Friday, December 7, 2018

Moonlight Musings
















Are we preaching to the converted?
(And if so, how do we get the message out to others?)

I have seen some wonderful poems lately, many of them by Poets United members, which protest the evils and troubles of the world, poems which make me want to stand up and applaud. In fact, come to think of it, there have always been poems like that – stirring, moving, eloquent … and, in other times and cultures, popular. 

But who reads them here and now? We read each other – as poets always did – but I don’t know that many other people bother. Singers and painters have a better chance of getting a message across to the wider public, I think.

Does it matter? Well yes, I think it does. What is the point of writing impassioned pieces that we wish could influence people – from members of the public to those in authority who might have the power to implement change – if such people never get to see our impassioned pieces? 

Would they be influenced if they did see (or hear) them? Who knows? But it’s worth a try.  If we make someone think, if we plant a seed…. Surely, the more voices raised – and heard – the better. So how do we go about it? 




I’ve noticed with my own writing that the passionate protest poems often date quickly, especially if they refer to specific issues and people. That’s OK, I think. We need to address the particular as well as the broader and more general. As poets, we know that the universal can be brought home with greater impact via the particular. If you want to touch people’s hearts, show them a close-up of one suffering child rather than a sea of faceless victims. (Yes, photography does it instantly, but the principle holds for our pictures made of words.)

Well, if the protest poems are going to have a short shelf life anyway, why bury them in literary magazines? There might be a long wait for busy editors to even see the work; it might not get published anyway; and if it does, it will mostly reach people of similar mind already – people who would read a particular publication in the expectation it would publish material of a certain slant.

So, write other wonderful pieces on other topics, and submit them to the journals and anthologies, if you want to take care of your poetic reputation! That frees up the protest poems (or whatever one might label them – some will be calls to action, others cries of despair, some perhaps even hopeful; but I need a blanket term and hope this will do) to be used where they’ll be seen by a wider audience. Hopefully. Maybe. I think we’re going have to get creative about how to disseminate them.


Would your local politician (or his/her secretary) like to see a poem in the email instead of the usual petition … or alongside it? How many of you have participated in Poem in Your Pocket Day, where you carry poems around and give them away to people, even unsuspecting strangers? I have, and the surprised recipients are always pleased. I suppose a poem of a different opinion from a targeted politician’s might not get the same delighted response; but one could always try for humour, or even incredible beauty. I can think of Poets United members who write of terrible things in beautiful lyricism which cuts to the heart because of its beauty.

Then there’s ‘the general public’, which is made up of individuals of course. We could implement the ‘poem in a pocket’ idea every day, making them the kind of poems we hope might sway people. We needn’t even hand them out. Instead, we could pin them to public notice-boards. We could leave them on cafĂ© tables, stick them under the windscreen wipers of parked cars…. Maybe all of the above?

And what about busking? I expect the rappers already do that. Organised readings, even slams, seem a bit like literary journals – audience already favourably disposed. Nothing wrong with that; how wonderful to have enthusiastic audiences! But to change the tide of opinion might take something more. It seems to me to need a different kind of venue. A shopping mall, perhaps, rather than a stage?

Australian fantasy novelist Isobelle Carmody frequently stands in public places holding up a large placard criticising our Government’s treatment of asylum seekers who come by boat. It’s one thing to have a ‘no admittance’ policy; it’s another to treat people cruelly during years – yes, years –  of waiting for ‘processing’. Isobelle decided to bear witness. I think it’s an incredibly brave act! Note that, although she's not a poet, she is  a writer and is using her own written words to make this protest. People do stop to read, and mostly approve. She has inspired other Australians to do the same. Perhaps one could, similarly, hold up a poem that tells the hard truths?

We might send poems to mainstream newspapers if they have a poetry corner, or as Letters to the Editor if they don’t. Either way, that readership is wide and varied. Er, well, it was. Now it is falling, and newspapers are folding, being replaced by online versions. 

Which brings me to social media. I confess I’m a bit behind the times. Oh, I have the blogs, as every PU member does. And I use facebook, as many of us do too. But although I have a twitter account, and am also on Google+ because Google makes it hard not to be, I seldom use either. Instagram and such remain mysteries. How do people find the time??? And does this get the message out anyway? Given that social media depend on creating circles of ‘friends’ who are usually like-minded, and blogs also are read by those who like what we say, I don’t think this counts as changing people’s views!

Luckily, other options are open to us, in addition to poetry. No reason we can't have it both ways. We can sign the petitions; we can email our politicians in prose rather than verse (or as well as); we can write letters to the editors of those newspapers still surviving, in eloquent words of either verse or prose.

It’s easy to despair about the current state of the world – environmentally, politically, economically…. Maybe all our efforts won’t be enough to save it. The prospects sure don’t look good! But still, might as well do something. Might as well do many things, if we can manage it: at least some of the above.  If we are writing protests anyway, why not try and make them as effective as we can?

