Contemporary Poetry: A Renewed Medium for Social Consciousness?

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The renewed social consciousness I’ve been describing takes many forms. Among recent books, take State of the Union: 50 Political Poems (Wave), where Joe Wenderoth in “Sitting in Traffic” finds a crystallized image of struggle: “These days I often see those yellow-ribbon bumper stickers. / Support our Troops, / or God Bless America, / they intoned, once, / but now they’re all faded / and it’s hard to make out the words.” Michael Palmer writes angrily of “Crooks and fools in power what’s new,” and Matthew Rohrer summons a torching death wish for Dick Cheney. Whatever one’s politics, as someone who wants to see contemporary poetry be robust, I find Rohrer’s rant refreshing, drawing as it does on the tradition of vituperation or invective.

Relating to the artist Eric Fischl’s “America: Now and Here” project, Crossing State Lines: An American Renga comprises a “unique poem on the global landscape”— 54 poets collaborating on a 900-year-old Japanese form of linked verses. Editors Bob Holman and Carol Muske-Dukes seek with these lyrics to present “these states as seen by our poets, crisscrossing the country,” and they do so as “art takes its place in the national dialogue.” In her own poem, Muske-Dukes tries to “add up what remains when / What we thought was wealth is gone.” Overall, the book is meant to be “utopic,” reflecting a “kind of audacious hope that is the whole project of America.” Similarly, see Endless Skyway, an anthology with work from 38 state poets laureate, and more broadly, American Society: What Poets See (Futurecycle), an in-progress collection in print and online. For something more prescriptive, there is Blueprints: Bringing Poetry into Communities, edited by Katharine Coles and featuring essays by Robert Hass, Elizabeth Alexander, and Dana Gioia.

Other poets and writers confront an increasing number of literary journals interested in more socially engaged work. J Journal, associated with John Jay College in New York, seeks material on “justice, approached from any angle,” and Magnolia Journal features women’s creative writing that “interacts with and challenges social injustices.” The Truth About the Fact is a fairly new international journal, focused on literary nonfiction that could “play a vital role in transforming the planet.” Other journals are increasingly seeking relevant work for special issues: The Little Patuxent Review, for example, called for social-justice submissions this fall. Memoir (and) recently began the (In)Visible Memoirs Project, in which writing teachers lead workshops for marginalized communities, and Considerit: An Altruistic Arts Journal gives half of its donations to charity.

Small presses and literary centers increasingly involve themselves with more socially conscious writing, too. All the genres are covered; not just poetry. PEN American Center sponsors the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, and Benu Press publishes a book annually for its Social Justice and Equity Award in Creative Nonfiction. As for poetry, the Burning Bush Poetry Prize rewards verse that inspires work for social and economic justice, while Consequence magazine recognizes poetry that addresses “the consequences of armed conflict or social injustice.” And the mission of Exterminating Angel Press is to name and solve problems across the planet.

No subject, no matter how urgent or essentially important, ensures that writing will be necessarily good writing, and readers will disagree about style, voice, and other aspects of literary merit, not to mention politics itself. That’s fine. Looked at from a distance, however, who better than poets to finesse an insight over and above the sound bite? Maybe they are best suited to search out and bring to light, even amid these days, what Tocqueville called the “hidden sinew” of America’s character and destiny. And can resist, as much as anyone can, the “general apathy” Tocqueville brooded upon as possibly ingrained in this country, a resulting passivity inherent in a “post-historic” society. This particular chapter of history remains to be written, but plenty of writers are trying, even now.

—Brett Foster’s first book of poetry, The Garbage Eater, was published earlier this year. His writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Atlanta Review, Books & Culture, IMAGE, Kenyon Review, Poet Lore, Raritan, and Salamander. He often fears being more informed about sixteenth-century English politics than on American politics today.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.