Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Thirtieth Anniversary of the Death of Archbishop Romero

I've had Archbishop Romero on the brain. I usually do this time of year, as the anniversary of his assassination approached. Today marks 30 years since he was killed as he consecrated the bread for Mass (or was it as he lifted the chalice? I've read both).

He had been appointed to the position of Archbishop because Vatican leaders thought he wouldn't be any trouble. But when his good friend, an activist Jesuit priest, was killed by a death squad, Romero decided that he needed to take up his friend's work.

He advocated for the poor and talked about the hazards of the huge disparity of wealth in the country. He called upon the police and the soldiers to stop killing their brothers and sisters. And because he was vocal in his support of the poor and dispossessed, because he criticized those in power, he was killed.

When I arrived at undergraduate school, I didn't know anything about this story. In 1984, I was asked to help lead a worship service that commemorated the life of the recently martyred archbishop. Thus continued my political education, an education begun when I saw the movie Missing. I would spend much of the 1980's horrified by what my country helped bring about in Latin America.

I remember when some of the U.S. government documents about Central America in the 1980's began to be declassified in the late 1990's, and again I felt horror in realizing that the oppression, supported, and in some cases engineered by my government, was actually worse than activists from the time period told us. I remember reading of cases of political activists thrown alive out of airplanes. All torture makes my brain recoil; I don't know why those cases stand out for me.

I thought about making myself read all those documents, but decided against it. There's only so much awfulness my brain can handle at any given time.

As the Romantics did, I wrestle with how much of the current political scene should find its way into my poems. One of my favorite undergraduate teachers flatly declared that political poetry could never be any good, and her words haunt me. Some of my favorite poems that I wrote during the 1980's show a radical poet contemplating the horrors of Central America, but I doubt they will be my best work when all is said and done. I'm still fond of my poems that use images of nuclear war and weapons in interesting ways, but will they be considered my best work? Hard to know.

In the end, I think it's best to follow whatever images haunt my brain at the time and to look for interesting connections. Let future critics sort out the rest.

1 comment:

Michael said...


Thank you for this post. First, thank you for honoring the memory of Archbishop Romero. It's hard for me to believe that it's been 30 years, but I was reminded of this during the past week reading an article in our dioceses newspaper.

The other reason is bringing to light the internal struggle about writing politically orientated poetry. Before one flatly declared that political poetry can never be any good, I would recommend reading some of the work of Carolyn Forché. She has written some very powerful poetry with political twist.

A couple of thoughts I have about making the decision to write something political in nature are as follows:

1. Generally speaking it’s like writing about love; often difficult to do it well. I think part of the problem is being able to say what you have to say without seeming preachy. Slipping it into the poem indirectly I think works best. Showing the reader the message is a lot more effective that telling them.
2. My other thought relates to the why. Why do this it if is so hard to carry off well? My answer to that lies within the realization that there are some things that every generation encounters that we simply must bare witness to. If we don’t, we risk becoming complicit. It is certainly not the reason to write poetry but it is a reason.