Will I myself do any of these things? Much as I admire Isobelle’s (literal) stance, I won’t do that. (Might if I was younger. I’d probably try and organise a few other poets to do it with me.) The rest? In writing this, I’ve given myself some possibilities to think about. I’d be willing to put into practice most or all of my own ideas, yes. First, I’d need to actually write some protest poems myself! It’s been a long time. Perhaps that in itself is a sign of deep despair – and, however valid it may seem, despair is not a good place to live. Meanwhile, I could ask poet friends who have written such pieces for permission to use theirs. Perhaps we need to revive the political pamphlets of centuries past!





What do you think? Can we use our poetry to reach more people? Would it do any good? Are there other ways I haven’t thought of? Am I simply being incredibly naive? Is this not the business of poetry anyhow?


(Images: public domain.)

26 comments:

  1. Where I am, bookshops have stopped bothering with a poetry section! The poetry fest drew its biggest crowd for a popular music event. It seems incredibly hard to break out of the poets-reading-poets circle (dissent or other poetry) unless you're doing slam poetry(getting a lot of traction with millennials here) or writing short poems that fit instagram or twitter and build an audience (Rupi Kaur for instance). I too would love to hear more thoughts on this! Beyond the cathartic self-satisfaction, poets can only benefit by finding and engaging with fresh readers.

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    1. Bookshops in capital cities here still have poetry sections; in other places many don't. (*Sad face.*)

      I used to write short poems on twitter – on various topics – some years back. I find I am liking the idea of short 'protest' pieces at that forum; thank you. Also one can use twitter to link to longer poems on a blog.

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    2. Ha! I actually volunteer tutor in an African American library that has only a two shelf poetry section. I almost didn't find it! And it only has in it the usual suspects. Sad, sad! But there are real writers coming in and the youth programs write. And there I am. (Grin.)

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  2. The good thing about blogging is at least some people are reading our poems, smiles. These are interesting musings, Rosemary. In my village, we hold public poetry evenings often, to packed appreciative houses. I recently read a poem about my grief at climate changed that was well received. I LOVE your idea of sending poems to our government officials. On every level, that might really have some impact. (My friend sent the mayor my tree poem, as we are lobbying village council to protect trees right now.) A poem on the community bulletin board is a good idea too. These musings have made me think about impact beyond the blog. I think i will try some of your ideas!

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    1. What a great community you live in!

      It's always been my supposition that poetry blogs are read only by other poets. But the truth is, we don't know who the many readers are who show up as statistics but don't leave comments.

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    2. Let me know if the mayor responds to your tree poem and any other travels it takes!

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  3. In London we have poetry on the Underground. It would be great if buses and trains that have electronic displays or information screens (some bus stops have them too) could run a series of poems that can easily be changed on a regular basis. BBC Radio 4 has a regular poetry programme and I bet they'd be open to suggestion, as would radio stations around the world, hopefully. Recently, the people who produce book tokens in the UK ran a micropoetry competition; the winner's poem was printed on the new issues. Some of these ideas could be adapted. I like the idea of sending poems to people with influence.

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    1. Occasionally, over the decades, inspired by your Underground poems, there have been attempts to put poems on trains here, particularly in Melbourne, but so far I think they have come to nothing. (*Sad face*.)

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  4. Well, I don't know that there is one view that covers all the bases, so I think that asking the questions without ceasing is more important than finding the answers. You've asked the big ones. Some of our poetry is to influence others to change their minds--but much of it is to empower and give energy to people who already "believe." That's why I think "preaching to the converted" is very important. And then there is the calling of the spirit so that we cannot do other than we do. I've found that poetry is more popular now than at any time before in my lifetime. More poets are reading, working, called to take part in rallies and workshops and on-line meditation than I had ever believed possible. If I thought poetry was a means to fame in arts, scholarship, pulpit or politics, I was wrong. But some have "made it," and most of them I admire, too. Once I took my poetry, and with a friend, read for hours outside a politician's office--another time we built a performance of despair and empowerment poetry in front of our peace encampment actions. I don't write enough focused poetry to keep that up for hours anymore, but I believe transformation is happening in and through the arts.

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    1. Oh, that is all very heartening, Susan! I agree about keeping the enquiry open. Finding 'the answer', even when it's a very valid and useful one, can shut down further possibilities. (Landmark Education taught me that.) What an excellent point you make about the value of 'preaching to the converted' too! Thank you.

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    2. Susan, I admire your activism and your positive attitude!

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  5. You never know whose soul your words might touch.

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  6. Some very good questions here, Rosemary. We might be preaching to the converted. I have come to the conclusion that a poet mostly writes for herself/himself. If anyone else reads a poet's words it is a bonus. I would like to think that poetry might have some influence on politicians or sharing a poem in an unexpected way might influence lives though. Perhaps poets themselves are not the ones to judge, but those who encounter the poetry shared.

