The Power of Poetry
“Time doesn’t pass; it accumulates.”
I attended a reading last night given by Claudia Rankine at Emerson College. In her introduction, Professor Wendy Walters went back to that phrase several times–“Time doesn’t pass; it accumulates.” The statement articulated a frustration with the status quo, how the more we want to think we’ve made progress (Black President, Jay-Z, Empire), the more problems keep arising. We can think we’re “looking back” at the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come. But all it takes is one look at the news and we’re right back to where we started–a place where there’s grave inequality and injustice and prejudice in this country, this country that so loudly proclaims its commitment to freedom and justice and equality.
I keep thinking this story, the story of Ferguson and Baltimore and countless other places, is not mine to tell. I know nothing of this pain and fear and sorrow–of Black Americans, of the police officers who don’t abuse their power, of anyone who’s been oppressed because of differences and assumptions. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t seek out those stories or experiences, and try to understand them, in my own limited way.
Again, in her introduction, Wendy Williams said that we turn to poetry in times of confusion and fear and grief. Poetry is one of our greatest tools for understanding, for trying to make meaning from the senseless, from the unbelievable. And that’s especially true of Rankine’s poetry in this moment. I felt very honored to be able to hear her read her poems during what is such a time of strife in America.
She began by showing a short series of videos she and her husband made (which you can watch yourself on her website). They were very moving, the words and images coalescing in a kind of symphony of grief. Then, she read some of her poems from her National Book Award-nominated collection, Citizen: An American Lyric. She also projected a series of images from the book, explaining why she had chosen certain images to help tell certain stories. There was a famous photo of a 1937 lynching, from which she’d erased the hanging bodies, saying she was more interested in the white complicity of the audience. There was a zooming in on the foreground of drowning slaves from the Turner painting Slave Ship. Again, the images and the words flowed together, all telling the story of how Black lives can have less meaning in this country, how we have a history of being capable of erasing an entire people.
The stories are still not mine to tell, but I consider it a privilege that I was able to listen, for one night, to one of the most gifted storytellers read her words. It was a reminder that language carries power and meaning. We can, and need to, learn so much.