Overview of Poetry & Populism
Because they are so diverse, poets from different backgrounds, walks of life, ethnic and cultural roots and traditions show us many different kinds of people living different kinds of lives even as we share the same country, city, or locale. Within each locale there seems to be a boundary set for the rich and the privileged and a boundary around places for the poor, the down-trodden, and the disenfranchised. There are voices throughout our American literature and poetry that are justifiably angry at many persistent and stunning breaches of equality and there are voices that praise our people and our democracy. Our poetic voices show us over and over that America is a different country for different groups of people, from Walt Whitman's praise and celebration of American workers in his poem, I Hear America Singing, to black American poet Langston Hughes' poem, I, Too, in which he picks up on Whitman's theme but laments living in an America where he is not accepted as an equal because of racial prejudice. The poetic and artistic tradition in American has and continues to reflect both a sprit of faith in our country's highest ideals and an immense sense of having been betrayed by its failure to stand up for them. The poet speaks for the people sometimes with a call to action, sometimes with a fierce critique of who we have become as a culture inundated with profit and consumption of goods, sometimes as a keeper of sorrow and loss, and other times as a spokesperson for our highest dreams and our greatest capacity for good.
One of the most important American poets, recognized for speaking for the people is Walt Whitman. Whitman was born in 1819 in New York. By the age of twelve he fell in love with the written word and for years to follow became a self educated scholar, reader, and lover of language. After working as a printer and a teacher in a one room school house, Whitman turned to Journalism. In 1848 he left a newspaper in Brooklyn, New York to become an editor of a paper in New Orleans. It was there that Whitman encountered first- hand the cruelties and viciousness of slavery. In the fall of 1848, Whitman returned to Brooklyn and began to work in earnest on developing his unique style of poetry that astonished the great thinkers of his time with its strong social commentary and groundbreaking voice that spoke to the plight of the suffering of others and the injustices visited upon them, especially by slavery.
During the civil war, Whitman worked in hospitals with the sick and war-wounded. Though overcome with the suffering brought on by the war, Whitman continued his groundbreaking populist poetry thereby establishing a tradition that has been kept vibrant and alive ever since.
Though our time to learn about the tradition of the Poet Populist in America is limited, it is important to note that music is interwoven into social activism and is in fact inseparable from learning about poetry and populism. From Woody Guthrie (left) the great American troubadour who in his lifetime (1912-1967) wrote over 3,000 songs and accompanying himself on his guitar, traveled throughout America singing of what he saw—the breadlines of the Depression, migrant workers pouring out of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma, unions fighting for decent working conditions and fair wages—to Rap music and Hop Hop, music has been a part of populist endeavors for social change. Just as Walt Whitman and Woody Guthrie, two of our most treasured populists, always spoke for the common people, today poets, spoken word performers, rappers, and hip hop groups continue this rich legacy. You might be interested to know that two prime examples of the strong ties between poetry and populism, music, and spoken word are performers Gil Scott Heron and Mos Def Smith. Gil Scott Heron, born in 1949, became well known in the seventies with his ability to put his outrage over the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and his anguish about the civil rights struggle into passionate spoken word poetry. (You can find the text for his famous piece The Revolution Will Not Be Televised in the book The United States of Poetry or on the web). Mos Def Smith is regarded as one of hip-hop's most introspective and insightful artists who is carrying the tradition of bringing songs and poetry that protest problems perceived in society into public space. In addition to performing, Mos Def was producer and musical director for the well known HBO series, the "Def Poetry Jam." Songs and poems that speak out against racism, wealth, power and privilege, xenophobia, war, environmental destruction, and corrupt politics are part of the legacy of this longstanding American populist tradition.
Springboards for Lesson Two: Selected Quotes To Generate Class Discussion
“Poetry is a place where all the fundamental questions are asked about the human condition.”
Charles Simic, born in Serbia, 1938, U.S. citizen and noted poet
“Poetry can tell us what human beings are. It can tell us why we stumble and fall and how, miraculously, we can stand up.”
Maya Angelou, born in 1928, widely acclaimed African American poet
“Whatever the war, poets did their share of the fighting. Some, however, joined with other citizens—conscientious objectors—to protest war and uphold their conviction that peaceful solutions to conflicts between or within nations are possible. Whatever choices poets made—to fight or to resist war—their experiences are reflected in their poems.”
Milton Meltzer, from Hour of Freedom: American History in Poetry