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    1. I do agree that we write firstly for ourselves. I think the first impulse is self-expression, the second communication. If inspiration were to strike, I would certainly feel impelled to write the poem even if I knew no-one else would ever see it. (And yet I would hope I might be wrong and someone would see it some time.) And yes, it's probably true too that we can only put the poems out in the world, to be received as they may.

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    2. I like your thought, Rosemary. The idea of writing for self but hoping perhaps someone might eventually see it AND find it at least a bit interesting. Smiles.

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  7. Hi Rosemary!

    I like it, when you ask these important and thought-provoking questions about poetry. :)

    “Are we preaching to the converted?” We seem to be doing so. And I admit there’s something wonderful for me in engaging and sharing with the converted; the enjoyment of each other’s works.

    Because the non converted always lament that poetry is obscure. But tell me, why can’t a rose be simply a rose?

    I guess this is why some poets take to social media, perhaps an attempt to make poetry accessible. “Does this get the message out anyway?” From my observation, social media seems to favour confessional poetry, at least, when looking at those with large followings.

    As for political poems, my summation is that one cannot be an unknown and angry poet, at least, when it comes to literary magazines. And do the politicians get the message? I sincerely don’t know.

    So, the question “How do we get the message out to others?” seems to point to the difficult of it all. Perhaps, performance poets fare better. And that requires a different set of skills, I say!

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    1. Yes, performance is a different set of skills. (I think it's useful to have both.) And yes again, I expect performance poets do fare better at getting their message out to others, both because of those skills and the impact they have, and because their audiences are likely to be wider in the first place.

      Interesting observation about social media and confessional poetry. That would make sense, given the nature of social media. I can be as confessional as the next poet ... but it's a pity (indeed, a nuisance) that these days all poems are assumed to be autobiographical whether they are or not!

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    2. Me too, I find it a nuisance that all poems are assumed to be autobiographical, nowadays!

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  8. You have pursued some thoughtful directions in this discussion, Rosemary.

    The Lower Mainland transit system posts poems on buses (interspersed amongst the ads). They certainly reach a lot of people … though I've noticed that very few of them are politically, or even sociologically themed. Chapbooks have a history dating back to the 16th century, continuing to this day. But I question how effectively they are employed - in terms of stimulating awareness and protest. I think that wherever groups of people gather for the purpose of effecting change, poetry is welcome and appreciated. Reaching those, outside of that circle of the committed though …. that is the challenge.

    So I would agree, that while there are vehicles in place to 'get the message out' they are not getting the job done.

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  9. I am a bit of a lone voice but then I always have been and thus eschew social media with a big no thank you (having tried them all). I do not like to read 'political' poetry - it tends to be too preachy, too huffy and too much claim to the moral high ground - although Sherry's tree poem was delightful and somewhat of an exception to the usual politoems!
    Just as there are monks and others who pray for the world without the world ever knowing, we poets can do something similar. We do not have to topify current affairs but offer a perspective that is parallel -if I want to get political give me the vote and give me a placard - I must just use it as a weapon!

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    1. I think some of us feel so emotional about the state of our world, that the anger or despair needs an outlet, and if we're poets that's what it will be. I wrote some fiery stuff in my youth! But as I say, it didn't last. I absolutely love your idea of using poetry to present the opposite of what we deplore. It reminds me of that saying, 'Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness' and also of the idea that every bit of love we put into the world changes the whole energy for the better. Thank you, Laura, for being the voice of enlightenment.

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  10. Poetry is very much a personal thing with me. I would rather communicate in verse than in prose. I find it a better method of communication . I don't like writing prose and I am too lazy to keep a journal. My blog is a sort of journal expressing what I am thinking at the time about everything. I think it is wonderful if anyone relates to what I say or think. I am the sort of person that elicits a raised eyebrow response to everything.. even a shopping list...so I am chuffed if I make someone smile or feel better about their day or connect with someone who thinks differently and discovers there is someone else in the world who thinks differently too.This is the value of poetry communities and blogs.In my normal milieu I would never meet anyone I can relate to on the level I do with people I have not physically met on blogs in terms of discussing fairly intense and esoteric topics. So I think all of us make a difference in some way. It is surprising the number of people who view our poems.I am not internet savvy so maybe it is advertising or scammers or something...lots of page views from unusual countries and unknown regions. Oh well could be aliens I suppose:) I enjoy writing and I know I would not write anything like as much if I did not have a blog or belonged to a few poetry communities. I think I may have strayed off topic here

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    1. Not very far off topic, since it's all about reaching readers. Back before Google made it possible to see our statistics, I used to have another gadget on my blog that tracked them, which provided more detail. Yes, there are a few scammers now and then, but the vast majority are genuine readers. Thanks for reminding me, we reach more people than we know, even if we never do more than post to our blogs.

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