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Elizabeth Derner; Washington MO—
As protests, politics and the pandemic continually transform 2020, current and future poetry is sure to give voice to it all. While this critical moment unfolds, poems from a range of time periods can also converse with the current racism, tension and pain. Poetry has been a tremendous force in history, giving voice to the truths and experiences of evolving societies. Its ability to move through generations and remain relevant connects us to patterns of human emotions and events. This moment is unique, yet we’re not entirely alone.
And more than ever, poetry is vital. Poet and activist Audre Lorde wrote that “poetry lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.” Poetry enables us to step into another perspective. As lines of poetry intertwine with our own thoughts and experiences, they force us to reflect and perhaps alter our view. While it doesn’t replace physical efforts like activism, discussion, voting and science, its thought-provoking and emotional power can spark or reinforce these.
Following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others, Clint Smith’s poem “How To Make a Cardboard Box Disappear in 10 Steps” from his 2016 book Counting Descent highlights the racism and police brutality that tragically repeat over and over again. Langston Hughes’s 1935 poem “Let America Be America Again” speaks to this racism ingrained in America’s history that has never left, while urging us to change it. As the Black Lives Matter movement gains worldwide momentum in challenging the ongoing injustice, Maya Angelou’s 1993 poem “On the Pulse of Morning” serves as a reminder that we have the capability to actively build a better world.
“How to Make a Cardboard Box Disappear in 10 Steps” by Clint Smith
1) Find the scissors
2) Cut the sides of the cube
3) Attend the rally of Trayvon Martin
4) Attend the rally of Renisha McBride
5) Attend the rally of Jordan Davis
6) Attend the rally of Michael Brown
7) Attend the rally of Eric Garner
8) Attend the rally of Freddie Gray
9) Find another empty box
10) Attend the rally of _________
Excerpts from “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out and upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, and into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
The next two poems seem fitting in context of COVID-19. In these months of isolation, grief, fear and change, Ada Limón’s “Instructions on Not Giving Up” from 2017 offers an image of resilience in opening leaves. Also focused on nature, William Wordsworth’s famous poem from 1807, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” recounts the joy he managed to find despite loneliness and “pensive mood.” While not ignoring the real and pertinent pain of the pandemic, whatever daffodils may represent in each of our lives could add joy in the midst of it.
“Instructions on Not Giving Up” by Ada Limón
More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.
“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
These final two poems feel relevant to a variety of situations. Finding a way out of an ocean by rearranging its letters into a canoe (in Craig Santos Perez’s 2020 “ars pasifika”) could fit the political division during the upcoming presidential election, the power of the Black Lives Matter movement in transforming silence or making it through the hardship of the pandemic. Walt Whitman captures the despair arising in many at the struggles of the world right now in “Oh Me! Oh Life!” from 1891. With its striking ending that emphasizes the chance every person has to impact the world, this poem seems especially fitting for our generation as we determine the kind of impact we’ll leave.
“ars pasifika” by Craig Santos Perez
when the tide
then with the paddle
of your tongue
the letters to form
“Oh Me! Oh Life!” by Walt Whitman
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
From calls for social justice, finding joy during isolation and pinpointing collective emotions, poetry offers something different to everyone, ranging from empowerment to comfort to perspective and more. So many poems connect with everything going on today, both inside the contexts mentioned and others. If you have some in mind, please feel free to add to this list by leaving them in a comment below.