Our intersecting crises—COVID-19, the struggle for racial justice sparked by the murder of George Floyd, mass unemployment, and, most important, the crisis of political imagination that enables all of this—remind me of a lesson I share in my book Unforgetting: that US literary culture is divided by a big barricade. On one side are writers like the late Leonard Nathan, the prolific poet and UC Berkeley professor who taught us to respect and analyze the integrity of the poem as an autonomous form free of worldly influences. As a working-class Salvadoran kid from San Francisco’s Mission District, I was at first besotted with the ascot-wearing formalist poet’s booming voice and emphasis on structure and rhetoric.
Then he deployed his booming voice against me, scoffing at the poet I chose for my final paper in his class: Roque Dalton, the guerrillero who would become the greatest poet of my parents’ native El Salvador. He termed Dalton—a revolutionary poet loved by Pablo Neruda, Julio Cortázar, and other Latin American greats—a “pamphleteer.”
Despite Nathan’s warnings, a poetic image from my childhood visits to pre-revolutionary El Salvador powered me forward: my cousin Adilio nervously pulling out a plastic bag containing Dalton’s poetry and some political pamphlets from a hole he’d dug in the ground beneath an almond tree. Adilio’s nervousness and determination were in part due to the fact that his mom had planted the tree next to the brick wall their house shared with a neighbor, a treasury policeman who was also a member of the escuadrones de la muerte.
Ever since Adilio showed me those poems, I’ve stood on the other side of the barricade, with poets and writers like the late June Jordan, who was Nathan’s colleague. Jordan taught me to respond to this dearth of the imagination by destroying the illusory distinction between the poetic and the political, between literature and a life of passionate engagement with the crises of our times—a life like those of the writers I love.
The Fire Next Time—James Baldwin (1963)
There’s much to love and emulate in this book, but what’s most important, given our current condition, is Baldwin’s emphasis on what we need so urgently yet lack so seriously: a connection between word and deed, between the spirit and the letter of action—in his case, the action of congregating with others in shared belief: “I have never seen anything to equal the fire and excitement that sometimes, without warning, fill a church, causing the church, as Leadbelly and so many others have testified, to ‘rock.’ Nothing that has happened to me since equals the power and glory that I sometimes felt when, in the middle of a sermon, I knew that I was somehow, by some miracle, really carrying, as they said, ‘the Word’—when the church and I were one.”
Baldwin himself wed word and deed by joining the prophetic, postwar struggle for racial freedom. The Word he heard in church taught him to love and appreciate not just the lyricism of the Bible, but also the cadences of those in the movement. Baldwin’s understanding of the relationship between word and deed allowed him to embed himself in emancipatory movements that deployed language in a way that inspired people to pursue justice.
The still-recovering right-wing evangelical adolescent in me understands Baldwin’s sense of the transcendent militancy that words can inspire. This is a sensibility lacking in today’s left. When deployed correctly, words and spirit have the power to move the flesh to contest even the greatest of powers.
The Life of Poetry—Muriel Rukeyser (1949)
Rukeyser, a single mother, poet, and activist, wrote The Life of Poetry in response to a question posed by a Spanish refugee who was with her on a ship as they fled Francoist Spain: “And poetry—among all this—where is there a place for poetry?” Her response, The Life of Poetry, was a frank acknowledgement of how unprepared literature had left her generation in the face of that century’s calamities: “Poetry has often failed us. It has, often, not been good enough… Our poems will have failed if our readers are not brought by them beyond the poems.” In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser—whose poetico-political trajectory includes The Book of the Dead, a long poem about challenges faced by West Virginia miners, many of whom were Black—mines her own intellectual depths to answer the Spanish refugee’s question: “Everywhere we are told that our human resources are all to be used, that our civilization itself means the uses of everything it has… But there is one kind of knowledge—infinitely precious, time-resistant more than monuments, here to be passed between the generations in any way it may be: never to be used. And that is poetry.”
