August 15, 2002, Episode Fourteen: Poetry in Motion:  Social Poetics

Poetry has been said to be the most accessible form of literature.  We learn poems at a young age in the form of nursery rhymes and school yard chants.  Poetry moves us to contemplate our lives, our feelings, our spirituality.  Poetry heals us and connects us.  Some poets have been revolutionaries, changing culture and society with their words and their courage to stand up and say those words.  Can poetry change the world? On today's show we listen to nine poets from the Academy of American Poets' online listening room and meditate on how poetry might be an agent for social change.  See transcript below.

History seems full of poets who changed their world.  Many of those are in the AAP listening room.  We contemplate a couple of questions about the 102 poems available online, including:  Why is the youngest listed over 35 years old?  Why do they seem to know each other and having mentored each other?  Why is the poetry in the AAP listening room so connected to universities and how have changes in the university affected the place of poetry in society?  Is poetry from the margins somehow more pure than poetry from the mainstream?

We each share a favourite poem, both from the Beat GenerationLawrence Ferlinghetti's Dog and Gary Snyder's Smokey the Bear Sutra.  



Can poetry change the world?  There is ample evidence that it has in the past.  Poems inspire everything from religious fervour to revolution, patriotism to global diversity.  Poetry both reflects its subject matter and changes it.  But art became more complex in the latter half of the 20th century with the rise of advertising and of escapist entertainment.  Images, fashions, trends, and brandings interact with creative expression and bombard our senses.  Artists find themselves competing with a number of sensations designed to capture our attention and move us toward specific thoughts, feelings and actions.  Every advertisement we encounter uses creative expression to encourage us to change, at the very least, our buying habits.  At the same time advertisements reinforce many existing social expectations.

The Beat novelist, William S. Burroughs, wrote,

Quote, Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not political legislators, who implement change after the fact.  Art exerts a profound influence on the style of life, the mode, range and direction of perception.  Art tells us what we know and don’t know that we know, close quote.

Burroughs wrote this passage nearly 50 years ago.  He wrote before Andy Warhol made soup cans a work of art.  He wrote before music videos and burnable CDs and the Internet.  Is his assertion still true?  Can art still create social change?


The poet, Audre Lorde once lamented the loss of an avenue of expression for poor women – the poetry section of the so-called “ladies’ magazines.”  Poetry is the most available expression of art for the poor, she asserted, because it requires the least amount of technology to produce.  Imagination and a pencil and piece of scrap paper at the dining room table after the children have gone to bed is all that is needed to be a poet.  Ladies’ magazines used to publish submissions of poetry from women in the back of each issue.  Here was a place for even the poorest of women to express their thoughts and feelings.  Poetry, she asserted, is not a luxury for women’s expressions.  But Lorde hit the nail right on the head in pointing out that publication of poetry is an important aspect of that expression.

Who gets heard and who doesn’t get heard is a political and social phenomenon.  If poetry is an avenue of social change, then publication of that poetry is an avenue of social maintenance and, some would say, staleness. 


On today’s show, we offer a series of readings from the Academy of American Poets’ online listening room.  We have chosen these poets because they represent poetry that has not only been published but is now taught in schools around the world. In many ways, these are the acceptable poets and that makes them less threatening.  But some of them weren’t so acceptable in their own time.  Some of these poets are acceptable now because they dared to be different then. 


e.e. cummings experimented radically with form, punctuation, spelling and syntax, abandoning traditional techniques and structures to create a new, highly idiosyncratic means of poetic expression.  Later in his career he was often criticized for settling into his signature style and not pressing his work towards further evolution.  Nevertheless, he attained great popularity, especially among young readers, for the simplicity of his language, his playful style and his attention to subjects such as war and sex.

[[insert “why must itself up every of a park”]]


W.H. Auden’s 1930 collection Poems established him as the leading voice of a new generation.  Ever since then, he has been admired for his unsurpassed technical virtuosity and an ability to write poems in nearly every imaginable verse form, for the incorporation in his work of popular culture, current events, and vernacular speech, and for the vast range of his intellect, which drew easily from an extraordinary variety of literatures, art forms, social and political theories, and scientific and technical information.  His poetry frequently recounts, literally or metaphorically a journey or quest, and his travels provided rich material for his verse.  Auden was born in the United Kingdom and was made Poet Laureate of that nation, but he spent most of his life in the United States.

[[insert “On the Circuit”]]


Gwendolyn Brooks was an African-American poet who wrote more than twenty books of poetry and numerous other books, including a novel and an autobiography.  Her style captured her experiences growing up and living in Chicago where she stayed until her death in 2000 at the age of 83.

[[insert “We Real Cool”]]


Allen Ginsberg was one of the founding members of what came to be known as the Beat generation.  His first published poem, Howl, overcame censorship to become one of the most widely read poems of the century.  Ginsberg studied under gurus and Zen masters.  He went on to co-found and direct the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Colorado.

[[insert “A Supermarket in California”]]


Anne Sexton suffered greatly from postpartum depression, having breakdowns after each of her two children’s births.  Upon advice of her doctor, after an attempted suicide in 1957, she decided to pursue poetry as a way to get out of her depression.  In poetry she found an expression that helped her endure life.  However, she succumbed to the depression and committed suicide in 1974 at the age of 46.  Sexton offers the reader an intimate view of the emotional anguish that characterized her life.  She made the experience of being a woman a central issue in her poetry, and though she endured criticism for bringing subjects such as menstruation, abortion and drug addiction into her poems, her skill as a poet transcended the controversies over her subject matter.

[[insert “Her Kind” ]]


Audre Lorde was a black woman, a mother, a daughter, a Lesbian, a feminist, and an activist.  Her poetry, as well as her essays and novels, reflected all of her experiences in life and left her open to a great deal of criticism.  In an interview in the journal Callaloo, Lorde responded to her critics:  quote, My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds … Jesse Helms’s objection to my work is not about obscenity…or even about sex.  It is about revolution and change…aimed at his destruction, and the destruction of every single thing he stands for, close quote.

[[insert  A Song for Many Movements”]]


Joy Harjo is a Native American poet who performs her poetry and plays saxophone with her band, Poetic Justice. She is also a filmmaker and scriptwriter.  She is active in promoting Native arts and educating young people about poetry and Native culture.

[[insert “A Postcolonial Tale”]]


Catherine Anderson is the author of a collection of poems entitled In the Mother Tongue.  She lives and works in Boston’s immigrant communities.  Her work lies at the intersection of sexism, ethnocentricism and working class values. 

[[insert “Womanhood”]]


Rafael Campo, born in 1964, is the youngest of the poets who’s work is available in the Academy of American Poets listening room.  His poems, essays and reviews have appeared in several publications and he has authored three books of poetry published in the 1990s.  He is also a practicing physician at Harvard Medical School and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

[[insert “The Distant Moon”]]

copyright by Pattie Thomas and Carl Wilkerson 2002


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