American Poets, Refusing to Go Gentle, Rage Against the Right

  American Poets, Refusing to Go Gentle, Rage Against the Right


Amanda Palmer at a poetry reading at Lincoln Center in Manhattan on Wednesday, where the stage banter was often political. CreditKrista Schlueter for The New York Times


The poet Jane Hirshfield has never thought of herself as an agitator. A self-described “genuine introvert,” Ms. Hirshfield likes to spend her days gardening, hiking and writing verses about nature, impermanence and interconnectedness.

But a couple of months ago, to her own surprise, she emailed the organizers of the March for Science in Washington and urged them to make poetry part of the protest. At the rally on Saturday, Ms Hirshfield will read her new poem “On the Fifth Day,” which addresses climate change denial and the Trump administration’s dismantling of environmental regulations.

“I’ve never done anything like that before,” Ms. Hirshfield said. “I don’t even give dinner parties.”

The march will also feature pop-up poetry writing workshops, and more than 20 banners with science poems by Gary Snyder, W .S. Merwin, Tracy K. Smith and others. (Ms. Hirshfield also wanted to have a donkey carrying baskets with printed-out poems, but the organizers rejected that idea).

“Poems are visible right now, which is terribly ironic, because you rather wish it weren’t so necessary,” she said. “When poetry is a backwater it means times are O.K. When times are dire, that’s exactly when poetry is needed.”

Like virtually everything else in the Trump era, poetry has gotten sharply political these days. Writers are responding to this turbulent moment in the country’s history with a tsunami of poems that address issues like immigration, global warming, the Syrian refugee crisis, institutionalized racism, equal rights for transgender people, Islamophobia and health care.

The recent resurgence of protest poems reflects a new strain of contemporary American poetry, one that is deeply engaged with public policy and the latest executive orders coming from the White House. At a moment when many artists and writers have joined a diffuse resistance movement on the left, a vocal and mobilized group of poets are using their work to wrestle with some of the most pressing issues in American culture and politics.

“This isn’t just confessional poetry, but poetry that’s meant to stir us into action,” said Jeff Shotts, executive editor of Graywolf Press.  


Claudia Rankine in 2014. That year, her collection “Citizen” became a best seller with more than 200,000 copies in print.CreditElizabeth Weinberg for The New York Times

There’s a long tradition of liberal political activism in American poetry; early examples include Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Whitman’s antislavery poems. In later decades, American poets used the medium to oppose the Vietnam War and racial oppression. Many wrote raw, mournful poems after the Sept. 11 attacks, and pacifist poems protesting the war in Iraq.

POSTED: Friday, April 21, 2017 - 12:00am
UPDATED: Monday, July 24, 2017 - 4:00am