Thursday Apr 26

hoppenthaler I keep fighting the notion that poetry makes nothing happen. To believe this is to render hope null and void. More and more, with Memorial Day 2012 still visible in my rear view mirror, Americans are despairing that the American Dream is over and out, that the filthy rich and their pulpit puppets have, to paraphrase the words of Stephen Stills in his sixties anthem “49 Bye Byes/ America’s Children,” perpetrated some kind of myth on us all.  And they’re partly right, but we also have to shoulder blame; it was us who allowed them to achieve this sort of power, who have voted for criminal politicians on both sides of the aisle, who allowed themselves to naively believe that capitalism and growth would see to the needs of all of us, not just of the lucky few. We have been, to echo George Santayana’s prescient words, condemned to repeat history from which we should have learned.

After the initial luster and thrill of the U.S. industrial revolution of the late 1800s and early 1900s wore off, the working class realized that the wonders of science and technology had done little to make their own lives better. As is the case with the Chinese worker today, they were abused in sweat shops and were paid enough to barely survive; they often dropped every last dime in the company store (ala today’s Wal-Mart employee). They could not afford to buy the very products they were producing; they lost limbs and lives in unsafe factories.  When they dared to say something about it, the Robber Barons and their patsy overseers fought back with violence and brutality. Some brave Americans decided to fight back, and so labor unions were formed. Is it any wonder that the Scott Walkers of the world, these toadies for the ultra-rich, have made union busting one of their primary orders of business? And we’ve let them do this. And many of those who are hurt worst by these unsavory and vicious machinations, those who refuse to think things through themselves and not take the word of talking head scum, of so-called “religious” leaders (let’s not forgot organized religion’s complicity with any number of inhuman historical events), these folks actually BELIEVE that casting their lots with these liars is in their own best interest. We haven’t learned from history, so we’ve been doomed to repeat it.

But here’s where the hope comes in.  Americans overcame then, and we can do so again, and writing (whether it be poetry, fiction, reportage, song lyrics, whatever) had a lot to do with the feat.  Last night, among the thirteen recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, were two iconic writers who have helped to shape my own sense of morality and hope, Bob Dylan and Toni Morrison. As a young man, Dylan’s songs (as well as those of Neil Young) spoke to me of truth and justice, and I believed, and I tried my best to live the life of the just. Their words and music made things happen for me and thousands of others, they made people look and learn in a way they could understand and easily access. Toni Morrison’s writings were important to me even before I became her personal assistant and worked with the great woman for nine years.  Her novels and other prose made me see things I had not seen before, and they changed me, as did the experience of witnessing her in action during my stint in her employ. Poems have helped to change me, too. They’ve changed your life as well; I’ve written about one way this has come to pass in my essay “Like Cranes on the Wing,” which can be found in the current issue of Waccamaw.

I believe in what Mitchell Douglas says in the interview below: “If you create art, it should be with the intent of making people think differently once they have witnessed your work. Why bring new art into the world if you have no intent of changing the way people think and feel? Don’t clutter the landscape with billboards, pick the right flowers and plant your garden well. This is non-negotiable with me.” We have swung too far too the right, and so a correction is necessary lest we become a martial state ruled by a group of Taliban-like religious zealots propped up by an ultra-wealthy few who live beyond the control of their faux religion. You don’t think this is happening? Look again. Vote. Fight. Be smart. Read. Write. Bring back balance before it is too late and no poem or prayer will be enough. Amen.