanted to a stone

To trouble the living stream.

The horse that comes from the road.

The rider, the birds that range

From cloud to tumbling cloud,

Minute by minute they change;

A shadow of cloud on the stream

Changes minute by minute;

A horse-hoof slides on the brim,

And a horse plashes within it;

The long-legged moor-hens dive,

And hens to moor-cocks call;

Minute by minute they live:

The stone’s in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice

Can make a stone of the heart.

O when may it suffice?

That is Heaven’s part, our part

To murmur name upon name,

As a mother names her child

When sleep at last has come

On limbs that had run wild.

What is it but nightfall?

No, no, not night but death;

Was it needless death after all?

For England may keep faith

For all that is done and said.

We know their dream; enough

To know they dreamed and are dead;

And what if excess of love

Bewildered them till they died?

I write it out in a verse –

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

The background for this poem is the Easter rising that took place throughout Ireland on April 24, 1916. The effort sought to end British rule in Ireland and establish an independent Irish republic by taking over key places. In Dublin, the rising involved about 1,200 people in the city center, with a command post at the Post Office. Its leaders seem not to have had much military sense, or knowledge of how to press advantages when they had them. The rising lasted six days before being put down by the British, who regarded it as an instance of armed rebellion and arrested nearly 3,500 people as rebels, of whom about 1,500 were sent to England for trial and internment, most released later under an amnesty.

Yeats frames the poem in an unlikely way, starting with an uncomplimentary portrait of himself as a clubby snob patronizing the people who will be heroes of the Easter uprisings. They are shopkeepers, office workers, merchants, who now occupy the “gray / Eighteenth-century houses,” those rows of connected and identical multi-story brick homes of 1916 Dublin with its Georgian squares and terraces; Yeats, the faux-aristocrat lived in one such house, at 82 Merrion Square. These people he meets in the street are, he believes, beneath him. He speaks meaninglessly with them only long enough to get mocking stories that he can trade later over drinks around the fire at his club. He tells us that he has always assumed that they are all nobodies, fools who wear motley, rank members of life’s casual comedy.

In the second stanza he enumerates but does not name the key players involved in the Easter uprisings, though he names them later in the poem. Here he seeks to preserve them as archetypes, roles he can describe and classify. He knows them all, and gives us a taxonomy of the revolution: the shrill woman, the two poets, the drunk. The woman is never named, but is the nationalist politician Constance Gore-Booth Markievicz. The others are named later, the two poets Patrick Pearse, a leader of the uprising, and his helper, Thomas MacDonagh. The last named is the “drunken, vainglorious lout,” John MacBride, Maud Gonne’s abusive former husband, a man Yeats intensely disliked, in no small part perhaps because of his own long amorous but frustrated involvement with her. The men named in the poem and many other leaders were all executed in the first weeks of May.

The death-sentence on Constance Gore-Booth Markievicz, the woman not mentioned in the poem, was commuted to life in prison. Sometime later she was released in the general amnesty, and later elected to Parliament, becoming one of the few female cabinet ministers ever in England or Europe. She never lost her revolutionary zeal, and her continued fights for Irish independence meant some additional time in jail over the years.

All these are mythologized, though still not named, in the next stanza, where Yeats describes their hearts as unchanging stone against the natural change of nature. Their hearts “trouble” the living stream. They are out of nature, their passion an inanimate troubling thing.

It is a harsh judgment, one of many made about them and their followers in the poem. In the first stanza, Yeats presented them as fools and nobodies, and as we learn here, they are fanatics, their emotional or psychological selves unnatural, out of life as it really is, and troubling the natural rhythm or order. He questions whether their sacrifice was worth it: “O when may it suffice?” he asks, and then: “Was it needless death after all?” and then finally, “What if excess of love / Bewildered them until they died?” After all, “England may keep faith / For all that is done and said.” Their love for country bewildered them, and made them do what the poem regards as an unnecessary and foolish thing. Yeats knew them all and had found them mildly good fodder for a laugh around the fire at his club. But now, all is changed; their lives and causes, whatever they might have been, have been transfigured, and made beautiful in a terrible way, by their deaths. “We know their dream,” he says, “enough / To know they dreamed and are dead.”

This is all quite messy. Yeats has made harsh judgments on himself, and harsh judgments on the conspirators, and on their crusade, and then bears witness as in a terrible moment they become heroes, to be remembered wherever green is worn, “now and in time to be,” an extraordinary claim of transfiguration. The Easter title of the poem and of the event gives more depth to the act: Christians believe that at Easter the Christ who was dead rose from that death and redeemed the world. Here, conspirators who were insignificant when alive went to their deaths in a flawed and, Yeats suggests, a perhaps unnecessary act, and by it became heroes to be celebrated for all time.

