"It is difficult to get the news from poetry, yet men die
miserably every day for lack of what is found there."
—William Carlos Williams
I have that quote from William Carlos Williams pinned at the bottom of my emails, (amended with the word "folks" to replace the word men.) Right now, after an American election that has surprised most of the world, that has degraded our lowest expectations of decency, truthfulness and dignity in presidential campaigning, I'm wondering more about the idea behind that quote. I'm wondering about life's subtleties and nuances that we miss from the headlines. I'm wondering if these subtleties, the human stories that lurk between the lines, are part of what we should pay more attention to if we want to alter what seems like a descent into dictatorial chaos into a rebirth of a body politic that is geared toward preserving human dignity.
I'm thinking that maybe some of those subtleties that inhabit poetry are the same subtleties that evolve from the act of deep listening to the world in order to write a poem. It seems to me that writing a poem calls upon the writer to listen intimately and respectfully to the world, to try to understand their own motivations and all the forces at play that cause folks around them to do the things they do, to grasp the historical context with a wide lens before narrowing into the specifics of a poem.
I'm wondering about the act of listening in an age where it is so easy to climb into our social media bubbles and block anyone with whom we disagree. Not just folks who are 'trolling' us—harassment should not be tolerated. But more particularly those whom we agree with most of the time. Those with maybe one policy issue or the other—or even some comment they've made with which we seriously disagree. Those we decide to 'unfriend' forever, whisking them away into the veritable cornfields of our public dialogue so that we never have to deal with them again. Does this kind of expulsion merely affirm a bubble that is more suffocating than enlightening? Does it become smaller, tighter, and less permeable with each exclusion? Does that affect our ability to create with a vision that extends beyond the scope of the bubbles we create for ourselves? Does it deaden rather than amplify our ability to access that most precious of poetic sensibilities—empathy? Does it deafen us to the news that's not in the headlines?
I just passed 50. I'm finally learning the grace of how to talk a lot less and listen much more—at least I hope I am. I'm trying to learn to be far more selective with any arguments I step into and the ways that I step into them. I'm trying to be especially conscious of listening to those poets and writers who are horrified by the prospect of a D.J. Trump administration—an administration that doesn't seem interested at all in listening to those beyond the sound and smolder of its own voice.
And now we're facing a fight of epic proportions against some things that, historically, we know we shouldn't listen to at all. DJ Trump has a mixtape called "Muslim Registry" that we will need to drown out with all our voices as soon as it hits the airwaves. He's got a whole lineup of hits for the American public—an administration with an official KKK endorsement, a cabinet stocked with white supremacists, a plan for elimination of Obamacare, climate change denial, curtailment of women's reproductive rights, a Vice President with open disdain for LGBTQ rights—and that's just the beginning.
During this next four years it will be absolutely crucial for those who do not want to go quietly into the Trump Tower of Night to listen to each other—to deeply listen—hopefully in a way that seeks out similarities more than differences. And to find ways to act upon those similarities without sacrificing the ideals we find central to our beings. And, hopefully, to find ways to find the news in each other that is beyond the headlines. Right now, it seems like we are having a hard time finding ourselves beyond the bubbles we put up to seal out news and views we disagree with.
I'm thinking we have a desperate need to make new headlines in the news. We are already dying miserably every day for the lack of ourselves found there, and now is the time to rewrite the news into the poems we want to hear. And we will have to do it together by listening carefully and compassionately to each other even when we don't always agree. We need break out of our bubbles to find the news we need to make some serious change.
Born in Detroit, poet Tyehimba Jess earned his BA from the University of Chicago and his MFA from New York University. He is the author of leadbelly (2005) and Olio (2016), winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Jess is the rare poet who bridges slam and academic poetry. His first collection, leadbelly...