Though poetry wasn’t to be used, its benefits could be accessed. For Rukeyser, this meant tapping the colossal powers of the poetic to disorganize the senses and, perhaps, to give rise to new ways of being. Maybe this drive toward disorganization is what compelled Rukeyser to risk arrest while defending the Scottsboro Boys. Today, The Life of Poetry suggests not only that literature has failed to prepare us for our time’s astonishing calamities, but also that we ourselves have failed to call upon poetry’s political powers.
Poetry and Commitment—Adrienne Rich (2007)
Adrienne Rich turned down the National Medal of Arts in 1997, writing that she “could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration… [Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.” She did, however, accept the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Her acceptance speech became Poetry and Commitment, the meditation on the place of literature and poetry in a “violently politicized and brutally divided world” created in the image of the US empire. Rich was a radical feminist icon, committed to a red-blooded politics of the body. Following her mentor, Muriel Rukeyser, in seeing the space of poetry as one of “committed attention,” Rich armed herself with an anti-capitalist solidarity that led to her transformative experiences in revolutionary Nicaragua. “If to ‘aestheticize’ is to glide across brutality and cruelty,” she wrote, “treat them merely as dramatic occasions for the artist rather than structures of power to be revealed and dismantled—much hangs on the words ‘merely’ and ‘rather than.’ Opportunism isn’t the same as committed attention.” It’s a lesson that we who write today, in the face of myriad social challenges, would do well to recall.
June Jordan’s Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint—edited by Lauren Muller and the Blueprint Collective (1995)
June Jordan’s Poetry for the People (also known as P4P) did precisely what its subtitle promises: provide a blueprint for poetry as an act of revolution. Jordan conceived her political-literary approach to poetics while lecturing at UC Berkeley, where she’d been teaching since 1986. She centered it on the Blakean call to free ourselves of the “mind-forg’d manacles” of dead and compromised language, a process that also demands that we invent our own systems and language. “Good poetry and successful revolution change our lives,” she wrote. “And you cannot compose a good poem or wage a revolution without changing consciousness unless you attack the language that you share with your enemies and invent a language that you share with your allies.” Based on the UC Berkeley course Jordan offered while Leonard Nathan was waxing eloquent about the beauties of the pure poetic form, P4P’s pedagogy uses what is known in Latin America as “educación popular,” a pedagogy of the oppressed that raises the consciousness of students by helping them connect their lived experiences to social issues. In addition to validating our poetic voices, P4P provided us with tools that helped students become teachers, organizers, fund raisers, and community builders who took our poetic and other learnings into our communities. Jordan encouraged me to share the poetry of a writer whom she loved and whose work she taught, the writer whose example led me to pursue the path of the poet-warrior—Roque Dalton.
Poemas Clandestinos/Clandestine Poems—Roque Dalton, translated by Jack Hirschman (1984)
Roque Dalton—his poetry, his life—ultimately made me grateful for Leonard Nathan and others who conceive of apolitical literature. Nathan’s hostility pushed me to commit to what I knew and still know to be right: the idea that poetry and politics in pursuit of the revolutionary ideal have not died.
Before Dalton committed to the life of the clandestine revolutionary, he lived and wrote about how “the world is beautiful” from San Miguelito, in El Salvador, a tin shantytown located a short walk from my aunt’s house, near a putrid ravine where kids would bathe while their moms washed clothes. Years after my cousin Adilio sparked my imagination by digging Dalton’s poetry out of the dirt beneath the almond tree, I pondered the meaning of the poem “Ars Poetica 1974” from Poemas Clandestinos: “Poetry / Forgive me for having helped you understand / you’re not made of words alone.”
Dalton’s and other Latin Americans’ poetry—poetry written on the walls of military barracks; poetry written on dusty, cracked sidewalks stained with the blood of some of the eighty thousand innocents killed by the US-backed Salvadoran government; poetry read and passed around clandestinely—went on to fuel my desire to reach the ideal side of the literary barricade, the side of Dalton and other poet-warriors. I went against the “American” ideal and decided to fight the fascist government, and I joined the clandestine guerrilla army along with Dalton. Since then, I have struggled to write and fight in any way possible, thanks to the writers who taught us to be bold in both word and deed.