What is the role of poetry in contemporary discourse? Can poetry message the world in such a way as to foment change?
I think about these two questions frequently. I wonder whether the poems I write make any discernible difference, whether their scope is too broad or too narrow to make said difference. I believe that the only thing a poet (or any writer) can do is to keep writing and to make sure the work GETS OUT to be heard, read, discussed.
Even if the work is casual as far as topic is concerned, there are truths to be gleaned from it. If I write about the things I see from my greenhouse (I Write in the Greenhouse, 2011), I am speaking about human nature as reflected off the glass of feral nature. On the surface, a poem about bees may seem to be just that, but in reality it can be about what we are doing to the environment, to our fellow creatures, and ultimately to ourselves.
An acquaintance of mine from California recently posted an article decrying the science of climate change. She asked the question: do we believe or not? I replied I'd rather hedge my bet on the side of protecting the environment and find out I didn't need to do so, rather than being a user/abuser of resources only to find out it was critical to protect and now it's too late. I think this is what writing can do: help us hedge our bets. Hate to be so clinical here or to sound self-serving, but if not us, who? I write about "nature" much of the time and have found it to be a mirror for humanity. I see its struggle to stay upright in a world that would knock it over to make a buck. Is that not what we are seeing in our government? Knock down the fragile and vulnerable to make a buck, without thought to how that bodes for the future.
We have kids who recycle religiously and kids who don't. No amount of cajoling and example-setting makes the non-recyclers get on board. They are too busy, too involved, too lazy (?) to do it. For me it is a no-brainer: like wearing seat belts... just do it and it becomes habit.
I have picked up after the "tossers" all my life. I cannot pass by a can on the sidewalk, a cigarette butt (don't get me started!) or ignore a piece of paper fluttering in the street. So when I was in graduate school, I wrote about it (poem posted below). My advisor said (mockingly I might add) that no one does that, picks up after others. Later that day, he happened by as I was cleaning up a mess near the dorm where some students had left bottles and cans on the step. I didn't know he was there until he yelled out his car window: Oh wow, you really DO do that!
Ha! Caught in the act of doing as I say! What a concept. My point here is to be authentic and let that leak into and infuse your writing. You never know who will read what you write and make even a small change. Don't let yourself fail to communicate your deeply held thoughts, ideas, beliefs IN your writing. Some say "the cause is best left for the soapbox," but I say it is best flooded through what you write. You don't have to be overt about it, but just let that be the layer of meaning below the surface. Remember it can be "about" without being about...
Here is the littering poem:
No Litter (Honest!)
Once a receipt blew out of my car.
I swear I stopped,
chased it into the greasewood,
crumpled it into my pocket. No trash
can in sight, what else could I do?
No littering for me. No gum
wrappers, ciggie butts
not one can or bottle, no
popsicle stick dropped
like a bad joke at the dinner table.
I’ve picked up your trash too, friends,
followed behind as you spread
your gluttony along
streets and sidewalks. I’ve coughed
loudly so you’d notice. (you didn’t)
I recycled what you littered: cans,
papers, flattened cardboard
boxes you left to rot in vacant lots.
I’ve even picked up pooches
you rejected, dropped off in the desert.
As for apple cores, banana skins, crusts,
peach pits: these I happily fling
wherever the concrete ends. Back to nature!
I shout, knowing the same thrill I felt
in ‘77 when I recycled my first husband.