Messy, as I say; but phenomenally powerful, and, as we used the terms above, effective and useful.

I leave aside for purposes of this discussion the technical aspects of the poem, the extraordinary and almost magical use of trimeter, which is usually reserved for lighthearted verse, and the poetic numerology (16 lines in the first and third stanzas, for 1916, and 24 lines in the second and fourth, for April 24, the date the uprising began, and four stanzas, for the fourth month). I believe that what gives the poem its power is the honesty with which Yeats deals with the event, with his own feelings about it, and his own questions.

Compare it, in this light, to a one-dimensional poem like Shelley’s “England in 1819”:

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;

Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow

Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;

Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,

But leechlike to their fainting country cling

Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.

A people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field;

An army, whom liberticide and prey

Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;

Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;

Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;

A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—

Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may

Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

We get the rage, of course. But lacking ambiguity, questioning of events, or any self-doubt, the poem is pure polemic, having the power of a polemic, but not much more. It seems tethered to its moment, and cannot rise above its rhetoric. One could call Shelley, in our phrase, an “historian of the present”—the poem after all is dated and means to be paradigmatic for the politics of the year—but if so, then also for our purposes, he is a poor one, leaving out too much of life, and miring the poem in its moment, like, to borrow a Yeatsian figure, a fly in amber. The Yeats poem, by contrast, gains its power from its self-doubt, even from its indecision, and certainly from its honesty. It is effective in a way that the Shelley cannot be because it lacks the comprehensiveness and openness to experience of the Yeats poem.

There are exceptions to the point I am making here about breadth and effectiveness, and we should note them: a one-dimensional poem like Robert Bly’s “Counting Small Boned Bodies” is incredibly effective, achieving its effect by compression of the world to a desktop and the exclusion of everything except the madness of the speaker:

Let’s count the bodies over again.

If we could only make the bodies smaller,

The size of skulls,

We could make a whole plain white with skulls in the moonlight!

If we could only make the bodies smaller,

Maybe we could get

A year’s kill in front of us on a desk!

If we could only make the bodies smaller,

We could fit

A body into a finger-ring, for a keepsake forever.

The poem enacts its hysteria and aggravates those areas of moral judgment capable of shock; but its scope is limited due to its method of radical selection, excluding everything but the inhumane. There is no motion in the poem, no resolution, because the speaker’s condition has made resolution impossible.

We can look at two more poems, to sharpen our sense of the kinds of discriminations I am trying to outline here. One is also by Robert Bly and one by Kenneth Rexroth. Robert Bly’s poem is, I think, one of his best, as it presents all the furniture of the present, the condition of passengers driving to a big city in a near-dangerous sleet storm; importantly, it doesn’t try to make its case by assertion of judgments against others, even those with whom the poet disagrees. There are judgments, of course, but when they come—“the children end in the river of price-fixing / Or in the snowy field of the insane asylum”—they are effective because we feel that Bly has been fair in his assessment up to that point in the poem, and then we find that he is fair to his companions, who argued with him about so many others things the night before, but “no one agreed.” This is “Sleet Storm on the Merritt Parkway”:

I look out at the white sleet covering the still streets

As we drive through Scarsdale—

The sleet began falling as we left Connecticut,

And the winter leaves swirled in the wet air after cars

Like hands suddenly turned over in a conversation.

Now the frost has nearly buried the short grass of March.

Seeing the sheets of sleet untouched on the wide streets,

I think of the many comfortable homes stretching for miles,

Two and three stories, solid, with polished floors,

With white curtains in the upstairs bedrooms,

And small perfume flagons of black glass on the windowsills,

And warm bathrooms with guest towels, and electric lights—

What a magnificent place for a child to grow up!

And yet the children end in the river of price-fixing,

Or in the snowy field of the insane asylum.

The sleet falls—so many cars moving toward New York—

Last night we argued about the Marines invading Guatemala in 1947,

The United Fruit Company had one water spigot for two hundred families,

And the ideals of America, our freedom to criticize,

The slave systems of Rome and Greece, and no one agreed.

Compare the strategy of this to others in his brilliant book, The Light Around The Body, e.g., the opening lines of “The Great Society”:

Dentists continue to water their lawns even in the rain;

Hands developed with terrible labor by apes

Hang from the sleeves of evangelists;

There are murdered kings in the lightbulbs outside movie theaters;

The coffins of the poor are hibernating in piles of new tires.

