Our country faces a crippling crisis of imagination. The problems we face are enormous: a rapidly deteriorating planet, a broken health care system, millions out of work, so many who’ve lost their homes, children who go to bed hungry, and two wars that grind on with no end in sight.
After a brutal year of rancor and name-calling, we seem to have lost faith that we have the power to solve these problems. In our despair, we don’t even know what an alternative to the status quo might look like.
Who can help? Our most creative citizens: our poets. “Any progressive social change must be imagined first,” the poet, essayist, and translator Martín Espada has written, “and that vision must find its most eloquent possible expression to move from vision to reality.”
If, when you think of poetry, you have itchy, uncomfortable memories of being forced to memorize “Crossing the Bar,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, let me introduce you to Lenelle Moïse, a young Haitian-American poet who lost family members in the earthquake. Despite the anguish, she was able to write, in the wake of the devastation, “freedom thaws in your ribcage…/ every tick, my friend, divine/ confirmation: you are alive. beat. yes!/ you are alive.”
And Jan Beatty, whose poem “Zen of Tipping,” tries to explain her friend Lou, who walks up to strangers and tips them:
maybe it was
about being awake, hand-to-hand
sweetness, a chain of kindnesses,
or fun–the tenderness
we forget in each other.
Fady Joudah has worked as a field doctor in war zones with Doctors Without Borders. His poem, “Anonymous Song,” tells of “K,” who refuses to do the sensible thing and climb in the truck for refugees when armed men attack his village. His legend grows, despite his presumed death in the conflict:
One thing for sure
K is real
Safe and sweet especially
Holding a baby to sleep
Or asking for a sip of your Fanta
Or calling out your name from where
You cannot see him.
Each of these and dozens more hopeful, mourning, visionary poets are gathering and reading from their work, helping us imagine alternative futures this month at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival in Washington, DC. Hundreds of people are converging from all over the country to celebrate poetry that bears witness to our troubles and provokes us to think in new ways, to bust out of the 24/7 cycle of news-bytes and language designed to lull us into despair and complacency or incite us into bullying rage.
A poem may not offer specific policy solutions — though I know a few that do — but it can make us believe again in the power of our imaginations. It can remind us of the human connection we all share, beyond the narrow differences that divide us. A poem is always and can only be one heart speaking directly to another.
So the next time you feel hopeless and full of despair about the future, reach for a poem. Remember that, as Espada’s poem “Imagine the Angels of Bread” tells us, “the abolition of slave-manacles/ began as a vision of hands without manacles/… the shutdown of extermination camps/ began as imagination of a land/ without barbed wire or the crematorium.”
The novelist and activist Arundhati Roy has written, “With our art, our music, our literature…and our ability to tell our own stories…stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe…[a]nother world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
Take a quiet moment with a poem. Listen to the future breathing.