Dont Look Now, But 2016 Is Resurrecting Poetry

One day in early July, the poet Claudia Rankine was working in her study when her husband walked in. I cant watch this, he said.

He was referring to the Facebook Live video of Philando Castiles death,documented by Castiles girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, that was capturing the country’s attention:Castile slumped over in a car seat, bleeding out from four bullet wounds; the police officerwho shot him standing outside the car window, still holding his gun; Reynolds’ young daughter in the backseat. The clip stunned Rankine, who tried to make sense of how that young girl’s worldview would be shaped by that moment.

Rankines own daughter, though, didnt say much in response to the video. Instead, she retreated to her room to play Beyoncs Freedom, a song from the artist’s 2016 albumLemonadethat celebratesblack empowerment (“I break chains all by myself/Won’t let my freedom rot in hell”). Suddenly that song was filling the rooms of our house, Rankine says, and I saw that as a direct address and redress of the situation.

As her daughter turned to Beyonc, many others turned to Rankine herselfin particular, her book Citizen, a 2014 compilation of criticism and poetry about race and blackness in the US. One spread,from the compilation’s third printing,went viral in screengrabs and tweets.

On the left-hand page,a memorial list offour black men killed by policea list that endswith blank spaces for the others Rankineknew would follow, the words themselves fading away toward the end of the page. On the facing page, a terse three-line poem: because white men cant/police their imagination/black men are dying. A 60-character, Twitter-ready statement.

Poetry, it seems, is back.

Of course, it never really left. It was always there waiting for readers in the corners of the pages of the New Yorker, archived on websites, in tidy little volumes on the shelves of your local bookstore. But, from the Pulse Night Club massacre to the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile shootings to the recent election, people are turning to poetry to process their thoughts amid the chaos of 2016.

Our language has become watered down in sound bites and social media, says Richard Blanco, the countrys fifth inaugural poet and education ambassador for the Academy of American Poets, who has written about the election and the Pulse shooting. A poem takes back language, reenergizes it, reinvigorates it in a way that a post doesn’t. Language, and all art, offers a kind of consolation because it speaks truth and it speaks hope and it speaks all sorts of things you wont get from a tweet or a newspaper or a post.

Except, of course, when that tweet is poetry itself. Amid the trolls and politicians blasting out 140-character broadsides, poets and their readers have embraced Twitter as a vehicle for higher language. The premium Twitter places on brevity and emotional honesty is uniquely well-suited for an artform that so prizesnot just candorand exhortation,but verbal economy.

Election Day

Leading up to the election, Saladin Ahmed, an award-winning science fiction writer and essayist, tweeted about politics and even wrote an essay for The Boston Globe. But he felt as if words couldnt capture a real sense of what was happening and how he felt, particularly as a Muslim-American. When Buzzfeed asked him to write an essay the day after the election, he thought about a question he had heard a lot—how do you talk to your children about the election?

That was, in particular, impossible to put in essay form and the responses I started coming up with were poetic, Ahmed says. He had written a great deal of poetry in his twentiesbut, because of other writing projects and the emotional outletthat Twitter gave him, he hadnt written a poem in a decade. It all started coming back to him, though. I said, Oh gosh, Im working these muscles again and theyre the only ones that are making sense of anything,” he says. “I got in touch with Buzzfeed to tell them that I couldnt write an essay, but could they publish a poem? They were game.

The piece poured out of him in about an hour and, though it exceeded 140 characters, the poem formatted into an image that could be shared with a tweet.

In the 48 hours following the election, also saw its biggest surge of shares in four years. Over a two-day span, the site typicallysees80-100 people tweeting links to its poems, and about 70-100 retweeting those links. On November 8 and 9, more than 550 people tweeted out poems with 720 people retweeting those links. The top poems on the site since then have been Maya Angelous “Still I Rise,”a declaration of selfhood about blacks rising against white oppression (read more than 50,000 times); Langston Hughes’s poem on the American dream, “Let America Be America Again” (35,000 times); and W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”about the beginning of WWII (close to 25,000 times).

Other poets used Twitter as a vehicle for new work. Poet Mahogany L. Brownehas long constructed her tweets as lettersaddressed to various audiences, but since last weekhas broadened her scopeto artists, the nation, the worldin order to grapplewith what this election means.

No one was prepared for what should be known as the most unsurprising racist revelation that became America’s 45th commander-in-chief, she says. Everything I’ve written since—both on Twitter and in my poems—have felt like a letter of farewell. Farewell to the illusion of a nation trying to be better. Farewell to the illusion that women and their bodies and their choices are safe. Even now, I am mourning.

For other poets, it was time to amplify other voices. Melissa Broder, a poet and essayistwho maintainsher own account as well as the irreverentlyangst-ridden So Sad Today, considers her work on Twitter to be more aphorism than poetry. Butwhile many peoplemight have felt kinship with her soul-baring admissions after the election,Broder chose to back off from her own work, opting instead to retweet and post about resources for those wanting to get politically involved.

Ill go on Twitter without knowing theres been natural disaster and tweet about my vagina, Broder said, and then I see theres been a hurricane that has destroyed thousands of lives. And Im like, Fuck, Im the vagina tweeter. I don’t want to be the vagina tweeter in the hurricane.

Still, she wrote a few tweets to address her feelings.

A Small Needful Art

The presidential election wasn’t the first time this year that poetry came to many people’s minds.Still I Rise and Let America Be America Again were respectively the top and third-most shared poems on on July 8, after the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile shootings. Contemporary workabout the Black Lives Matter movement and police killings also became some ofthe top-read poems, including Danez Smith’s“not an elegy for Mike Brown” and Ross Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact.”

And after the Pulse Nightclub shooting in June, poetry once again found its way on social media, like when Jameson Fitzpatrick, a lecturer from NYU, posted A Poem for Pulseon his Facebook account. A survivor of the shooting, Patience Carter, read her poem, The Guilt of Being Alive is Heavy,for a room full of journalists who then posted it to their sites and on YouTube and circulated the clip on Twitter.

Poetry is the one genre that takes narrative and feelings equally seriously, Rankine says. This is as much a feeling moment as it is a knowing moment. You can hear about it on the news: people will talk about what is happening, the killings, the injustice, the devastation. What we dont get is the language that says that how we feel about it is also completely legitimate and also part of the story.

Poetry, like theater, has long been an art embraced by the marginalized; in the face of oppression, language can be a powerful weapon and a declaration of mental independence. The one thing that survives all civilization, that survives all political rhetoric, that survives all regimes, is the arts, Blanco says. Thats why you see Michaelangelo and see truth there, or read a poem from 200 years ago thats still true today.

In both poetry and on Twitter, voices that may have otherwise gone unheard can suddenly have great power. In the case of poetry, that power isso great that, in many places in the world, poets are considered intellectually dangerous and have been jailed for using art as protest. For Twitter,itspowermay have helped someone riseto the highest office in the US. It only makes sense that the two mediums have merged and that, as we enter a period of division and a renewed civil rights movement, poetry will once again light the way. And, just maybe, as it did for Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes, it will stand the test of time.

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