by Richard Martin Oxman
“But I just had no intention of living this way” — from the Counting Crows’ Raining in Baltimore
The actions being taken by concerned citizens respecting our collective crises are too prosaic. Overly “prosaic” in the sense that pleas and demonstrations are utterly too straightforward, much too much run-of-the-mill. Will someone, please, consider injecting poetry into activism?
The language and style of what we’re witnessing isn’t working. It’s tiring people out, making them tired of themselves in the process. Been there, done that is coming out of their pores. And what’s more important is that the present popular prosaic approach to activism is not only not reaching goals; we are moving backwards on all important scores, and running out of time to address monumental issues which have deadlines attached to them.
The usefulness of poetry has often been questioned. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” W.H. Auden famously declared in a poem that made nothing happen except to cause people to repeat that line to excess. The aesthete’s response to poetry’s supposed lack of utility is to point out that uselessness is precisely what distinguishes poetry (and other arts) from the world of so-called practical discourse, whose aims are grossly apparent — the stump speech, the business meeting.
Of course, if the meaning of “useful” is extended from how to assemble a piece of outdoor furniture to how to engage our verbal intelligence and uplift the human spirit (by bonding with the very souls of those with whom we are interacting, touching fresh depths therein), then poetry may be said to have a purpose.
The case for poetry’s purpose, if it still needs to be made, becomes clear if we admit the limits of prose. A subject such as birds, say, may have been covered as extensively as possible in prose, but that does not mean, as with any topic of human interest, that there is nothing left to say. Or that a new way of saying the same thing might not make for a breakthrough.
Indeed, the genre of poetry makes its true appearance at the very point along the line of verbal expression where the possibilities of prose have been exhausted. This is germane with regard to how I opened this piece, for folks I cross paths with in the activist realm are not just burned out and exhausted these days. No matter how proactive they might seem to some… from a distance… on the run… their screaming, bootless cries notwithstanding, they have given up on the Big Picture, the nihilistic attitude which is so in vogue today growing like a cancer within and without. Without a trace of authentic hope in voices fighting the good fight. Ground down.
At best, they are on a passionate treadmill feeling quite dead inside, dread kicking them in the ass.
Truth be told.
The job of poetry we might say is to make sure that prose is never allowed to have the last word.
Americans must crow anew.
Most young American Crows do not breed until they are at least four years old, and many stay with their parents and help them raise their younger siblings. A family of crows can number up to fifteen, with young from five years, and wintertime communal roosts can include up to hundreds of thousands of birds.
That’s the kind of poetry we must embrace in the action of our daily lives, the lyrical interaction which we’re flying away from as things stand (dead in our toxic water).
There is a need for wide-eyed wonder, eyes not being exclusively on the proverbial prize sought by those involved in civic engagement. Aims can remain the same for activism on the mundane plane, but we have to embrace a bird’s eye view too, if we’re to take flight. Soar and roar with a win in the wind. Keep our sights on the shortest distance to where we want to get, as the crow flies.
At present, we are crowing callous crap against Trump, pumping ourselves up as being politically correct, incensed righteously. But flapping our withered wings that way is only reinforcing the notion that other career politicians — all too self-serving for the Collective Good (by definition) — would be giving us something other than our murder movement into a brick wall.
No, it is not a flock of crows. A group of crows really is called a murder of crows.
We are actually murdering birds. Not very poetic of us, that. And that fact is what guarantees that a Trump or some equivalent will give us the (less than) lyrical leadership that will keep us forever grounded. In true prosaic fashion.
Just remember that we were all born with wings.