Eleni Sikelianos and Akilah Oliver, late 1990s

I want to start here with a couple of sentences I just wrote for another publication.

When I was a young poet I had two main aims: 1) write amazing poems; 2) change the world. I really believed that poetry could bring about, if not world peace, at least justice and freedom. My teachers were people like Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, and Amiri Baraka, who also fiercely held this hope.

It’s been a hard road to this moment.

Has poetry changed the world?


We are, as a nation, as a species, in a heightened existential crisis, and much of that crisis hovers around one of our greatest technological inventions: language. Alternative facts. Hate speech. Words like “climate change” being replaced on government websites with “weather extremes.” Twitter bots pretending to be humans and the real fake news. (Will the fake fake news please stand up?)

It’s been a brutal year, and I have been wondering how to speak in a world that doesn’t seem interested in listening to things searingly urgent to me.

Because I wanted to think about that with others, this fall I taught a class on listening and voicing. I wanted to counter our unlistening, and I wanted to think about who gets to voice, how they get to voice, and how we listen to each other. My late friend Akilah Oliver’s notion of the “visible unseen” was one way we framed things. She wrote a poem-essay, “the visible unseen,” as part of her grieving and healing process when her son Oluchi died. In it, she considers how graffiti makes visible the invisible body that made it. She writes,

When I first saw graffiti, I recognized an ugly ecstatic, a dialectics of violence, a distortion of limbs, a hieroglyph. It was only later when I read the names of the dead that I then saw the path of ghosts charted there; its narrative of loss for the visible unseen whose place in history has been fictionalized and rendered unseen under the totalizing glare of history.

There is so much to say about that, but the best thing to do is to read that passage again, and then, if you haven’t already, to read her book, A Toast in the House of Friends.

We read a lot of other poets and writers in that class: Dolores Dorantes’s chillingly beautiful Style, translated by Jen Hofer, Layli Long Soldier’s much- and rightly lauded Whereas, Amiri Baraka’s essay “How You Sound??” We did crazy listening exercises inspired by the late great composer Pauline Oliveros, who wrote things like:

Take a walk at night. Walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears.

Loosely translating “the visible unseen” into the spoken unheard, Sappho was another starting point. She is a poetic mother who keeps on giving, maybe (for me) because my great grandmother took her as a guardian angel for inventing a way to be a lesbian in the early 20th century, but maybe just because she’s amazing. In fragment 31 (quoted here in Anne Carson’s translation), all her senses famously flee from her body as she watches, in a cold sweat, the woman she desires talking to some man — “whoever he is”:

for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking

              is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin

“[T]ongue breaks,” robbing her of the very instrument she might use to speak the poem. We don’t know who wrote Sappho’s poems down, and we don’t know who spoke or sang them, nor do we know who listened to them (women? men? students? lovers? girls?). We do know that she argues with a male tradition in poems like fragment 16, in which she does away with war as a central poetic theme with a wave of her hand, and replaces all the hoplites of Lydia with the shining ankles of the one she loves.[1] (The scholar Jack Winkler proposes that Sappho’s poems operate in an early double-consciousness, where she knows, by cultural force, a man’s world, but inserts her specific knowledge of a woman’s world into it.) We also know that in fragment 31 in Greek, as we have it, there is no possessive before the tongue; it is one big general tongue that breaks, not her tongue, not “my tongue.” No, the poem says, “tongue breaks.”

I keep returning to this rupture for so many reasons: 1) To do away with the possessive in language. Radical. 2) The meter of the poem at this moment breaks down as “tongue breaks,” and as Sappho is dispossessed of her organ of speech, troubling the grammar and rhythm in the most astonishingly apt way. This is called an anacoluthon, a not following. 3) This moment speaks quite clearly to the various ways Sappho’s poems were silenced over centuries, and also to how little we know about who spoke her poems and who listened.

Pauline Oliveros, who founded the Deep Listening Institute, notes that, in the midst of the political and cultural madness of the 1970s, her response was to turn inward: not to shut down, but to tune in. “Listening is directing attention to what is heard, gathering meaning, interpreting and deciding on action,” she said.

Poems give us voice even in our voicelessness, even when our hearts and tongues are breaking, but at least as importantly, they teach us how to listen. How to listen to ourselves in the midst of so much world-noise, how to listen to each other, and how to listen across centuries (forward and back, I’d say), and even across species.

And poetry actually has totally changed my world. I started out on food stamps and welfare in Section 8 housing, and now I’m a university professor!  As Frank O’Hara says, when he “was a child,”

If anyone was looking
for me I hid behind a
tree and cried out “I am
an orphan.”
And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!

I will love this poem (“Autobiographia Literaria”) till the end of time. In a one-word line finale, it tells us how to live a life to which we were not born. It tells us not so much “You must change your life,” but in a circular way shows us how Frank O’Hara did it, and how we can do it for ourselves—“Imagine!”

Before poetry got me a job, it intellectually and spiritually changed my world. Poetry introduced me to the person I have a child with and to my best friends. As much as I love O’Hara’s poem, I know that imagining change doesn’t make change and that one person’s changed world is not enough. Yet poetry actually made my world, in many of its daily textures. Imagination, the primary engine of the poem, is a power of mind, and if we don’t teach children (and ourselves) that it’s valuable, and guide them in exercising those muscles, we will never change our world.

Poetry is its own not following. As it breaks and plays on the militarized forms of grammar and rhythm, it shows us other paths of existence. It shows us how not to go along. Which, for me right now, sometimes means deep listening—listening in on the progenitor Lesbian and touching two thousand years of poetic resistance and beauty with my mind—and sometimes not listening at all—turning down the volume (ALL THE WAY DOWN) on the State of the Union to listen elsewhere, in the deep well of poetry. I am taking to the streets, I am calling my senators, I am trying to figure out how to live with world-grief. And I am looking to poems to remind me 1) sweet delight 2) to imagine 3) to listen 4) to change the world.


[1] Some men say an army of horse and some men say an army on foot
            and some men say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing
            on the black earth. But I say it is
                            what you love.

                                                            —Trans. Anne Carson

Originally Published: February 5th, 2018

Eleni Sikelianos was born and raised in California and earned her MFA from the Naropa Institute. She is the great-granddaughter of Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos and the niece of Anne Waldman. She is the author of eight poetry collections, including Make Yourself Happy (2017), The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead (2013), Body Clock (2008),...