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The Ethics of Action Poetry

I heard about it on the metro. I was on my way to Foggy Bottom in the morning, and a group of cultured retired people – probably on their way to a Smithsonian museum – sat near me.

One of them said, “Did you see that poetry thing in the Post? The Bernie Sanders guy who’s an English professor? Who sends poetry to Senate staff members? It renews your faith…”

Everybody nodded; they’d all read it and they all approved.

So here’s the article. Sanders, a senator from Vermont, has a chief of staff who in real life is an English professor.

[Hank Gutman lobs] poems into the e-mail inboxes of every chief of staff in the Senate. Each note offers escape through verse. Meaty, challenging, thought-provoking lines, accompanied by pages and pages of Gutman’s analysis. Poetry that has nothing to do with cloture votes or amendments or motions to recommit. Poetry intended to get his BlackBerry-addicted, tunnel-visioned, life-as-a-treadmill colleagues to think about the “huge dimensions of life that get shortchanged” in the grinder that is Capitol Hill.

Gutman’s engaged in Action Poetry, whose Wikipedia page says this:

Action Poetry is the active use of poetry, often spreading in a community. It might include painting poetry on murals, or distributing poetry. It can also involve the encouragement of live poetry recitings and distribution of free poetry.

External link:

“Action Poetry as an Empowering Art: A Manifesto for Didaction in Arts Education” by Francois Victor Tochon, University of Wisconsin-Madison, International Journal of Education & the Arts, Volume 1 Number 2, May 15, 2000

UD loves empowering didactions. She herself is a one-woman empowering didaction machine. Nonetheless, there are ethical questions worth posing about the act of lobbing (the Post‘s word) unasked-for poetry plus reams of your own analysis of that poetry (Here’s a sample of Gutman’s prose.) into the email of people who work in the same building you do.

The Post article about Gutman is full of insults about people with jobs on the Hill. BlackBerry addicts, tunnel-visioned… It goes on and on like that. These people are soulless… mere fragments… robots rather than humans…

Gutman is there to make them whole:

Despite the myriad interactions of government process, Washington often undermines deep human connection; poetry is his attempt to make the fractional city whole.

You can sort of see the Post writer thrashing about here, can’t you, since this sentence makes no effing sense whatsoever.

But my larger point is that when Garrison Keillor comes on the radio to recite the same inescapable lyric Gutman recites in the Post article —

“It is difficult/to get the news from poems,” Gutman says. “Yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.”

— we can turn off the radio. We can recall August Kleinzahler’s definitive take on these lines:

A pretty sentiment, to be sure, but simply untrue, as anyone who has been to the supermarket or ballpark recently will concede. Ninety percent of adult Americans can pass through this life tolerably well, if not content, eating, defecating, copulating, shopping, working, catching the latest Disney blockbuster, without having a poem read to them by Garrison Keillor or anyone else.

We can turn off the radio, but it’s harder to absorb the repeated impact of poetry lobbed into our email by a colleague. It’s demoralizing to feel that you’ve got to read the shit or he’ll ask you about it and you won’t know what he’s talking about and you need his guy’s vote on some piece of legislation, etc. So you automatically forward the you’re-a-tool-who-needs-me-to-explain-poetry-to-you emails to your assistant, some intern from George Washington University, and she forwards it to her English professor, and…

You get the idea.

Margaret Soltan, January 21, 2010 4:37AM
Posted in: poem

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4 Responses to “The Ethics of Action Poetry”

  1. Eric the Read Says:

    Reminds me of one of my favourite Heinlein quotes: “People who recite their poetry in public may have other nasty habits.”

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Eric: Funny!

    Kleinzahler has an amazing take-down of poetry readings in this book.


  3. Michael Tinkler Says:

    I may have to change the description of you on my blogroll to “one-woman empowering didaction machine.”

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Michael: It has a nice ring to it.

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