Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Evie Shockley—Issue 65, April 2017)
Power and|of|in Poetry

Cortney Lamar Charleston

If a compliment between virtual strangers is ever honest, then I submit there is a strong inverse relationship between the power of a poem and the power of its poet (in social terms). Yes, this is an extrapolation of a small sample of experiences—both first–hand and second—but who has time to argue over statistical validity when people are being killed in the streets, killed in the club, killed in school, killed in church during prayer?

Sorry, got distracted there.

Let me get back to my initial point: I wager that for every ten that was powerful’s uttered in the direction of a poet after a public reading, at least eleven of those poets were a person of color, a woman, queer, Muslim or some fantastic combination of all these and/or other othered “things” and that the person making the comment was nothing like said poet except for being a textbook human being.

Scratch that.

The person making the comment is everything like said poet except for being different in a small way that can end up making a disproportionately large difference in their lived experiences. And power itself is born of difference, is a differential, is a gulf we may lose people in forever if they never learn how to swim and sometimes even if they do and do well.

Damn it, I’m off track again, aren’t I? Reset.

The reason I propose there is an inverse relationship between poem power and poet power is because of how the poem rises from the gulf between the lived experiences of the poet and the poet’s audience; the poem, effectively, is a reflection of social stratification over a line of symmetry (which we can refer to as conscience in this case). In the eyes of our hearts, this places the poet, previously resting at a position below their more privileged audience, above the audience in our visual schematic of social space/place. Why does the poem operate in this way? Truthfully, it is due to the notable strength of marginalized peoples to innovate, a trait that isn’t necessarily genetic but cultural: to survive a dominant and oppressive culture, creativity is required to blaze a path not only around the prospect of violence and death but to find fleeting moments of prosperity.

The production of art is vitally crucial to this endeavor, as a potential but imperfect reducer of emotional and spiritual stressors and (in the case of some forms) as a possible financial coup that reduces, at least along class lines, the ease with which a person can be erased. With that said, it is important to note that art has always been humanity’s weapon of choice against erasure: it is the cultural document that proves to those that come after us that we were here, that the world passed through our hands first. In this specific context, a powerful poem is a declaration that the poet is/was alive (seen), a stark contrast to the day-to-day where they are functionally dead (unseen). What results for the poem’s audience is precisely the opposite: they can’t see themselves for a time and it shakes them to the soul to think not only of a world where they are dead, but that some, a number, would find that world to be better.

That’s what power has always done.
That’s why I pray power becomes obsolete.

You can take all my/our/their poems with it.