Redressing the Emperor: Why Poets Matter

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They say you can be a bad person and still make a great thing. They say you can use poetry cynically for your own selfish gain in the name of free speech. But what they don't say so often, because there are shaming mechanisms in place, is that this Western inclination towards abstracting one's speech actions into a removed cause and thereby exempting the speaker from accountability is a privileged thing. Such positioning pretends history doesn't count, the person's choices don't count, the pain inflicted through harmful speech acts doesn't count, only the work and its right to exist counts. Colonialism has been pulling variations of these white supremacist tricks for heaps of decades "for the good of the people," "for the sake of freedom," etc. Such maneuvers are ultimately the building blocks of how we value human lives on a hierarchy. And this is precisely why poets matter.

Generally speaking, mainstream populism doesn't attend to the Woody Allens and Roman Polanskis the way poets attend to poets and poetry. We are regularly told that the issues and conflicts we discuss are so much navel-gazing and to look at the "real world" to witness "real problems." Poets have classically tasked ourselves with the business of meaning-making, scrutinizing how meaning is made with language--and then attempting to make or conjure it. Critical acuity is cultivated by the very practice of being a poet. How many times have we heard about the poet's eye? The poet's ear? The poet's insight? Philosophers are slightly removed by working within systems of meaning, but poets are making meaning in the daily culture while also examining how it functions on a more intimate and practical level.

Read the full post on Harriet, The Poetry Foundation's blog for poetry and related news.