Early last month I gave some of my first-year students an assignment, asking them to list some things they believe that poetry can do, and some things they believe it can’t. I told them that the list didn’t have to be exhaustive, and that they would be allowed to change their minds. Looking at some of their answers—on the one hand, poetry “educates”; on the other, it can’t “explicitly show an argument”—I think they probably will.
I’m interested in this exercise in part because I think that poetry—for whatever institutional reasons of history, transmission, representation—functions for many people as a synecdoche for culture or aesthetics more generally: you think about poetry as an especially indicative case of what culture can do and how you feel about it. So maybe you think it’s difficult, useless, moral, fun, perverse, overhyped, or positively and/or negatively didactic. Maybe you think it can’t do anything at all; maybe you think the conditions under which poetry can be effective haven’t arrived yet, or are in the process of emerging. Any of those might be interesting claims, and some of them may become true if they aren’t currently so. If I have an agenda here, it’s to nudge people, and especially poets, into asking this question as if they didn’t already believe themselves to know the answer.
And in fact, history keeps delivering us unexpected possibilities and convergences. In Jasmine Gibson’s interview with the editors of How We Stay Free, we hear about the career of the singer Paul Robeson, whose “life work,” editor Chris Rogers says, “tracks through every global people’s resistance movement of the 20th century.” Robeson, Gibson notes, was a poet, too, and the dynamic interrelation between Black-led movement work and poetry among other forms of cultural production shines through the interview. Greg Nissan’s essay in this issue focuses on the two recent reissues of books by N.H. Pritchard, a member of the Umbra Poets’ Workshop whose “phonetic mosaics disappeared from anthologies of Black poetry” after the 70s. In Nissan’s essay, the reissues are a “reminder that we’re still catching up to the past.” Pritchard’s “combined and uneven development of the syllable” doesn’t take the social links of language for granted; it presumes, and forces, their recombination.
Other convergences, in this issue: a series of poets reframe the proposed demolition of the East River Park, noting the shifting map of land use and struggle over who and what happens where, and according to whose plans and desires. And Cam Scott reviews Dodie Bellamy’s Bee Reaved, an essay collection and work of mourning for Bellamy’s late partner Kevin Killian. Like in The Letters of Mina Harker, itself due for a reissue this fall from Semiotext(e), Bellamy publicly writes to the dead, in a reminder, as Scott argues, “not to hoard what should be common, nor to circulate what should be still.”
Riffing on Stuart Hall, do we need a poetry without guarantees? I think what I’m saying is that’s actually what we already have. If we’re alive to its resonances, its audiences and its directions, I think we’ll surprise ourselves, and that’ll only be to good effect.