This is not history, this is tirade in lines. As in the Shelley poem, we get anger without ballast, the “I say it’s spinach and the hell with it” position. I don’t say it’s a bad poem, or valueless, only that it missed a chance for completion; it could have been better had it not gone to comic-strip imagery (a problem that afflicts his most ambitious anti-war poem, “The Teeth Mother Naked At Last”). Perhaps we are comforted, if we agree with the poet’s point of view, by the poem’s validation of our views—the way bonfires and pitchforks can offer comfort to a restless crowd by showing what it wants to see, validating its anger prior to marching to the target of its rage; but I doubt that any serious reader would see this as a fair statement of history.

Consider, for comparison, another great anti-war poem of the 60’s, Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” Many things make this poem unique, including the method of its composition: It originated as Ginsberg traveled across the midwest speaking into little tape recorder: “With pauses maybe of a minute or two minutes between each line as I’m formulating it in my mind and the recording … I was in the back of a bus, talking to myself, except with a tape recorder. Every time I said something interesting to myself I put it on tape.”

The overt concerns of the poem are the issues raised by the Vietnam war, but it is about much more than the war. It speaks about language, and about America, and evinces a belief that the war is in part caused or perhaps allowed by the corrupted language in use today in media and in politics, and the conservatism and attendant repression of our noblest and freest impulses that began in and continue in certain parts of the country. The speaker of this poem believes that purifying the language and opening ourselves to the great and powerful transcendent figures of language, literature, and spirituality can free us all and end the war:

I lift my voice aloud,

make Mantra of American language now,

I here declare the end of the War!

The poem is generous to what it sees of the people and landscape of Kansas, and filled with images of the Midwest leavened with news reports about the war. The poem also uses images focusing on the sensuality and intimacy of the human body to humanize the violence of the war. Reading it or listening to it, one has the sense at times that Ginsberg has thrown open the doors of his poem to all the life around him. There is so much in this poem, and this may be a reason why it seems not to date, as so many other topical anti-war poems from that time have done.

Language, language

black Earth-circle in the rear window,

no cars for miles along highway

beacon lights on ceramic plain

language, language

over Big Blue River

chanting La illaha el (lill) Allah hu

revolving my head to my heart like my mother

chin abreast at Allah

Eyes closed, blackness

vaster than midnight prairies,

Nebraskas of solitary Allah,

Joy, I am I

the lone One singing to myself

God come true—

Thrills of fear.

nearer than the vein in my neck—?

What if I opened my soul to sing to my absolute self

Singing as the car crash chomped thru blood & muscle

tendon skull?

What if I sang, and loosed the chords of fear brow?

What exquisite noise wd

Shiver my car companions?

I am the Universe tonite

riding in all my Power riding

chauffeured thru my self by a long haired saint with eyeglasses

What if I sang till Students knew I was free

of Vietnam, trousers, free of my own meat,

free to die in my thoughtful shivering Throne?

freer than Nebraska, freer than America—

May I disappear

in magic Joy-smoke! Pouf! reddish Vapor,

Faustus vanishes weeping & laughing

under stars on Highway 77 between Beatrice & Lincoln—

“Better not to move but let things be” Reverend Preacher?

We’ve all already disappeared!

The poems I have cited so far have been older ones, but I do not want to give the impression that such work is only achieved in older forms or by older poets. Here are two more recent poems, both as it happens by women. The first is from Squander (Omnidawn, 2016), by Elena Karina Byrne, a poet, editor, and multi-media artist. She is poetry consultant and moderator for The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, literary programs director for the Ruskin Art Club, served as regional director of the Poetry Society of America for 12 years, and has served as executive director of AVK Arts. This is “During the Vietnam War”:

... only the new growth grass was wet behind her head and back.

She could feel it and she could smell the grass rising up around her,

saw the whole sky and saw the sky in its de facto language

even though she was only seven. The year held out

a bird skull in its opened hand, whole.

Other birds were singing in a French film with no subtitles.

It was black and white. But the sky was definitely blue, an invention

of blue. A vector and hinge and rung of only

blue already there, no matter where you looked.

It took a long time. She looked a long time and in lockstep

pressed the tips of her fingers into the mole-black dirt

between grass blades. Only, this is

the wrong story: she did not doom or injure

any animals but she was restless then, and she was

glad she was not safe.

It is a picture poem, and it is not slight. It is about the passage of time and the adoption of a quickening sense of danger in life, learning that the two worlds, of imagination and this other where we live our lives and record what we see, the child and the adult, the world and the cinema, are the same, and that both are made special by that sameness for the observer. It is a quiet poem, but it grows in force significantly and calls me as a reader back to look because of its accuracy, its magic.

