At times of upheaval and unrest, is poetry’s role to fan the flames or cool tempers? Down the centuries it has proved remarkably effective at both.O’Riordan cites well-known examples of activist poetry, like Percy Bysshe Shelley “The Masque of Anarchy” and Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and contrasts those with tonic calls for calm like Richard Wilbur’s “To the Student Strikers.” Or, O’Riordan wonders, is poetry perhaps better suited to document “the aftermath of great events” as Sean O’Brien did in Cousin Coat or Ken Smith in Wormwood and Wild Root.
American poetry has its own extensive tradition of poetic activism and historical reclamation. Just this week we celebrated the birthdays of two exemplars.
Readers anesthetized by having to memorize “Snow-Bound” did not get to experience all that John Greenleaf Whittier was. As Brenda Wineapple writes in her introduction to John Greenleaf Whittier: Selected Poems, “Whittier often wrote better, more courageously, and with more beauty than we knew.”
A self-taught versifier, working farmer, devout Quaker, and activist editor, Whittier (whose birthday is today) believed slavery the scourge of the country and joined the northern anti-slavery movement in his early twenties. His reward was often to be pelted with stones, mud, sticks and rotten eggs by mobs in New England as he campaigned with anti-slavery activists. More than almost any other nineteenth-century poet, Whittier strove to combine politics with poetry. As Wineapple notes, his poems “were meant to be read, sung, shouted, or printed on broadsides.”
Wineapple admits that Whittier’s earliest efforts could be “diffuse” and open to misinterpretation. The historian Perry Miller characterized “Toussaint l’Ouverture” (1833), an account of the 1794 slave uprising in Haiti, as “probably one of the least useful contributions to the abolitionist cause” because its brutal depiction of the rape of a French planter’s wife could be construed as an argument against, not for, emancipation. Other Whittier poems, however, stirred the soul. “Song of Slaves in the Desert” dramatizes the plight of a dispossessed people who cry the refrain, “Where are we going, Rubee?”
A century later Muriel Rukeyser was no less an activist. She was just twenty when she traveled to Scottsboro, Alabama, to report on the nine African American youths convicted of raping two white women (a decision later overturned by the Supreme Court). She was jailed there for fraternizing with other journalists across racial lines and ended up contracting typhoid fever. Her trip in 1936 to Gauley Bridge in West Virginia, the site of the (then) worst industrial disaster in American history, charged “The Book of the Dead” (1938) with an urgent mix of investigative journalism, lyricism, and a call to arms:
What three things can never be done?Two lines from Rukeyser’s poem “Käthe Kollwitz” gave Louise Bernikow the title for her pathbreaking 1974 anthology The World Split Open: Four Centuries of Women Poets in England and America:
Forget. Keep Silent. Stand alone.
The hills of glass, the fatal brilliant plain.
What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?Also of interest:
The world would split open
- Listen to Marilyn Waniek deliver a poignant reading of Whittier’s “Song of Slaves in the Desert” in Segment Three of The Republic of Verse podcast
- View Muriel Rukeyser’s FBI file
- Read more about Muriel Rukeyser’s prose and poetry at the Modern American Poetry website