Role of the Poet

It’s been hard to think about poetry since our pre- and post-election discussions without considering it in terms of the role of poets in the face of injustice, like we talked about, and since then I’ve been thinking about exactly what those things are, as we didn’t come to many solid conclusions besides the usual thoughts on a poet’s responsibilities to speak out. I don’t really have an answer of what it is that a poet should do, but I wanted to take a minute to ramble and try and sort out some of my thoughts from the past few weeks.
At first, I wanted to look at how poets responded to particularly awful moments in history through their work, so I looked at a lot of poetry from the First and Second World Wars. I got off of that because most of what I was looking at were poems that were written after the fact, or were written to recount the experience of fighting or being in the position of a refugee, and while these are valuable what I was looking for were poems that were written with the purpose of effecting change, and maybe some that had a measurable impact. As you can imagine, those were hard to find, and I don’t know that I found any. I started thinking that it’s maybe asking too much of poetry to expect it to have an immediate or even noticeable effect on the world, and that it might be unfair to judge art based on political intent. Should we all be trying to write poetry that’s explicitly political, with set goals? That’s probably the ethical thing to do, but I’m sure it’s not something that everyone is interested in doing. I started to think about what it means that we’ve started to talk in this class about poetry as a political tool now that the election went the way that it did, even as terrible things were happening around the world all semester — is it hypocritical of us to only be concerned with the political effects of poetry now that we’re personally impacted by a bad situation? What should the poet take it upon themselves to address? Is it still okay to write poetry that doesn’t talk about any of this? After all, it must take some kind of courage to produce work that’s apolitical — that itself, though, is at odds with the idea (which I believe) that art is inherently political, and apolitical art is essentially decoration. I don’t have answers for any of the questions I’ve been thinking about, and the only thing that I can definitively say that a poet has to do is write poetry. Let me know if you have thoughts about anything I’ve brought up.

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