Does poetry matter in the face of violence or suffering? Can words arranged on a page or spoken alter the facts of war or terror, racism, poverty?
W. H. Auden, famously, said, “poetry makes nothing happen.” And yet he wrote those words in a poem, one that honors fellow poet W. B. Yeats. He goes on to say of poetry: “it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.”
Few would say that the value of poetry inheres in making something happen in the world. As Auden said elsewhere, “If the criterion of art were its power to incite action, Goebbels would be one of the greatest artists of all time.” And yet, poetry surely does something. It can make us see and feel in ways we otherwise wouldn’t; it makes vivid what we might otherwise ignore.
This week I want to offer three poems that I believe speak to the power of poetry to startle and reveal. Perhaps they also speak to our renewed need for poetry in a world of too much despair. Each of the three went “viral,” in response, respectively, to the refugee crisis, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Pulse nightclub shooting. Volleyed around the globe, they survive; they are a way of happening. They are a mouth that has opened.
Thank you to Fr. Staudenmaier for inviting me to share them.
I first read “Bullet Points” on July 7th, one day after Philando Castile was shot to death, two days after Alton Sterling was killed.
Jericho Brown does not say their names, or the names of Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown. And yet their lives, and deaths, breathe in this poem. It is not an easy poem—it is angry, and it is afraid.
In the end of the poem, he says, in so many words, black lives matter.
“Bullet Points” by Jericho Brown
I will not shoot myself
In the head, and I will not shoot myself
In the back, and I will not hang myself
With a trashbag, and if I do
I promise you, I will not do it
In a police car while handcuffed
Or in the jail cell of a town
I only know the name of
Because I have to drive through it
To get home. Yes, I may be at risk,
But I promise you, I trust the maggots
And the ants and the roaches
Who live beneath the floorboards
Of my house to do what they must
To any carcass more than I trust
An officer of the law of the land
To shut my eyes like a man
Of God might, or to cover me with a sheet
So clean my mother could have used it
To tuck me in. When I kill me, I will kill me
The same way most Americans do,
I promise you: cigarette smoke
Or a piece of meat on which I choke
Or so broke I freeze
In one of these winters we keep
Calling worst. I promise that if you hear
Of me dead anywhere near
A cop, then that cop killed me. He took
Me from us and left my body, which is,
No matter what we’ve been taught,
Greater than the settlement a city can
pay to a mother to stop crying, and more
Beautiful than the brand new shiny bullet
Fished from the folds of my brain
Mary-Catherine Harrison, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of English, University of Detroit Mercy
Co-Director, University Honors Program
Executive Director, Rx for Reading Detroit