In 2012, filmmaker Gabe Rubin (see his short film, Boyland, another film centered around a poem) made a short video of Charles Bernstein’s poem, “On Election Day,” being read by the author around parts of, presumably, his hometown of Philadelphia (someone correct me if I’m wrong here). The mixed-media piece, which includes at times the author’s voice in a choral reading, is a dramatic example of how poetry can be combined with other genres to reach a wider audience. Perhaps we should see more of this kind of thing in the future.
The air is putrid, red, interpolating, quixotic, torpid, vulnerable, on
Kim Stafford, son of the late American poet William Stafford, published this striking poem at the end of 2016 during troubled political times in America. Like many poems and speeches of protest, it takes advantage of a number of poetic and rhythmic devices to deliver a powerful response to those men and women who are quickly reshaping this country, for better or worse. Like many poets of witness, Stafford, too, finds a voice that pivots firmly in space, as he seeks to find solid footing in the new spinning and unstable world around us, as if we were all caught in the midst of an earthquake without fully realizing it.
If you were a century, I would be one breath,
striving to speak my honest syllable…
In addition to being a poet and teacher, Kim Stafford is a published and award-winning essayist, editor, and musician. He founded and directs the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Like his father, his poetry and writings deal largely with nature, place, preservation, and the West.
African-American poet and author Haki Madhubuti published Run Toward Fear in 2004, where this short poem first appeared. As its title suggests, the poem seems written to challenge poets and writers and shame much poetry and writing being published today in magazines, newspapers, and literary journals. In simple language–the poem is just two short questions–the speaker asks each of us to consider something else in our writing: “a poetry of resistance,” as it is put it in the poem’s opening line. Where is it? Great writers question the validity of what they are writing about and, especially, how they are writing frequently, and Madhubuti reminds us (with a not so gentle slap in the face) that even writers (should) have a responsibility to defy and resist whatever they don’t ethically agree with. Probably an even more important lesson to ponder today.
Dunya Mikhail was born in Iraq and has published six collections of poetry in her native Arabic. Her book, The War Works Hard, from which the title poem included below is taken, was translated into English by Elizabeth Winslow and published in 2005 by New Directions Press. Mikhail’s poetry is strongly critical of war in her native Iraq and scrutinizes the effects of the U.S.-Iraq wars on the Iraqi people, the land, and its culture. Markedly different than other masculine Iraqi poets of her generation, Mikhail’s tone indirectly points fingers at the forces of greed, corruption, and martyrdom that characterize both the U.S. and Iraqi governments. Mikhail currently works as an Arabic instructor at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.
Ahmed Fouad Negm was a revolutionary Arab poet who wrote many vernacular protest poems, a great deal of which were aimed at Egypt’s presidents Gabdal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak. Living in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Cairo, Negm befriended many impoverished artists and musicians, including blind musician Sheikh Imam Issa, which led to a 30-year collaboration where Imam composed music to Negm’s written verse and the two of them sang together. In 2007, Negm was chosen by the United Nations Poverty Action as Ambassador of the poor, and Negm is widely considered a folk hero in modern Egypt. Negm died on December 3, 2013.
Born in Moscow in 1936, Natalya Gorbanevskaya was a Russian poet famous for her political dissidence. She received international fame and attention after she and seven others protested peacefully in Moscow’s Red Square after the forceful Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and the reformist Prague Spring in 1968. Gorbanevskaya was not immediately arrested, as she had just given birth, but went on to publish reports of the ensuing trial in the Chronicle of Current Events, a periodical she created and continued to write into the 1980’s. Arrested in 1969 for her dissidence, she was confined to a Soviet psychiatric prison until 1972. Gorbanevskaya, with her two sons in tow, emigrated to Paris in 1975, where French psychiatrists reversed her fabricated diagnosis of “continuous, sluggish schizophrenia.” Gorbanevskaya wrote and translated poetry until her death on November 29, 2013.
Nazim Hikmet was a Turkish poet, novelist, and playwright whose poems are considered to be some of the most powerful statements of the twentieth century. After serving several shorter prison terms, Hikmet was finally sentenced, in 1938, to twenty-eight years in Bursa Prison for his “Communist writings,” a verdict handed down not through the regular Turkish civil courts (who didn’t have the grounds to convict him) but through secret proceedings in the National Security Courts (a strange parallel to our current military courts for enemy combatants). In 1950, Hikmet was released early due to worldwide pressure and the announcement he would receive an International Peace Prize (along with painter Pablo Picasso and Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda). Hikmet fled into exile after 12 years “inside” and settled in Moscow, where he died in 1963.
Mahmoud Darwish was an award-winning Palestinian poet and prolific author who died in 2008. A member of the Palestine Liberation Organization from 1973 until the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, Darwish was also a strong political voice in the Palestine movement and a member of the PLO Executive Committee. When he was a child, Darwish’s village was destroyed by the Israeli army and his family was forced to relocate to nearby Lebanon. Like Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, a poet he admired and was challenged by, Darwish also wrote moving poems that professed his love for the land of his people.
Award-winning poet Adrienne Rich passed away in 2012, but left behind a remarkable collection of poetry (25 books) and essays (7 books). Often political, almost always personal, Rich’s poems pose deep questions about femininity, power, and language. In 1997, Rich was awarded a National Medal of Arts and declined in protest of Newt Gingrich and the House of Representatives vote to end the National Endowment of the Arts (it failed, thankfully) and the Clinton Administration’s anti-art and literature policies at the time (the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was also on the block). Rich stated, “[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.”
Published in 2012, Sam Witt’s poem “Toxic Assets” is officially a poem of the twenty-first century (the term “toxic assets” itself came into public use very recently, during the 2007 financial crisis). I am including Witt’s poem here because, one, he is a friend of mine and, two, I think it is a fine example of a multidimensional poem that is part protest, part confession, part appeal to the reader.