Poetry has changed the way I see the world, and for that I am blessed. That said, I have my doubts about the efficacy of poetry, or the arts in general, to speak to and change government or policies in ways that might matter for the most vulnerable among us. In a 1987 interview that appeared in the Partisan Review, the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert said, “It is vanity to think that one can influence the course of history by writing poetry. It is not the barometer that changes the weather.” With that metaphor, we are asked to see poetry as a gauge, a measure, a tool, a way of understanding the nature of phenomenon. When I say poetry changed the way I see the world I mean it taught me to be attentive, to be curious, to be empathic, to understand both the power and danger of language itself. It is a lens that allows one to see the microscopic and a distant star nursery. The poem, “Five Men,” gives us an insight into the minds of those about to be killed as well as insight into the minds of those leveling their guns as executioners. The poet wonders in “dead earnest” what poetry might offer in the face of horror and trauma. What does it offer? What might it offer?
What Sparks Poetry is a new, serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems. In the newest series, Life in Public, we ask our editors to examine how poetry speaks to different aspects of public experience.
What does it mean to say that a poet is, as C. D. Wright has put it, “one with others”? What is poetry’s place in the public sphere today, of all times? How has life in that sphere been expressed in poems? Is all published poetry public speech? What is a private poem? What is occasional poetry? What is political poetry?
With questions such as these in mind, we asked each of our editors to select a poem written by another poet that addresses an aspect of public experience—that celebrates, historicizes, memorializes, critiques, questions, or subtly references its public element—and to write about what interests and inspires them about that poem.
We are excited to present to you the resulting sixteen meditations on the private and the public, and how the intersection of these states sometimes results in poetry.
Eric Pankey on What Poetry Changes
Take a specific moment from recent headlines in which the State has inflicted violence upon an individual. Allow the poem to enter and exit the minds of both victim(s) and perpetrator(s) with equal access and clarity. In the midst of creating this narrative, meditate on the power and limits of poetry itself in public life in the face of persistent trauma, injustice, and inequality.
Eric Pankey is the author of many collections of poetry. A new book, THE OWL OF MINERVA, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in 2019. His work has been support by The National Endowment for the Arts, The Ingram Merrill Foundation, The Brown Foundation, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He is Professor of English and Heritage Chair in Writing at George Mason University, where he teaches in the BFA and MFA programs. More at https://www.ericpankeypoet.com/.