The second poem is from an impressive long sequence by Kathleen Ossip, from her book, July (Sarabande Books, 2021). Ms. Ossip is the author of several acclaimed books, and teaches at The New School in New York. The long title poem in this book, “July” is about a road trip from Bemidji, MN, to Key West, FL, with her daughter riding shotgun. In some ways its method is much like the Ginsberg poem noted above, as she sees and records what she sees and her thoughts about it. But the poem that is most impressive to me in this collection is the twenty-two section “Goddess,” about the 2016 election and the effort to find peace or at least an equilibrium afterward. In this effort the poem plunders the present and seeks values from the past, in this case in Dante’s Paradisio. The sections of the poem share a sonnet-like 13-line form, but there are exceptions. In its quest for equilibrium the poem mingles present events, politics, Dante, Beatrice, friends, news events, really everything, with the personal; nothing escapes its eye. Here is a sense of it, how it sweeps up everything before, behind, and near it:

1. {The election; Muri cries; I decide to read Paradiso as antidote}

The moon was very halved. The girl on the phone sobbed

I didn’t think it could happen. All nature and human nature

seemed halved in one quick night. She had canvassed and canvassed,

a behavior we believed artistic. The hammered throng mobbed

the hotel ballroom, glared and danced: picture

of an evil species, bareassed.

And sloppy greed for the easy fix, the dumbest.

And I too dumb to see a fix. The future lost its color.

When Dante climbed away from the vile circles,

he swapped saints for criminals

and the lines pushed onward, duller.

Dull or not, I craved rigor. I crowdsourced a translation.

I found dull Paradiso online and clicked on one iteration.

2. {I look up two words; Beatrice points out the immorality of optimism}

Reading Paradiso, I couldn’t remember

what fascist and demagogue precisely meant.

I kept looking them up: A person

who is extremely right-wing or authoritarian.

A political leader who seeks support by appealing to prejudice, not logic.

That way, it turned out, many of us leant.

Optimism was blindered, immoral. Therefore we had greatest need of it.

Sure it’s an artwork but we needed a prayer.

Dante read the world of people as a book of morals

and the solar system as a concert en plein air

and Paradise a stage with lighting favorable.

You, optimist, have been–ahem–less than serious!

said the know-it-all bitch of Paradise, Beatrice.

8. {Apotheosis}

Like a suspect slipped I down.

My sallow face flushed vermilion;

my estrogen and its volatiles receded;

receded my beliefs, my opinions;

a calm followed, strong.

We think our part is the whole, that’s where we go terribly wrong.

Give me work, I said, something has to be done.

Like one acquitted did I rise.

Not blood-hot and personal: the world was fresh and general.

Everything cannot not change. Devise

another world, mellow and open and subtle?

What I’d been: a pinball struck, a knee tapped by a hammer,

struggling to understand, not struggling to care: a placeholder.

I’m not doing the full poem justice quoting these snippets, and can only give a sense of its totality; but the point is that the kind of poetry I am suggesting here—that can be useful, beautiful, aesthetically accurate, and effective—has many forms and methods, but one purpose, and that is to deliver the full news about the time and place in which we live, and that the act of doing so makes it useful for all time, affirming its truth as well as its humanity, for all of us.

Here is another poem that I think effective in its positions by accomplishing completeness rather than settling for thinness of judgment, Kenneth Rexroth’s beautiful and moving “Autumn in California.” There is a judgment in the poem, but it is made, when it comes, by nature, organically, by the brown fog and the cry of birds that closes the piece, rather than by any assertion of the poet. The poem reminds us that even in these “mild / And anonymous” seasons we cannot escape the world or its suffering, but that it is not the individuals suffering that goes on, but the world itself with its own songs and beauty:

Autumn in California

Autumn in California is a mild

And anonymous season, hills and valleys

Are colorless then, only the sooty green

Eucalyptus, the conifers and oaks sink deep

Into the haze; the fields are plowed, bare, waiting;

The steep pastures are tracked deep by the cattle;

There are no flowers, the herbage is brittle.

All night along the coast and the mountain crests

Birds go by, murmurous, high in the warm air.

Only in the mountain meadows the aspens

Glitter like goldfish moving up swift water;

Only in the desert villages the leaves

Of the cotton woods descend in smoky air.

Once more I wander in the warm evening

Calling the heart to order and the stiff brain

To passion. I should be thinking of dreaming, loving, dying,

Beauty wasting through time like draining blood,

And me alone in all the world with pictures

Of pretty women and the constellations.

But I hear the clocks in Barcelona strike at dawn

And the whistles blowing for noon in Nanking.

