Absent Voices: The Responsibility of the Poet

It is not uncommon for people to use social media as a call to arms, especially when looking for a forum that will reach a large amount of people in a short time with little effort. We’ve seen this with the ice bucket challenge as it floods (pun intended) Facebook. In the wake of Ferguson, both my Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of articles, blogs and updates. As is also the case with social media, it is difficult to read and process every piece of information that shows up on each platform, but there was one tweet in a sea of language that caught my eye. I don’t remember who posted it and I don’t remember exactly what the phrasing entailed, but to paraphrase, the author was basically asking, in light of Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown, “Where the hell are the poets? Why are they not speaking out?”

This isn’t a new question and I’m not the first to think/blog/address the question either. I can’t speak for all the poets but I can speak for myself and I have a couple of thoughts.

In an age where we can log into our computers and phones and let people know what we ate for breakfast, how long we were at the gym and how long our commute takes, it seems ridiculous, insulting that we cannot use the same platforms to express how we feel about the events that take place in our society. But this access to constant “updates” and “input” also infuses us with an expectation of immediate reaction. We want to hear what you think right now. Now. Now. Now.

At the time that I read the initial tweet, calling out the poets, I thought well, I have seen some poets speak out on Twitter and FB but had yet to see a poem in response. A physical, tangible artifact written to record all of the feelings that the country was feeling at the time. In the weeks since, I’ve come across a few specific poetic responses (I’m sure there are others): “not an elegy for Mike Brown” by Danez Smith & this young poet’s response

To be clear, I don’t have a problem with question of “Where the hell are the poets?” I think it’s a good question. I feel that poets main responsibility in their writing is to record the world and in that recording to transcribe it, transform it into something new. I believe it is a poet’s responsibility to give voice to the compassion and rage and fear and joy all of the feelings that fall somewhere in between. It is a poet’s responsibility to provide a voice for the voiceless. There is something about hearing language that is far more visceral and tangible than just reading an account online.

However, as is evident by the poetry that has begun to weave its way through cyberspace in the past few weeks, I think the question has been answered: The poets are here. They are listening. They are speaking. They are writing.

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