In the wake of the tragedy in Tucson, I am left, yet again, pondering the question of if and how poetry can console us in the aftermath of publicly felt violence. I find myself looking for a virtual microphone to offer some writers I respect who understand the importance of poetry and the moral imperative of compassionate justice. In “Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?” Martin Espada argues that its consolation, while real, may not be felt immediately, but only by the next generation:
The poems of communal grief we write today offer alternative ways of thinking and feeling. If they are not consolatory to this generation, they may be to the next. Yet these poems must not be measured by whether they can stop a war or produce some other specific result. Their impact on the world cannot be weighed or measured. Writing a poem of communal grief today, or any poem with social or political content, is paradoxically an act of faith. The poem flies into the air and becomes part of the atmosphere.
And in “Lament for Arizona,” Rev. Caspar Green, blogger of Pastor on the Edge, urges us, as we plumb the nation’s political rhetoric for clues to the sources of the hatred that erupted into violence last week, to follow the urging of Dr. Martin Luther King, who, in the footsteps of Jesus, argued that we must “seek justice, not revenge.”
My hope for my country is that we pursue peace, compassion, and justice, not revenge.
My hope for poetry is that we stop labeling good poetry written from an ethic of compassion and justice “political” and implying thereby that it is clearly inferior to the brands of poem published by the literary zines. Besides, the former pursuits make for far finer poems than revenge. “Curse,” the only good revenge poem I’ve read, is deliberately and comically vitriolic; J.M. Synge pulled it off. If you surf for revenge poems and your stomach is less than ironclad, you’d better have your Pepto Bismol handy. Frankly, the prospect of a creative writing class writing vitriol to Sarah Palin in verse would require a bit more Pepto than we have at my house.
Take two minutes, please, to read Joy Harjo‘s “Remember” on You Tube. It will console you, whatever your faith, in our humanity, our need to work for justice, and the possibility of poetry to rise above polemic.