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

Philip Metres
Poetry and Power (To Create a Space Where Being Together Happens)

In Behind the Lines: War Resistance on the American Homefront, I courted the idea of poetry as a rhetoric of resistance, though I keep returning to the idea of poetry as fundamentally anti-rhetorical, a state anterior to positing. Poetry as the ground of opening into the possible. After all, resistance often can sustain the object of its critique; if our resistance is mere protest, it actually strengthens empire. The empire can point to its tolerance of protest as proof of its beneficence, its openness, its justice. Those at the end of drone strikes and police bullets know otherwise.

The longer I write and read poetry, the more intrigued I am by its irreducibility; great poems are powerful because something about them turns toward the ineffable. Great poems—like all great art—may confound or delight, teach or provoke&mdas;hbut they are powerful because their forms vibrate and resonate beyond political platforms. Great political poetry widens what Yeats meant when he talked about poetry as a “struggle with ourselves.” Such poetry invites us to dilate our sense of the self in the first place. When speakers addressed Occupy at Zuccotti Park without a sound system, “The Human Microphone” meant that people at the front would repeat what the speaker said so that those in the back would hear; “The Human Microphone” was a chorus, a wave of choruses. The point was building community, not resisting the dominant culture or convincing others or hammering out a list of demands; they wanted to create another world. For all the obvious “failures” of Occupy to produce specific platforms, Occupy’s basic orientation—its utopian anarchism—felt at times like the political correlative of poetry itself. More and more, I’m interested in poetry as a way of creating another life, of marking and embodying alternative ways of being and living, particularly those facing conditions of marginality and oppression.

I’m interested in poems that amplify unheard voices and also mark the condition of marginality. The margin is not the margin to the margin. Sand Opera was the sound of my listening. In it, I stumbled onto a method that is both choral and counter-forensic. I explored the architecture of oppression—right down to a Yemeni prisoner’s sketches of black sites, the secret prisons where he was tortured. Yet the book’s journey was also into listening, into sitting with the voices of others and my own, into our own human being.

Poetry is the power to listen to oneself and to others, to create a space where being together happens. Perhaps it’s true that “no lyric has ever stopped a tank.” But, as my friend Dave Lucas once argued, we don’t know the futures that our poems create. The ripple effect of a good poem is the opposite of a bomb’s concussion wave; it buoys us in its bracing music, whatever hurt it bears, holding us momentarily aloft. Occupying us. Breathing us. Carrying us into our ever–not–sameness.