Community Inclusive:  A Poetics to Move Us Forward

by Margaret Rozga

When I visited the Zora Neale Hurston Museum in Eatonville, Florida, several years ago, I could only imagine what Eatonville might have looked like shortly after the Civil War, at the time of its founding as the first African American town in the United States.  For Harlem Renaissance writer and anthropologist Hurston, Eatonville was a “city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jail-house” (qtd. in Trubek).  It was, according to writer Anne Trubek, a place where “black people lived unseen and unexamined by white people.”

Today Eatonville is less isolated. An exit from Interstate 4 put me right into the west central part of town.  But I found at the eastern edge of the town what seemed to be a remnant of another era.  On the east side of East Street, where Eatonville’s Kennedy Boulevard becomes Maitland, Florida’s Lake Avenue, there is a continuous low wall spanning the edge of the yards of the Maitland homes.  You can see this wall on a close-up view in Google maps.  It’s not an ugly wall as walls go.  It’s not a tall prison wall topped by barbed or razor wire.  

When the wall was constructed and why I could not discover.  If the people of Eatonville and Maitland mutually concluded like the neighbor does in Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” that “good fences make good neighbors,” then my apologies to all.  But for me, an outsider and a long-time civil rights activist, the voice of Frost’s narrator rang truer:  “Something there is that does not love a wall.” Since the wall separates an African American town from its largely white neighbor, I had to wonder.  It seems to symbolize exclusion and enforced separation. 

Let me risk appropriating this symbol and transporting it in a minor key to the subject of this essay:  the question of the lingering tendency to wall off “political” poetry from supposedly non-political, ego-centric poetry, and the lingering tendency to assume the latter is necessarily in a superior class to the former.  In other words, if it’s political, can it be poetic?  If it’s poetic, does it not have to shun the political? Are the two categories mutually exclusive?

First to consider definitions, what do we mean when we talk about the “political” in terms of literary content?  And, of course, what is poetry? 

Poetry rarely works within the terms of the narrowest definition of “political,” that is, the process of choosing one candidate for public office over another.  More applicable is the term’s reference to watershed public events and to policy matters, especially policy matters that affect the well-being of people and of the world generally.  Policy gets formulated in abstract and legal terms, often dry, sometimes incomprehensible, generally removing any trace of image from the language so that we do not see.  Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, for example, advocated for the passage of a state law that required women seeking abortions to undergo a “transvaginal probe” without himself knowing what those terms signified.  Other examples of political language that hide reality abound: separate but equal; apartheid; incursion; correctional institution; no child left behind; defense of marriage; Senate Bill 10. 

Insofar as poets are seers, we observe specifics in our lives, some of them the impact of poorly chosen policy, and we craft word images to express what we see. Of course, political commentary in prose can translate abstractions into concrete language and can give examples of individuals who are affected in particular ways by public policy.  Sometimes it does so eloquently.  To the extent it is eloquent, it is often called, yes, “poetic.”

Practicing poets work at their craft.  Some develop the skill to take a step further the courtship of beautiful language and social concern.  They are attuned to the music of language, the power of form, the way words look on a page, and they aim to marry the beauty and emotional power of language to their deepest and most profound concerns, including social, civic, or political concerns.  Craft and compassion reinforce each other beautifully in Gwendolyn Brooks’ images of post-World War II segregated Chicago.  Both craft and compassion are what make Lois Roma-Deeley’s signature poem “Apologizing for the Rain” a powerful expression of women trained to shoulder all the blame.  Both craft and compassion make Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It” with its depiction of reflections in the granite of the Vietnam Memorial so compelling in conveying the impact of the Vietnam War.  Images that arise from the poet’s eye and heart attuned to political, social, and community concerns and shaped by the poet’s skillful hand have given us much excellent poetry.

Whether or not we intend our images and word music to affect a change in policy, the words become part of the experience of our audiences who are, we hope, somehow enriched, somehow empowered.  At the heart of my poetic practice is the belief that we are more with poetry in our lives than we are without it.  We are more with each other than we are isolated and alone. 

The lonely poet working in isolation is an image ingrained in our culture.  And it is true that because writing poetry requires concentration, it may be solitary.  Many poets begin writing poems after the isolating experience of a failed romance.  But all these factors do not mean that poetry must be focused on the isolated individual.  Poets, like other people, have social networks and concerns: jobs, friends, family, civic issues, and histories.  Poets can and do write about individual experiences.  They can and do write about falling in and out of love, about the role of art, about facing old age and death.  

But if poetry, defined most simply, is the art of using language most resourcefully, then why limit poetry to a handful of subjects?  Writing that taps into a wide array of the resources of language ought to be free, will free itself, to explore a wide array of topics. Poetry can be egocentric, but it need not be exclusively egocentric.  The “I” may be neither the center of poet’s world nor the center of the poetic world.  A poet may find inspiration in others and in action, as well as in solitary contemplation.  Rather than be exclusively egocentric, poetry can be community inclusive.  