I hear the drone, the snapping high in the air

Of planes fighting, the deep reverberant

Grunts of bombardment, the hasty clamor

Of anti-aircraft.

In Nanking at the first bomb,

A moon-faced, willowy young girl runs into the street,

Leaves her rice bowl spilled and her children crying,

And stands stiff, cursing quietly, her face raised to the sky.

Suddenly she bursts like a bag of water,

And then as the blossom of smoke and dust diffuses,

The walls topple slowly over her.

I hear the voices

Young, fatigued and excited, of two comrades

In a closed room in Madrid. They have been up

All night, talking of trout in the Pyrenees,

Spinoza, old nights full of riot and sherry,

Women they might have had or almost had,

Picasso, Velasquez, relativity.

The candlelight reddens, blue bars appear

In the cracks of the shutters, the bombardment

Begins again as though it had never stopped,

The morning wind is cold and dusty,

Their furloughs are over. They are shock troopers,

They may not meet again. The dead light holds

In impersonal focus the patched uniforms,

The dog-eared copy of Lenin’s Imperialism,

The heavy cartridge belt, holster and black revolver butt.

The moon rises late over Mt. Diablo,

Huge, gibbous, warm; the wind goes out,

Brown fog spreads over the bay from the marshes,

And overhead the cry of birds is suddenly

Loud, wiry, and tremulous.

A last note: An additional consideration in this discussion of desirable poetic attributes—one that is true of all the poems cited approvingly here despite the accidents of subject matter or motivating incident—is the poetic power created in giving voice and recognition to individuals, the author’s own as well as the people of the poem. Mark Doty has discussed this brilliantly in “Tide of Voices: Why Poetry Matters Now” (at, and I want to add a little to his point.

As he says, one of the great powers of poetry—an oxymoronic power, to be sure—is to affirm individual worth against the world and against time, in the sense that the poem as written is a poem that could only have been written by that individual, in that individual voice, written today but not only for today. The oxymoron is that in an economic sense, nothing has less value than a poem: It cannot be owned, auctioned, willed, or retailed, only shared—that is, a house, a car, a computer, can be owned or done with in any of those venues and actions, but a poem can be read by anyone, seen by anyone, reproduced by anyone; and in these terms it has no quantifiable value. I agree with him that it may be the felt recognition of the individual value of the poem, of the act of writing a poem, that has resulted in the explosion of poetry in our time, for there are more poems, poets, readings, festivals, workshops, and books being published today than at any time in my lifetime; and it may be that each of these acts is a revolt against the drag to the present’s loss of individualism and agency, a way of saying here, this could only have been done by me, and look, it has been done, and its value is the value I and only I can give it!

For part of the value and virtue of a poem is that it can accurately and importantly describe or challenge the world, or act as a parallel creation, always reminding us of our vast human possibilities and our definite responsibilities, calling us to be more human. Every time we create, all the possibilities are before us as we write, even as we erase—all the good, all the evil, all the choices between. It’s one reason why creating gives us the opportunity to become better people. We see in those times life in its possibilities and promises and incredible beauty.

One of the debilitating challenges of our age is the fading value of the meaning of the individual as an identity, including his or her separateness and identifiable personhood. It’s a loss that accompanies the loss of privacy as an individually owned attribute. Everything in our world seems to collude in this assault on personal meaning. We are commodified by government, businesses, politicians, tech giants, and churches as members of a group, part of a tribe, expected to adopt and react to the same values and stimuli, and to be affronted by the same transgressions, irrespective of whether they apply to us and ours personally (to use that antiquated word). This social homogenization, this loss of personal attribute, and the accompanying sense of loss of personal agency, makes our era different from those that preceded it, not only for the extent but also for the speed of the loss—some of it a surrender due perhaps to exhaustion, and some of it, surprisingly, an apparent willing act of giving away something that the giver will never get back.

I mention this because it seems more important to me now than ever to speak, to assert ourselves, irrespective of political persuasion, philosophical viewpoint, or religious or spiritual affiliation, to assert our meaning and agency, by this act of speech that we call poetry. To speak, however, is not all; equally important is to affirm the individuality of others, in our lives and in our poems by allowing them life and by listening to them as they speak.

One of the things I love about the poems mentioned in this essay is that the characters in them, including their authors when presented as characters in the poem, are rounded, fleshed out, not discarded or reduced as members of a hated other, or an incidental stick figure to an argument or assertion. That generosity of perception is a part of what makes the poems real and whole, and gives them their power; the affirmation of human value is what makes poems and poetry useful and effective, but also necessary and, in our sense, invaluable.

5 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page