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Columns

Death of the Poet

Social Activism in Search of Deathless Words

By Michael Thorbjørn Feehly

Beginning today in Washington D.C., a group of poets have assembled for a weekend devoted to the performance and celebration of socially engaged works.  Hosted by Split This Rock, “Poems of Provocation and Witness” is a four-day national festival held every two years. Poets and activists will converge from across the country to read and recite; attend panels and workshops; and network with writers, community organizers, and youth organizations. Their goals are “to speak out for justice” and “to demand that our government stop spying on us.”

Split This Rock—taking its name from Langston Hughes’s poem “Big Buddy”—intends to build a network of those who aspire to greater influence in public life by using poetry to advocate for social change, defend rights of freedom of expression, and renew consciousness of social responsibility in a diverse and complex world. Even in advance of the 2014 Poetry Festival, Split This Rock’s impact is already considerable: The March issue of Poetry Magazine—the oldest English language monthly periodical of its kind, and one of the nation’s most venerable—published a portfolio of work by the festival headliners.

Advocacy for social justice and social responsibility, defending human rights, bearing witness to the diversity of human struggle and experience—noble goals, I’m sure we can agree to that. But Split This Rock is also dedicated to “revitalizing poetry as a living, breathing art form with profound relevance in our daily lives and struggles.” Here is a point worth arguing—is poetry something dead, is poetry Lady Lazarus? Is there really a golden age of a perfectly just, perfectly literate Poetic Republic? I do not think so.

In fact, I find the idea of Poetry-in-need-of-defibrillation to be very damaging to artists and activists. The obsession—and the death of poetry is one—obscures a real question for literati to consider. If we stop longing for a world saturated with—ruled by—poetry, we can focus instead on questions like: Why is there a dearth of socially engaged poetry? Consider why publicly interested poetry falters in the U.S. whereas in the wider world (Eastern Europe or Afghanistan, for example) it thrives; it inspires popular respect and fear in the autocrats.

Even on these new premises, I fear there is a chance to repeat the same mistake, to reason from a false assumption: How can we be sure that there is a dearth of American poetry focused on social questions, poetry that takes risky and controversial stands, poetry that eschews modernist complexity and ambiguity in exchange for simple and direct appeals?

Here it would be best to put a human face on the problem. Consider a poet—let’s consider Bill Knott. Knott died this March; before his death I had neither heard of him nor read a word he wrote. Perhaps this is true of many of us here at Harvard. Despite Knott’s 25 years of teaching at Emerson College and the many books published during his 74 years including self-published chapbooks and a volume printed by FSG, “The Unsubscriber,” I had no clue who he was or how important he was in the 1970s. Thomas Lux said in Ploughshares Magazine, “His best work re-affirms that poetry can be something that does more than lie on a page.”

Knott’s claim to fame came in 1966 when he hoaxed the established poetry world with a fake suicide letter to the journal “Epoch.” But his poems were new and radical; Knott’s poems were short, accessible, and highly critical of the Vietnam War. He spoke of his struggles: Knott was an orphan, a former mental patient, spent two years in the army.

Yet Knott believed himself to be “persona non grata and universally despised or ridiculed by everyone in the poetry world.” Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. But he clearly lacked the standing and recognition garnered by some of his fellow poets. And he took this lacking recognition to heart, wore it proudly like a medal. Always class conscious, with his admixture of praise and bitter scorn, Knott wrote, “Mark Strand has the right to write a poem, not me. He went to Yale. … Me, I grew up in an orphanage, no family, no money, no ‘educational opportunities.’ No background, no breeding. Scum like me can’t write poems.”

Thus Knott himself made the lottery of birth into self-fulfilling prophecy. He alienated even poets that praised his work; he split from publishers and chose self-publishing over traditional publishers, over even smaller independent publishers. But if you go to Lamont Library, to the Woodberry Poetry Room, you won’t find his books: They were demoted to the Harvard Depository in 2011.

The world of poetry is not an egalitarian paradise. Meritocracy is still a form of aristocracy. Established structures of inequality block many from education in art, from a life in the republic of letters. Knott’s story makes this clear. It leaves me only tepid optimism for Split This Rock. The mistakes of elitism and exclusion are easy to repeat. I hope they do not waste their chance to (re)discover in American poetry some of Knott’s spirit.

Michael T. Feehly ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Scandinavian studies concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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