In my own personal experience, art, poetry especially, has always been political, has always been protest, rooted in my own mixed ethnic and poverty-class background.
It rose from my father’s Irishness—Dad reciting Yeats regularly, the earliest poetry of my memory, those lines documenting our family history in Easter 1916, the heartbreaking tales told round our table of “the troubles” and what they referred to not as a famine, but as ‘the Great Hunger.”
It grew from my mother’s childhood in abject Appalachian poverty, the barbs I knew personally of class divisions, the broken Southern diction of James Whitcomb Riley’s The Raggedy Man or the grimy ankles of the child observed in his Barefoot Boy.
Then later, I found myself, as an eight year old, in the pages of that cherished, now dog-eared, copy of Leaves of Grass that Mama gave me, reading it with me over the years. In Whitman, for the first time, I found myself. I found my people, poor people, people who survived day to day in the most noble ways they knew, the machinists and the factory workers, the maids, the field hands, the poor, the overlooked, the field-burned and tan and brown and black skin of my neighbors, my playmates, the “sick and malform’d” my mama tended, the drunk and broken spirited my daddy looked after. Whitman sang the world I knew, the people I loved, their faces, their hands rough from work, in the fields, in the woods, in the bars, in the alleys.
So many poems and poets came after: Gwendolyn Brooks’s overt cultural stance in Boy Breaking Glass, and the mother; the discovery in my teen years of Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde and Margaret Atwood. My reading of Rich’s Diving Into the Wreck coincided with my introduction as a young woman coming of age in the late 70s and 80s to the hard realities endured by my feminist elders, particularly those among the Second Wave Feminists, hard won battles from which I benefited—bank accounts and credit in my own name, signing my first apartment lease—both without needing a man to cosign for me, access to birth control, protection against losing my job because of pregnancy—all things so many of us took for granted only twenty years past the battles my older sisters waged in the streets, in the legislatures. This myth of who I was or was supposed to be or could be all so precisely, so eloquently, so transformingly explicated in Rich’s poetry.
This too was around the time I first heard the battle cry of those Pro-Woman Warriors, a phrase that profoundly and completely changed how I looked at not just poetry, but all writing, all art:
The Personal Is Political.
These experiences wove together for me with a quote from the Preface to Leaves of Grass I still keep near my writing table.
Whitman said, “The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges, or churches, or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors, but always most in the common people.”
For Whiman, poetry wasn’t just a vehicle for expressing political lament or ire. Whitman saw poetry as a political force in itself.
So is art activism? Is poetry protest?
No way I can possibly roll out a full explication, or even attempt a single answer. That’s not only prohibited by the vast and extensive history of poetry itself, but also, I would argue, that this very notion—The Personal Is Political—has to be honored in any explication. I can only answer for myself.
When I write the hard and hungry winters my mama and her brothers and sisters endured back in them hills and hollers of Western North Carolina—is that political? To me, it is.
When I dive again and again into questions of faith, from my own rejection of my parents’ beloved Catholicism to the cross-cultural spiritual path I still walk, is that political? For me, it is.
When I write sexuality, is that protest? As a survivor of Catholic school, as a rape survivor, as a woman who was ten years old when Roe v. Wade was decided, as a woman who has spent decades resisting the ought-tos and shoulds and don’ts from others concerning my own natural animal sexuality, it is.
Other writers—poets or writers of prose—may see their own creative explorations of the same subject matter in very different way that I do.
I tell my students that, for me personally, the purpose of all art is to allow one human being to look across the room, across time, across all the lines that divide us, and to say, I see you; I hear you; you are not alone.
I believe that the insistence art makes by its very existence—that we see each other, that we hear each other, that every voice, every story, every person matters—is not only needed, but integral, crucial, to our survival. I would argue that art, the risk we take in the making of art, matters more now than ever.
In these frightening and hurtful times, regardless of the tribalism that threatens to tear us apart, the truth and solace of art, that reaching out to another human being, may be the most political, the most activist, the most radical act of all.
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