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Jan 18th
Poets on the Frontlines PDF Print E-mail
Written by Blanca Mesa, BT Contributor   
November 2017

Both nature and poetry have a transcendent hold on us

OPix_GoingGreen_11-17n the fifth day/The scientists who studied the river/Were forbidden to speak/Or to study the rivers. -- Jane Hirshfield, “On the Fifth Day”

What if Twitter delivered poetry? In 140 characters, like a haiku, a tweet could bring us stories that cut, uplift, startle.

“Poetry as News.” That’s the title of a new class this fall at Florida International University that will tackle, among other things, the poetry of ecology and war. The class will explore poetry’s role as a voice of protest, even as it offers healing and hope.

“In times of turmoil or triumph, there’s a spike in poetry,” says poet Richard Blanco, who’s teaching the class. “Poets shift to address issues more directly because it opens up a different conversation, a perspective that’s in the gray area beyond the polarizing effect of news.”

Jane Hirshfield’s poem “On the Fifth Day” is a prime example. Hirshfield read her full poem at last April’s March for Science, organized by scientists across the country to highlight the public-service role of science in society. The march was in response to the assault on science by the Trump administration.

Hirshfield has been addressing the issue for some time in her work, an example of what Blanco calls the “quiet work” of poets who can see the trouble down the line. Consider her short poem “Global Warming”: When his ship first came to Australia/Cook wrote, the natives/Continued fishing, without looking up./Unable, it seems, to fear what was too large to be comprehended.

Poetry telling us to look up may be more powerful than all the news stories combined.

Blanco came to teach at FIU this fall at the behest of his longtime friend and collaborator John William Bailley, an FIU art professor and painter. They’re teaching another class together, “Poetry, Art, and Community,” exploring the civic role poetry and art can play in shaping public life and policies, particularly in terms of gender, sexuality, class, diversity, and race.

Bailley cites the recent ascendance of late-night comedians as one example of a group seizing moral authority on issues of social justice and healthcare. “The performance of an artist may be more powerful because it’s in a nonpolitical setting,” he says.

Blanco is a Miami-raised poet (and engineer), who now lives on a ten-acre wooded site in rural Maine. His first book of poetry, City of a Hundred Fires, traces the experience of Cuban-American children of the first wave of political exiles.

In 2012, he read his poem “One Today” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Here is the opening:

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores/Peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces/Of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth/Across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies./One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story/Told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

Blanco’s inaugural poem recalls the places in America where we can be at home with wilderness: our national parks and refuges, now under siege by current political winds and climate change.

“‘One Today’ is about home, the idea of homeland. Nature is the one place we all belong to,” Blanco says. “Nature is the great echo that brings it all together.”

In 2016 the American Academy of Poets recognized the role of poetry in getting us to pay attention. For its centennial, the National Park Service commissioned 50 poems about national parks in each state. Miami-based poet Campbell McGrath came through for Florida in his poem “The Everglades.”

At first, he describes the Everglades: Green and blue and white, it is a flag/For Florida, stitched by hungry ibises and It is a paradise of flocks, a cornucopia/Of wind and grass and dark, slow waters. 

Then he beseeches us to save it: If the sacred is a river within us, let it flow/Like this, serene and magnificent, forever.

However disconnected to nature our lives are in urban America, poetry has the power to bring us back to a transcendent state, Blanco says. “When we’re encountering nature, we’re not questioning what we are. We’re part of that world -- being at one.”

W.S. Merwin, Pulitzer prize-winning poet, U.S. poet laureate, Buddhist, and conservationist in Hawaii, published the poem “For a Coming Extinction” in 1967. This was long before the phrase “sixth extinction” was coined to convey that manmade changes to the planet have hastened a modern, sixth extinction, of species. Yet it is more relevant than ever, channeling our grief and bewilderment at a changing world of our making. From its first lines:

Gray whale/Now that we are sending you to The End/That great god/

Tell him/That we who follow you invented forgiveness./And forgive nothing.

Richard Blanco will be speaking at the Miami Book Fair at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, November 19, on the panel “From Pain to Prose: Writing Hard Stories,” with Haitian-American novelist, and Miami resident, Edwidge Danticat (


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