Gratitude for public poetry – especially now

Something quite wonderful happened to me this summer. I was lucky enough to be one of four poets to have a poem featured on Edmonton transit as part of the Edmonton Poetry Festival’s Poetry Moves initiative. Knowing how many creative and talented writers there are in our community, I was surprised and flattered to be picked. Of course it’s great to have your work recognized, but the real reason I am excited to be part of Poetry Moves is because I believe so strongly in the value and need for poetry to be displayed in public places.

People are often skeptical of poetry because it can seem mysterious, elitist and even scary. How it scares and who it scares can differ.  Someone may dislike poetry because he or she has been made to feel, for a variety of reasons, that poetry is too intellectual or elusive. And then there are those who fear what poetry — and what all art — is capable of doing: inspiring hope. Public poetry is necessary both to welcome those who might not otherwise have access to poems, and to stick it to those who would rather not have poetry at all.

If you call yourself a poet, you’ve surely had the opportunity — I’d even say the pleasure — to defend poetry. Devoted as they may be to words, the poetry lover is still a  bit of a rare beast. So questions like, “What is the point of poetry?” or “Who really needs poetry?” or “Does poetry matter anymore?” do come up, even from fans of other forms of art and literature. A quick “poet quote” search provides countless examples of famous poets of the past, and not-so-famous-poets of the present, providing answers to these questions. Some of my favourites include:

“A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” – Salman Rushdie

“Poetry is the lifeblood of rebellion, revolution, and the raising of consciousness” – Alice Walker

and perhaps my very favourite:

“Poetry is an act of peace. Peace goes into the making of a poet as flour goes into the making of bread.” – Pablo Neruda

These quotes have been especially resonant for me lately. Never before in my lifetime has the world seemed more in need of awakening, activism and awe. I do believe, as I always have, that exposure to poetry — and all forms of art — is one of the surest ways to spark the brain, open the heart and move the soul. It’s the reason art is so often hated and feared by those who possess, or strive to achieve, absolute power. Art promotes understanding and connects us, and for those seeking to divide and conquer, nothing is more dangerous than empathy and unity.

Though I am Canadian, a recent news story has caused me to spend a lot of time thinking bout that gigantic American symbol, the Statue of Liberty. During a White House briefing, one of Trump’s senior advisers,  Stephen Miller, got into a heated exchange with a CNN reporter about the meaning and importance of the Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colossus” which is inscribed on Lady Liberty. Many of us are familiar with the poems famous lines welcoming the world’s “tired … poor … huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to American soil. It’s easy to see why such a poem would be so threatening to the current US administration. And I was thrilled to see The Guardian newspaper publish smart, heartfelt and sometimes funny responses from 21 current poets.

As I began to read more about this story, and the origin of the poem, it was unsurprising to learn that self-described “alt-right” members have been calling for the poem’s removal for years. And I couldn’t have been more tickled to know that one sonnet — one public poem — was so very threatening to white supremacists. This is an example of a very famous poem inscribed on a very prominent symbol, but the potential exists for any public poem — even the seemingly non-political — to move people to action, understanding and hope.

This is why I am so grateful for programs like the one the Edmonton Poetry Festival continues to support. For many people riding the buses or the LRT this summer, the Poetry Moves picks might be the only contemporary poem they read this year. It might even be the only poem by a local writer that they ever read. There might be a line or a word that sparks a memory, an emotion, a bit of imagination in a reader that then ignites a desire to consume or create more art. That is how a poem can keep us all from going to sleep. That is how poetry can be an act of peace.

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4 thoughts on “Gratitude for public poetry – especially now

  1. Poetry is literature, art and commentary all rolled into one. Poetry over the centuries and societies across the world have played an import role in discourse and speaking truth to power. Public poetry helps take everyday people outside of their own thoughts for a few minutes to ponder another’s words with the power to take them somewhere outside of their daily commute, the humdrum of daily life. Hooray for public poetry! Congrats on your poems being selected – so proud of you.

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