Watching the news, reading Hemingway and most non-fiction tends towards that factual quality that says: take it or leave it for what it is. And when the news is unpleasant, it can leave one feeling a little helpless. And when such a story meets a great poet, this combination can be an effective vehicle for delivering uncomfortable truths.
Like the news, a poem can inform a reader on all the realities of our day but with a lot more empathy. A great poet can make a news story, the poet’s story. A great poem invites readers to make the poet’s story, their story – if for just the moment of reading. Thus, this kind of news can be quite powerful.
Some of the best poems ever written are about the ugliest subjects such as war, hatred and other such human sorrows and evils. My purpose in this blog is to attract more readers to poetry not disturb them away, however, since we explore the best qualities in poetry I think this less sunny side must be touched on a little bit.
Langston Hughes was the first poet, in my research, to pull me in this direction. While his work is very soulful and searching, his poetry is also very political – for lack of a better word. I don’t think he crafted himself that way as a poet. His life was simply submerged in political and social circumstances and he let that out in his poetry.
Deeper into this research, I found two incredible poets who wrote amazing poetry about war. It was late at night. I was alone in front of my laptop. I fell into the war poetry of Miklós Radnóti and Wilfred Owen and it felt like the world stood still. The poems are disturbing but I can honestly say I am grateful to be disturbed by this work, especially the postcard series from Miklós Radnóti. Not only did he write powerfully but he gave the raw story about his circumstances, while still retaining his humanity and helping me feel my own even when reading about such a horrible time in our history. I’m being deliberately vague. If interested, please find the full poems. They are uncomfortable, though. His poems brought me closer to that time in history than any film, book, teacher or documentary I have experienced on that subject. And they are very short poems.
If this blog has peaked your interest, please check out this week’s ‘poetry appreciation’ video on Youtube, … a small piece of poetry can sometimes march, which is a short collection of fragments from brilliant war and political poetry, with a fitting intro from one of Dylan Thomas’ famous poems. I took care to exclude anything that was too graphic or depressing. The purpose of this video is not to disturb anybody but to suggest that some poems, some poets – like some subjects – may be worth being disturbed by and to invite readers to seek out these poems, as well as other poets that have the skill to tell our harder stories.
Also, if interested in exploring other art forms that were inspired by social/political circumstances, please check out:
- ANPO: Art X War – a 2010 documentary film directed by Linda Hoaglund. This film discusses the post-war American military occupation in Japan through the eyes of visual artists. http://www.anpomovie.com/
- The Wasteland – an uplifting documentary of an artist who goes to Rio de Janeiro’s largest landfill site to create portraits with garbage aided by local garbage pickers. http://www.wastelandmovie.com/
- Also please check out Andrew Graham Dixon’s art documentary series on Russian Art where he features the courageous work of the Wanderers. It was available online but unfortunately I was unable to find an active link. He’s prominent on YouTube. I imagine it will become available again soon.