This article and its sequel aim to make poetry and current societal issues approachable. This week’s article will explore how poets, especially through satire and humor, evoke social change through their work. Next week’s article will feature local poets who demand justice and equality in the height of our currently chaotic political climate.
Poetry serves as a means of communication for the writer, whether he or she aims to express deeply personal ideas, tell a story, or both. The artistic openness of poetry gives the writer a voice to tell his or her story in a unique, intriguing way. This is crucial for minority and marginalized populations. Their voices are often suppressed; their stories go untold. Maya Angelou, one of the most well-known poets of our time, wrote as an activist and advocate for African Americans and women. In her poem “Still I Rise,” she outlined how she incessantly rose above the hardships she faced as a woman of color. “I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise I rise I rise.” Her courage serves as a beacon for women, African Americans, and all other marginalized populations.
Adrian C. Louis is a Native American poet whose work addresses Indian poverty, reservation alcoholism and silenced Native American history. His poem “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile” begins, “July 4th and all is hell.” Adrian’s discussion of Native American identity inspired Sherman Alexie, Spokane Indian poet and writer, to respond to Adrian in his short story “Imagining the Reservation.” In this story, the narrator speaks to Adrian directly. He describes his tribe’s history as “five hundred years of convenient lies.” Despite the hostile conditions he’s faced, he “imagine[s] a spring with water that mends broken bones…a drum which wraps itself around [the] heart.” His work proclaims the positivity of the Native American people.
Luis Lopez-Maldonado is a voice for the Latino and LGBTQ communities in his series of poems about the Orlando night club shooting. In his other poems, he addresses injustices about race, gender, sexuality, terrorism, and violence. In “Sparkle on the Face of Darkness,” he speaks through his Latino identity, “do not erase the 50 names with last names you cannot pronounce correctly.” He also speaks to the LGBTQ community “do not erase my queerness in silence…Tweeting and Facebooking.” He begs that the victims’ lives are not reduced to a mindless post on social media.
Maldonado makes a traditional and sincere attempt to pay tribute to those lost in the shooting. He also expresses opposition to the impersonal use of Twitter or Facebook to honor victims of violence and terrorism. He finds words for pain and anger. His work serves as artistic advocacy for social change. Its impact resonates more than the Tweet or status update he mentions. Historically, poetry has served as a means of personal, entertaining, mass communication. Social media, in this way, can serve a similar purpose. Social media can be informative, but it is more commonly a distraction from tangible issues in our world. It’s a brief moment of outspoken honesty with distant consequences and little vulnerability. It desensitizes us to these issues. Whether from pen and paper or a Twitter handle, a writer has the ability to express a controversial, but not confrontational, opinion. Social media can achieve a widespread audience in no time at all, but poetry’s essential oral tradition and creativity are lost; it’s not easy to be a poet in 140 characters or less.
Aside from contagious, unwavering optimism seen in the poetry previously mentioned, satire and sarcasm have also proven to be effective. Intimidating topics such as inequality, oppression, and injustice are made approachable. Satire gives the writer a way to convey an unorthodox message, yet still appeal to the reader’s sense of humor. This is instrumental, as it often makes the take-away much more memorable. Think of alternative ways we can watch today’s news, for example. TV shows like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show report actual news and discuss real events with satirical commentary, often making light of grave situations. Writers on these shows create an approachable venue for a broad audience to keep up with current events and politics. Therefore, entertainment and art become intertwined with current events.
Art has historically been an outlet for marginalized communities, as it provides a safe space and attentive audience for anyone whose voice has been silenced. Jamila Lyiscott, African American spoken word artist, could not exemplify this aspect of poetry more completely. In her poem, “I’m Articulate”, Jamila code-switches between several dialects and accents of English, uproots the negative connotation of “broken English,” and invites her audience to celebrate her “three distinct flavors” of our language.
Before you continue reading, watch the full video: https://www.ted.com/talks/jamila_lyiscott_3_ways_to_speak_english
Jamila uses satire in her work here to explain the evident racism in a seemingly innocent comment about her “articulate” speech. “On my last job application, I put ‘tri-lingual,’” she states, celebrating her ability to say “‘What’s good,’ ‘Whatagwan,’ and of course, ‘Hello.’” Through a powerful reading of her poem, she brings to light the deeply rooted racism in assumptions based on speech, addressing stereotypes about non-Native accent and AAE (African American English) dialect. Her reading of the poem alternates between the lines “you may think” and “But I’m here to tell you,” alternating sincere racial assumptions with satire and humor. Her fluid code-switching, “multifaceted” dialect and accent, and rhythmic intonation fully encompasses the power of the English language to teach. The poem was written in response to an ignorant use of the word “articulate,” but Jamila succeeds in changing her audience’s understanding of what articulation truly is.
Jamila and countless other poets serve as advocates for those who have been robbed of their voices. Maya Angelou, Adrian C. Louis, Sherman Alexie, and Luis Lopez-Maldonado each speak for those in marginalized communities. Their struggles provide the basis for captivating stories that aim to change and improve inequality and injustice in our world. These poets have laid a foundation for strategic, informative, and satirical poetry. Next week’s article will feature what local poets have to say about current issues in our society.
Read part 2 here:
“Imagining the Reservation,” found in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie