For centuries, poets were the mouthpieces railing loudly against injustice. They gave voice to the hardships and evils facing people everywhere. From Langston Hughes to Jack Kerouac and Federico García Lorca — so many — verse once served as a vehicle for expressing social and political dissent. There was fervor, there was anger. And it was embraced: See, there was a time when the poetry of the day carried with it the power of newspapers and radio programs. It was effective, even as it was overtly political. What has happened?
At its root, poetry is the language of protest. Whether centered on love, beauty, or the ills that plague a nation, it's all inherently political, and it all holds up as a force in any conversation. What seems like forever ago, poetry unflinchingly opposed corruption and inequality, civil and national.
Take Pablo Neruda's "I Explain a Few Things," in which he details the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War:
Bandits with planes and Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars spattering blessings
came through the sky to kill children
and the blood of children ran through the streets
without fuss, like children's blood.
Of course there was Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," a polemic against the traps of conformity and cultural conservatism. Considered dangerous and profane, it went on to spark an obscenity trial in 1957; something that no doubt brought added attention to its overall merit.
Why do I bring this up? Because I'm wondering why the words of today's poets don't pack the same weight and influence as works like "Howl." Sure, people are still writing, but gone are the days of poets having to answer for what they so explicitly set before us. The Beat Generation is dead, and literary provocation in America, I submit, is at a low. The last of them, Amiri Baraka, left us earlier this year and with him went some much needed heart.
You could argue that, on a whole, people are reading less and less poetry. But why is that? Fact is, although there is more poetry being published than ever before — from anthologies to chapbooks and literary magazines — it lacks a viable mainstream presence. What was once important has now been confined to a subculture, something primarily read in workshops and universities.
Sure, the age of social media has changed the way we approach the written word. The introduction of tweets and status updates has significantly altered the way we consume literature of all sorts. But it would be misguided to not place some blame on the state of the art form itself. Could it be that modern poetry has lost its vibrancy? I ask: has poetry ceased to penetrate our national consciousness because we are no longer stirred by what's being said? When was the last time a poet made enough noise to be threatened with censorship?
Right now, at this moment in history, with so much to rally for and against — from police brutality in our backyard to the massacring of innocent children across the planet — have the poets gone missing? Not exactly, no. There are many poets, beautiful poets. Women poets, poets of every color and creed doing valuable work. Today, in America at least, rappers and slam poets — wordsmiths of a different stripe — appear to be the ones whose work is consistently tinged with fury and social diatribe. There are examples: spoken word artists like Saul Williams and Sage Francis have consistently put out new and provocative material that tackles difficult issues.
And on a commercial platform, we have rappers like J. Cole, whose song "Be Free," a powerful cry about the police killing of Michael Brown, is the latest to make waves. And then there's Lupe Fiasco. Listen to "Words I Never Said," a heartfelt condemnation of the war on terror.
We need our poets now more than ever. In fact, they should be on the front lines — at rallies and marches — questioning and rebuking whatever systems they deem poisonous to civil society. They once fed us, our poets; emptying themselves in the process. Generously, courageously, they brought the darkness to light. They said what we felt, and didn't mind taking the heat for it — whatever that meant. Did they stop speaking or have we stopped listening?
Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR Books. He's on Twitter: @itsjuanlove.