Poetry: Writing a Space for Democratic Engagement

Justin Koppelman, Assistant Director for Civic Engagement Initiatives, Chapman University

October 13, 2016

In Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, poet William Carlos Williams wrote that “it is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” Poetry is not often referenced as a resource to mine for paving a path toward democratic engagement. It often does not contain the results of quantitative surveys representative of the intended populations, the results of national polls illuminating public thought on public issues or the specific measures one might take for advancing public policy.  Its attempts to distill the ineffable are often not as apparent as news headlines.

But, as poet Elizabeth Alexander explained, “the beautiful thing about poetry is that you never know who will find it, and you never know what will be found in it.” Its inexactness of meaning is its strength. Its capacity to evoke multiple personal experiences through readers’ engagement with it offers a window into shared meanings. As we further our self-sorting into communities of likeness and struggle to prevent the shattering of political conversations into invectives, I would suggest that in poetry exists one path among many toward the development of democratic engagement.  

U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera suggests we are stuck in “manufactured ways of talking about each other and about Others, which is each other.”3 Poetry’s use of “images, slices of conversation, repetition, and effect allow it to present both a literal and metaphorical way of seeing the world...it creates a visual language in which the written text visualizes philosophical ideas as well as material objects, people, and events.”4  Because of poetry’s ability to resonate with public life in multiple, subtle, and complex ways, it brings with it characteristics that encourage readers to “revisit the world from a different direction, seeing it through fresh eyes, and thereby calling into question a singular, orthodox point of view.”5  Its ability to surprise and foster re-creation has significant potential to move us from manufactured modes of conversation to more authentic, connected experiences of engagement.  It can both tell others’ stories and call for our own, leaving room for the partiality of multiple truths to converge into conversations about public issues that describe lived experiences, consider wicked problems, and hold the tension of difficult questions.

If, as educators, our aim is meaningful experiences that better prepare students for public life, our efforts to make a deep, lasting impression necessitate students full engagement in the learning process.  Interaction with poetry within educational efforts designed to develop democratic engagement can provide and or supplement a foundation for that goal.  As readers of poetry, we are not subjects into which knowledge is deposited, but are instead equal collaborators in shaping the meanings we draw from personal and shared experience with the poetic form.  As we engage in exploring poetry’s many points of departure, struggling with its opening up of multiple meanings, and find resonance in what is inferred, we are brought into a unique world of thinking and being that requires us to always dig for deeper meanings.  Whether it is the poetry of Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gary Snyder, Sunni Patterson, Juan Felipe Herrera, Ai, or the poetry of our own making, the news may at times be difficult to find, but what is found is nevertheless deeply meaningful for democracy.

  • Williams, W. C. (1994). Asphodel, that Greeny Flower & Other Love Poems. New York, NY: New Directions Publishing Corporation.
  • Alexander, E. (2007). Power and Possibility: Essays, Reviews, and Interviews. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.
  • 3 poets.org (Producer). (2015, September 14). Juan Felipe Herrera on the poet's role [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/video-juan-felipe-herrera-poets-civic-duty-today
  • 4 Lyons, K. (2013). Understanding and writing the world. In M. Cahnmann-Taylor & R. Siegesmund, Arts-Based Research in Education: Foundations for Practice. New York, NY: Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 
  • 5 Barone, T. & Eisner, E. (2011). Arts Based Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

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