When Bay Area poets Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, and Geoffery G. O'Brien were beaten by police during a peaceful protest at Occupy Berkeley, the answer to the question the headline poses was answered in dramatic fashion.
The news spread quickly in the poetry community. We were astonished, horrified, and concerned. This is not Chile. This is not Turkey. This is not Russia. We are not a country that imprisons or brutalizes its writers because of their writings; in fact, Americans are not really used to writers -- especially poets -- placing themselves at the forefront of political issues or political protests. When Hass published a smart and measured op-ed about the incident in The New York Times, it was a rare moment when American poetry and politics met on a grand stage.
The piece's title, "Beat Poets Not Beat Poets," is a painful reference to the history of the willingness of Bay Area poets to push the political (and poetical) envelope. From the obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg's Howl to the fantastic essays and lectures by Jack Spicer on Poetry and Politics, Bay Area poets have rarely shied away from controversy.
At the time of the Berkeley beatings, we just happened to be reading some particularly political poems by Pablo Neruda in my poetry class at the University of San Francisco, and the students were fascinated by the many ways in which poets turn to poetry as a vehicle for political commentary. One can think of Neruda's "I'm Explaining A Few Things" compared to Wallace Stevens's
My students were also intrigued by poetry as a viable vehicle for articulating political dissent and political opinion in the United States. We talked about why Hass chose to write an op-ed piece rather than a poem. For Neruda in Chile, India, or Spain in the 1930s, a poem was a more powerful vehicle than a newspaper, but in America in 2011, we all agreed that a prose piece in the Times gave Hass not only a wider audience but a level of credibility a poem might not.
This begs the question of whether in a democracy poetry can be taken seriously as political discourse by the majority of Americans.
On November 1, just a few days before the Berkeley incident, I launched a new blog entitled 99 Poems for the 99 Percent that I hoped (and still hope) might start a larger conversation about the relationship between poetic and political expression. Here, poems from major literary figures to recent graduates to political activists tell a plurality of stories about how most of America is making sense of political inequity.
As so many of the great poems on the site demonstrate, the aims of poetry are pretty much the same as the aims of most Americans, which means that poetry as a genre might be a particularly American mode of communication: poetry doesn't need to be vetted. Poetry is about an individual communicating to a plurality. Perhaps sooner, as opposed to later, Americans will start seeing poetry as having pretty much the same street cred as journalism, blogging, and television news for delivering relevant social and political commentary. After all, as the Beat poets showed, poetry is, at its core, about freedom.