Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ask What Your Poets Can Do . . . Writers and Service

I have service on the brain this morning. Perhaps it's because of the death of Sargent Shriver, who helped create the Peace Corps, who helped with the War on Poverty, who changed our landscape in so many ways. My favorite rock star Op Ed writer Bono writes a lovely tribute in The New York Times today, a tribute which reminds me of how much any of us could do to make the world better, even if we don't have Kennedy family connections.

Maybe I have service on the brain this morning because it's the anniversary of that great speech by John F. Kennedy, the one that instructs "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." E. J. Dionne has a great essay in today's The Washington Post that deconstructs the speech. For those of you teaching Composition, this essay is a keeper. It analyzes why and how the words are so powerful. It also talks about the revision process and shows how revision made the speech stronger. The speech itself is fairly short, and if I designed a module for my Composition class, I'd have students analyze the speech and write an essay about the speech. Then I'd have them read E. J. Dionne's article and task them with finding another outside source about the speech. I'd then have them incorporate a quote or two or three into their original essay. Then, finally, I'd have them write a similar speech: "Imagine that you are elected President of the U. S. or head of your company or . . . write your inaugural speech."

There's my service for the day--an idea for Composition teachers everywhere, a teaching module that covers a variety of competencies that Composition classes must teach (analysis, use of outside sources, documentation . . .).

If you're like most people, you might not think of poets as social justice crusaders or the people who serve. But you would be wrong. Just a look through my blog roll shows how much poets do not just for each other, but for total strangers. Poet January O'Neil is raising money for the Cave Canem Fellows here (a group that supports African American poets). The 32 Poems blog gives us tips for making the most out of our AWP experience here. Kelli Russell Agodon continues her wonderful series about navigating the publishing world by interviewing Jeannine Hall Gailey here where they discuss the benefits of having your book of poems published by a small press or a micropress (go here and here for Kelli's discussion of poetry contests). And then, Sandra Beasley wrote a post on her blog about her experience with publishing; her experience has been different, and so it's a treat to get yet another perspective.

Scoffers might say, "Well, that's very lovely, but how exactly are these activities changing the world?" I could make a long list of the ways that writers have changed the world; I could fairly easily make the case (but it would take a lot of pages, so I shall spare you) that dissident writers helped bring down the Soviet Union, especially in Eastern Europe. And it was the solidarity of other writers that helped the visionaries--writers and others--be bold.

We've been having an argument in this country over whether or not words matter. Of course they matter. Do they move people to kill? Sure, although Jared Loughner killed because of his mental illness.

It's also important to remember how words inspire. We've lost sight of that in recent years. Thinking back to that inauguration of JFK can remind us of what we're doing here with our wordsmithing, of the power of words to call us to our better selves.

And for those of us in despair because our day jobs keep us away from our visionary task of poetry, read this book review of the latest book on the ever elusive Andrew Marvell, who had a variety of civil service type jobs, yet he still managed to write one of the most perfect poems, "To His Coy Mistress."

There are so many ways to serve--some of which will make a distance across generations, some of which will only make a difference for a day. We never know which poems will give comfort, which will inspire social change, which will call people to be their best selves. Our task is to continue writing.

Today is also the birthday of Edward Hirsch, a man who has done much to open the doors of poetry to the regular reading public, a valuable service indeed. If I could write a book like How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry, I would be a happy woman.

Go here to read one of my favorite Hirsch poems,"I'm Going to Start Living Like a Mystic."

1 comment:

Kathleen said...

Thanks for all this! I believe in words as doing and words + doing, too.