By Victor D. Infante
I’ve been struggling with Occupy poems, lately. Oh, I’m sure there are excellent ones out there, but I’ve been finding most of the ones we get here … thin. Too much head, not enough … I want to say heart, but that’s not quite the right word. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve wrestled with one or two that have been quite good, but were still missing something, and have tried to articulate that to the poems’ authors, but I fear I’ve been failing. How does one articulate negative space?
If I were to point to consistent problems, it’s that they’re either too ephemeral, so tied to a moment that they’re dated in a matter of months, or conversely, they’re too predictable. In a lot of ways, the former problem is easier. There’s nothing wrong with a poem that’s meant to have a short shelf-life, to be cast down the river never to be seen again. Some poems burn bright, and quickly.
But predictability … that’s harder. The world is filled right now with compelling images of suffering, but in some ways, they’ve become so ubiquitous that we no longer see them, and the rhetoric we use to describe them, even when driven by honest emotion, becomes a thin signal amid static. And rest assured, it’s a tragedy when we’ve become so inured to suffering that we can no longer find it remarkable.
It’s like this: In less than an hour, I can walk the six miles between my home and work and fill my pockets full of images of suffering, of shuttered shops, strung-out junkies and dead-eyed children with sallow faces. And I should. Those stories deserve to be told.
But those aren’t the only stories between here and there, and to only tell them would seem reductive, somehow. There is also joy along that walkway, resilient shops where I’ll stop for a sandwich, metal kids queued up to see rock shows, kids blasting Dubstep from dilapidated cars. There is poverty along that urban stroll, yes, but amid that poverty there is also life. There is suffering, but those people are not entirely defined by their suffering. Nor am I, or you, or any of us. There is still love, and bravery, and a cussed determination to simply survive. There is hope.
The poet Patricia Smith once told me, in conversation, that the act of writing a poem is inherently a hopeful act, no matter how horrific the subject matter. It’s an act of holding horror up to the light and saying, “We can talk about this.”
Politics – and I’ve said this before – is the science of figuring out how 7 billion disparate people can live together on the same planet, the science of mapping the fractures and fault lines and divide them. It can be used to divide people – it is, after all, an election year – but it can also illustrate connections, help to overcome those seemingly impossible gulfs.
Ultimately, a political poem should do the same – to play cartographer to injustice and connection alike, and speak the plainest of truth: that we are not simply game pieces to ideologies or victims of economics. We may be those things, but we’re also much, much more than that. We are all connected, and that’s why a poem – any poem, or really, any work of art at all – works. And the best of the political poetry will show us something human, something surprising, something new amid the desperation. That’s what makes it poetry.
Make no mistake: these are desperate times. But what’s needed now are poets who can look into the darkness and find the human beauty amid the suffering, poets who can remind us that, no matter how dire our straits, we are more merely than our suffering.
We are alive.