I don’t have anything wise and insightful to say about our epidemic losses of African-Americans to police violence. At the “Black Lives Matter” rally at Washington & Lee on Friday—yes, a rally here, and the crowd was big!—I didn’t speak. African-American undergrads, law students, and community members bore witness to fear and humiliation that are offensively common in their lives: being pulled over without cause, followed around department stores by security guards, challenged in their right to walk their own neighborhood streets. Their testimony was more moving and convincing than anything I could contribute.
I don’t know how much of my slowness to chime in is my scholarly training (don’t speak unless you’ve read EVERYTHING) versus an ethics of carefulness or just personal insecurity—but I tend to keep my strong political opinions on the quiet side. When you speak, you risk being stupid, wrong, even hurtful. I have certainly said my share of seriously dumb things over the years. Not speaking, though, has a huge social cost. The difficulty/ urgency of speaking for others has been a contentious topic in my mid-century U.S. poetry seminar lately, as one of my students reflects in a recent blog post for Shenandoah. I’ve been attracted to Adrienne Rich’s work for decades—I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis partly on her work—because of poems like “Frame,” in which she negotiates between her responsibility to bear witness and the dangers of using others’ trauma as material. Many privileged poets don’t get the balance right, in my opinion, or if they do, they don’t manage to transform the balancing act into poetry. On the whole, though, it seems better to try and fail than not to try at all.
There’s also the perennial question of what poetry can do to help in any case. So many people are talking and writing, and yet so little changes. I am deeply moved by Gwendolyn Brooks’ strategies in “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.” She imagines the white woman with whom Emmett Till was supposed to have flirted changing her mind—recognizing the links between the brutalities white women and African-Americans of all genders endure. Brooks had such a generous imagination and such amazing skill at inspiring others, but we still live in a world where African-American boys are murdered without legal consequence. When I read Danez Smith’s recent and much more fiery call to arms, and to song, I remember: art is a powerful answer to the stupidity of the world. Poets see. It gives me hope, as heated classroom debates give me hope. Hope is small and personal, though, and while it does save lives, violence and suffering still rages in the world around the reader.
“How can a person make poems out of anger?” a student poet asked me recently. He’s hurt and furious and he craves practical advice on how to turn his experience into something positive. I don’t know, I said, but practicing compassion helps me, because it generates complicated language to match a complicated world. When I think compassionately, I know children of any race are seldom loved well enough and may grow up broken; our schools and communities are full of damaging injustice and rarely teach us how difficult it is to be good, how much hard thinking it requires; our biggest decisions are often made in the blink of an eye but can have terrifyingly wide implications; and intensely hierarchical institutions bring out the worst in people.
Recognizing how those forces may act on police officers as well as kids on the street doesn’t mean the abusers shouldn’t be held responsible. I think even fierce, polarizing language can have positive uses. Ultimately, though, I’m on the side of breaking down “us” and “them” into messy complexity. The fact that nothing is simple, though, is cause for another kind of sadness. When the causes are so manifold, where do you start?
So, it was a hard week. I’m grieving, too, for my long-ago colleague Claudia Emerson, killed by cancer. One poison in the early years of that friendship was an institutional one: I had the privilege of being tenure-track while she was hired year-to-year as an “adjunct” professor, a disparity that definitely did not map onto merit, even though in those early days her greatest accomplishments were still ahead of her. She was one of the most important role models in my poetic and teaching life, but our relationship suffered strains because of systemic injustice. Several people told me last week that W&L treated her badly. I know individuals did, and I’m sure in my own panicky obliviousness I missed a lot, but W&L’s badness, if you can describe it that way, is common and persistent. She was undervalued as other contingent professors, here and elsewhere, remain undervalued. W&L hasn’t risen above the deeply unfair system that permeates U.S. academia, but our version is not unique or especially egregious. Even twenty years later, as a department head, I can’t see any fix except to keep saying “the system isn’t right and it damages all of us.” I have an essay to write, I think, but I’m trying not to get too far in until I have time to reread Claudia’s first book, Pharaoh, Pharaoh—the one she finished in an office downstairs from me, with fewer resources than those I enjoyed.
Really, I don’t have to try very hard as far as not-writing is concerned! This will be the last week of classes, followed by a week of exams and meetings, and my schedule is chock-full of student conferences and other obligations like reading job applications and oh, maybe decorating a tree or two. This Wednesday my class will put on a Haiku Death Match in the Elrod Commons Living Room at 11:15 a.m.—if you’re local, stop by. I don’t expect any of the students’ little poems to rock the world, but there will be coffee and good cheer. Poetry is a good church in which to worship, even if when you step out again, the streets are as messed-up as ever.