The Poems That Poets Turn To in a Time of Strife

The Poems That Poets Turn To in a Time of Strife

The Poems That Poets Turn To in a Time of Strife

The Poems That Poets Turn To in a Time of Strife

Leslie Silko’s witchery poem, “A Long Time Ago,” attributes evil in the Americas to a story that could not be turned back; it is a classic and will be reprinted in the forthcoming anthology “When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry.” A new collection of poetry by Craig Santos Perez, “Habitat Threshold,” is a powerful sequence of poems addressing environmental destruction and how it is associated with racial and cultural hatred and injustice. I return to Audre Lorde again and again. Everything by her, begin with “Coal.”

Joy Harjo is the U.S. poet laureate and the author, most recently, of “An American Sunrise.”

Wanda Coleman, who died at the age of 67 in 2013, may be one of America’s best sonneteers but she was never celebrated as such during her lifetime because she didn’t play nice. Coleman was dismissed as too angry, too despairing, too contradictory, too unruly and too black. As a single mother who grew up in Watts, Coleman was too honest about the failures of this nation’s deep-rooted racism at a time when editors wanted black poetry sandpapered down for white readers. Now, thanks to the editorship of Terrance Hayes, Black Sparrow Press has published “Wicked Enchantment: Selected Poems,” a handsome volume that includes many of her terrifying and fearlessly inventive sonnets: “towards the locusts of social impotence itself/i see myself thrown heart first into this ruin/not for any crime/but being.”

Cathy Park Hong is the author, most recently, of “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning.”

What is an epic of our moment? Can a lyric poem rival it? Among the poems I am reading and rereading right now, “Middle Passage,” by Robert Hayden (which can be found in his “Collected Poems”), looms large. Why? Because it explains American history better than any other text I have ever read. Describing a journey of a slave ship, Hayden’s is a documentary piece, yes, but also a chorus, a hymnal, an incantation, a lyric narrative, a drama, an epic account. It combines voices of the crew, a hymnal, a voice of a poet and speeches of litigants in court, among others; it’s an elegy but also a poem of protest. Its structure is spellbinding. Which is to say: It defies categories, and uses all of them to enact history and show the reader’s own complicity. It was written decades ago, but speaks to this very moment we are in: “you whose wealth, whose tree of liberty / are rooted in the labor of your slaves.”

Ilya Kaminsky is the author, most recently, of “Deaf Republic.”


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