On Poetry and Politics

This fall, I’m teaching Creative Writing to a couple of high school students. During our introductory class on poetry, one of the girls asked me to share some of my poems with them. I told her I didn’t write much poetry.

She asked me why not, and my mind stuttered on the question.

Why not, indeed?

Some easy answers, answers that each only bear a small piece of the truth, sprang to mind:

A lack of time, a lack of space, a lack of energy.

The clang and clamor of young voices, always needing me, always wanting something from me.

The slow suffocation under the urgent, endless list of tasks.

I gave none of those answers, however. Instead, I said something that might hold more weight, even if it only skitters across the surface of things:

Why don’t I write poetry? Because doing it well is hard.

A few weeks ago, a newsletter from a prominent evangelical voice made the rounds on social media. It was a call to arms, a rallying cry to vote to preserve our way of life. It spoke of founding core values, of freedom, of the American dream. It warned that this election could mean the end of our civilization as we know it, the demise of our democratic form of government.

In short, the message was clear: to preserve the future you want for your children and grandchildren, you must vote for a particular person, a particular party, a particular platform.

I believe the writer means well. I believe he loves his God, and his neighbor, and his country. I believe he believes what he wrote, that he honestly thinks one man in the White House will mean salvation and the other will mean death.

I believe he’s sincere, but I also believe he’s wrong.

Once upon a time, I was bold enough (naïve enough?) to fancy myself a poet.

I wrote line after line of objectively bad poems. Whether I didn’t know they were bad, or didn’t care, I pressed on.

I wrote poems. Terrible poems, sure, but poems nonetheless.

I wonder, sometimes, what might have happened had I continued to pursue poetry. What words might I have written if I hadn’t let the fear of being foolish stop my pen? What might I have learned to say if I wasn’t afraid of getting it wrong?

It isn’t that voting isn’t important. It is. Of course it is.

It isn’t that the people in power – their character, their policies, their worldviews – don’t matter. They do. Of course they do.

But when it comes to building the world we want for future generations, when it comes to making our voices heard, the actions that matter most don’t take place in a voting booth. They don’t occur once every two to four years. They don’t even – dare I say – happen in the White House, or in the chambers of Congress, or in the halls of the Supreme Court Building.

When it comes to building the world we want, when it comes to making our voices heard, the actions that matter most take place in our own homes, in our local communities. They take place in the smallest and simplest of acts: in breaking bread together, in carrying burdens for each other, in listening and in learning from other points of view.

Doing such things well is hard. We’re liable to look foolish. To get it wrong.

But what might happen if we pursue them anyway?

I suppose you could say that my life is a poem.*

All too often, it stutters and starts, clunking and clanking. I am foolish. I get things wrong. I give up when I should persevere. I keep going when I should quit. I care too much about some things and not enough about others.

But if a poem awakens the senses, if it points to truth, if it leaves you better for having experienced it – then my prayer is that, by the grace of God, I would be writing beautiful lines, day by day, in the friends I make, in the conversations I have, in the people I love.

My life is a poem. Yours is, too.

Vote your convictions. Absolutely, do.

But if you want to build a better world, don’t start in a voting booth.

Try your own kitchen table instead.

*Borrowed from Thoreau, who wrote, “My life has been the poem I would have writ /But I could not both live and utter it.

2 response to "On Poetry and Politics"

  1. By: Terri Van Wagner Posted: October 22, 2020

    I so enjoy your style and thoughtfully written blogs. Thank you for sharing. You are truly gifted.

    • By: Jenn Posted: October 23, 2020

      Thank you so much, Terri!

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