People who share my views struggle to come up with a term that acknowledges a wider array of poetic interests and avoids the controversies set off by pairing the word “political” with the word “poetry.”  The organizer at Woodland Pattern Book Center came up with the term “civic poetry” to use in the title of a workshop I led there.  Split This Rock, a national poetry organization that sponsors a major poetry festival in Washington DC, identifies itself as an organization focused on “poetry of provocation and witness.”  What these terms try to do is to reach beyond the narrow limits of the poetic tradition and practice we inherited from the first half of the twentieth century.

What we’ve inherited is a pervasive sense that the proper subject of poetry is poetry, that at some level and with some variation in the degree of subtlety and metaphoric approach, poetry is what poems should be talking about. George Orwell wrote in 1941 that writers from the 1890s onward focused on technique.  T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Virginia Woolf “were far more interested in technical innovations than in any moral or meaning or political implication that their work might contain. The best of them all, James Joyce, was a technician and very little else, about as near to being a ‘pure’ artist as a writer can be.”  These writers are still among the most frequently taught.

Wallace Stevens is another such twentieth century poet, an important one, cited in 1975 by critic Harold Bloom as “the best and most representative American poet of our time”(qtd. in “Wallace Stevens”).  There is much to admire in Steven’s work, his descriptive skill, for example, and yet as poet Louise Bogan notes, his world is “strangely empty of human beings”(qtd. in “Wallace Stevens”).  In fact, Stevens advanced the argument for an abstract, egocentric poetry.  He wrote that "Life is not people and scene, but thought and feeling. The world is myself. Life is myself" (qtd. in “Wallace Stevens”).

Such a solipsistic world may be rendered skillfully, perhaps even beautifully, but it is not the world in which I live, and so its artifice fails to engage me.  Though I admire Stevens’ precision, I want to apply such precision to a wider range of topics.  Mine is a world of students and colleagues, movements for social justice and human beings reading, writing, making plans, making friends and sometimes enemies, making art, planning parties, planning protests, engaging with the natural world and questioning their role both in that world and in the social worlds of which they are a part.  Such challenges and excitement deserve being represented with all the resources of the language and all the skill of the poet.

To build a wall around poetry, to build a wall around certain subjects deemed worthy of poetry, is to erect an artificial barrier that at best raises questions.  At worst, constructing walls to protect a supposedly “pure” and exclusive poetry from being debased may be what has led to the marginalization of poetry, to the loss of audiences beyond the select few. Poetry sales leave much to be desired.  According to Laura Moriarity of Small Press Distributors, most poetry titles “sell between 50 and 250 copies per year”(qtd. in Nichols).  But a fuller depiction of the contemporary world, not the accountant’s bottom line, is my concern here.
The confessional and the ethereally poetic are scarcely the whole poetic community.  If we  take down the walls that keep us from seeing, identifying with, and connecting to other poetries, we will realize how extensive, even within the Anglo-American tradition, that wider community is: from the heroic Beowulf, to Chaucer’s fallible nuns, priests, and other pilgrims on their Canterbury trek with all the baggage of their lives, to Shakespeare who made dramatic poetry out of history, to England’s traditions of poets laureate including John Dryden who wrote the political satire “Absalom and Achitophel” and Alfred Lord Tennyson who wrote “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” to the work of Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Wendell Berry, and Rita Dove, to the surge of public interest in poetry following the September 11th attacks in New York, to the outpouring of poems about the 2011 Wisconsin spring protests, so ably collected in Verse Wisconsin’s Main Street issue. 

If it’s poetic, does it have to shun the political? If it’s political, can it be poetic? If it is ego-centered, does it get a bump up in poetic rank?  These questions are a remnant of an earlier era, an outlived set of values and preferences. 

Where in the world is poetry today?  I’d like to see it everywhere.  It’s already jumped the wall, and gone onto buses, into vending machines, onto the stage and into the streets. I see poetry moving beyond the exclusively ego-centric to become more community inclusive.  Where it will go from here is the new question.  As poets and as readers, we engage with this question every time we craft a poem and every time we choose one.  As we think about and articulate reasons for our choices, we take the next steps towards a poetics in keeping with Wisconsin’s motto.  Forward.

Works Cited

Komunyakaa, Yusef.  “Facing It.” Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems.  Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1993: 159. Print.

Nichols, Travis.  “If No One Can Find My Book, Does It Exist?” Features.  Poetry Foundation, 2011. Web. June 9 2012.

Orwell, George. "The Frontiers of Art and Propaganda.” George Orwell. Rutgers University. 1999. Web. June 9 2012.

Roma-Deeley, Lois.  “Apologizing for the Rain.”  NorthSight. Scottsdale: Singularity Press, 2008: 47. Print.

“Wallace Stevens 1879-1955: Biography.” Poems and Poets. Poetry Foundation, 2011. Web. June 9 2012.

Trubek, Ann.  “Zora’s Place.” Humanities 32.6 (November/December 2011). Web. June 9 2012.