Some say poetry is irrelevant. That it belongs in the ivory tower.
Listen to this:
Earlier this year, The New Yorker published an article called “Battle Lines: Want to understand the jihadis? Read their poetry” by Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel (June 2015). The article is a study of the function of poetry in Arabic cultural history as well as in contemporary jihadist poetry. The authors write that, “For the jihadist, poetry is a mode of manifesto, or of bearing witness.” Creswell and Haykel remind us of the important role of poetry in shaping and propagating a culture. But that influence can go in the direction of “good” or in the direction of violence and hatred.
Analysts have generally ignored these texts, as if poetry were a colorful but ultimately distracting by-product of jihad. But this is a mistake. It is impossible to understand jihadism—its objectives, its appeal for new recruits, and its durability—without examining its culture. This culture finds expression in a number of forms, including anthems and documentary videos, but poetry is its heart. And, unlike the videos of beheadings and burnings, which are made primarily for foreign consumption, poetry provides a window onto the movement talking to itself. It is in verse that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad.
The article gives many examples of the prominent role that poetry is given by some militant jihadist leaders, but the most shocking one is this:
Bin Laden himself recited an elegy for the nineteen hijackers of 9/11: ‘Embracing death, the knights of glory found their rest. / They gripped the towers with hands of rage and ripped through them like a torrent.”
What we must recognize in all this is that poetry is not only a tool that helps us see the world in all its beauty, but is also a tool that can aid the world in its ugliness. Sure, some poems are about roses and rainbows, about love forever and love unrequited. And those are beautiful and absolutely necessary to our humanness. However, we must not assume for a second that poetry is fluffy or inconsequential. It is a powerful mirror for the human condition – the good, the bad, and the scary.
I am thinking of Martin Espada – a lawyer turned poet – and his poem, “Imagine the Angels of Bread.” He says, “This is the year” the meek will rise and the powerful will fall because justice will be served cold and raw on a silver platter. Well, no, he doesn’t say that – but that’s how I hear it. (And that’s how I heard it when Mr. Espada read this poem on the Smith Theatre stage at Howard Community College for the Blackbird Poetry Festival in 2013). In this poem, we sense the urgency for change. And we see how we might change the world for the better.
We also look to poetry to react to events that shock and frighten us. Like when Billy Collins‘ poem “Names” honoring the 9/11 victims broke our hearts – in a way, a powerful answer to Bin Laden’s elegy of the hijackers. But we also look to poetry to challenge our own thinking, like when E. Ethelbert Miller wrote “Looking for Omar” in reflection of 9/11 and the growing anti-Muslim feelings and actions in our country. We might do well to read this poem once more today.
In November this year, a group of terrorists bombed Paris. I saw many friends turn to poetry to understand fear, tragedy, violence, and hatred as well as peace, comfort, and compassion. One of the favorites circulating social media platforms was Wendell Barry‘s “Peace of Wild Things.” It begins, “When despair for the world grows in me” – and you just know you have to read the rest. In it, you find sadness but also hope.
In January of 2013, a professor at University of Illinois discovered a poem by Carl Sandburg called “The Revolver.” It begins with “Here is a revolver,” and after comparing the revolver to the court of law, the poem ends with, “And nothing in human philosophy persists more strangely than the old belief that God is always on the side of those who have the most revolvers.”
The poem was discovered a few weeks after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting took place in Newtown, Connecticut (December 14, 2013). Now almost three years later, we again turn to this poem as we are angered and frightened by the two mass shootings in one day in Georgia and California on December 2nd.
In Claudia Rankin‘s Citizen (2014) we see the world through yet another lens.
Dean Rader of Huffington Post says, “Citizen has changed how we imagine a book of American poetry interacting with and commenting on the world we live in. It reminds us that the poet is first and foremost a citizen. It reminds us that American poetry can be both urgent and vital.” Holly Bass, writing for the New York Times, says, “Citizen throws a Molotov cocktail at the notion that a reduction of injustice is the same as freedom.”
As The New Yorker article on jihadist poetry reminds us, through poetry we can possibly know one another, about what propels our actions and shapes our beliefs. We must allow poetry to bring to light the violence and the injustices we commit against one another. We must recognize also the potential power of poetry – like many other forms of art – to comfort our sadness, calm our fears, expose our frailties, shape our vision, and even change our thinking.