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Poetry: Poets as Activists/Poetry as Activism

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Muriel Rukeyser, 1913-1980

Muriel Rukeyser

"The violence and injustice she saw, in the United States and abroad, led her poetry to function as a mode of social protest. She felt a deep responsibility to comment on human issues and was particularly concerned with inequalities of sex, race and class. With her poems, she frequently documented her own emotional experiences within the context of a greater political or social event. She was a powerful visionary and her work reflects her wish for a greater world community united by love."

Sonia Sanchez 1934-

One day, back in the 1960s, when the Beacon Press poet Sonia Sanchez was running the world’s first black studies program, at San Francisco State College in California, she noticed a stranger in her classroom, furiously taking notes on her lecture. When she got home that day, some FBI agents were there to meet her, with her landlord in tow. They told the landlord to evict her because she was teaching “all that radical stuff.” 

Recalls Sanchez: “I asked them, ‘What do you mean?’ and they said with utter disdain, ‘W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson and Marcus Garvey and Pablo Neruda. . . .’ 

“I thought all that was literature, and America thought it was seditious,” she adds with a laugh that holds equal parts disgust and saving irony.

Interview with David Reich in World

Spoken Word Poetry by Ben Falealili

A Performance by Joy Harjo

June Jordan Performs her "Poem About My Rights"

Audre Lorde, 1934-1992

Audre Lorde

"Rooted in her anger at the racism and sexism that have marked the history of the United States, the poems in Cables to Rage introduced themes that carried through much of Lorde's work: violence, hunger, cloaks of lies, dishonest silences, struggle for voice, faith in the capacity to love, growth through dreams, desperate hope and defiance amid dying and loss, and painful birthing. Recurrent in these poems are images of shedding and of fiery renewal: obsolete or false coverings (snakeskin, cocoon, weeds, dead poems) must be stripped and discarded so that the new can grow. While many African American poets of her time focused on black nationalism and urban realism, Lorde placed relationships amid global concerns and gave voice to what many had rejected, hidden, or ignored. "Martha," for instance, Lorde's first overtly lesbian poem to be published and the longest piece in the volume, was strategically centered in Cables to RageA writer who saw herself in relational dialogue with the rest of the world, Lorde explained that her work owed much to her ancestors, to the love and support of women, and to African and African American artists, and she insisted in her poetry and prose that without community, coalition across differences, and freedom from all oppression, there is no true liberation at all. "  Modern American Poetry

Mahmoud Darwish, 1941-2008

Mahmoud Darwish

"Darwish was an editor for a Palestine Liberation Organization monthly journal and the director of the group's research center. In 1987 he was appointed to the PLO executive committee, and resigned in 1993 in opposition to the Oslo Agreement. He served as the editor-in-chief and founder of the literary review Al-Karmel, published out of the Sakakini Centre since 1997

About Darwish's work, the poet Naomi Shihab Nye has said, "Mahmoud Darwish is the Essential Breath of the Palestinian people, the eloquent witness of exile and belonging, exquisitely tuned singer of images that invoke, link, and shine a brilliant light into the world's whole heart. What he speaks has been embraced by readers around the world—his in an utterly necessary voice, unforgettable once discovered.""

Adrienne Rich 1929-2012

Adrienne Rich

"Throughout the 1960s she wrote several collections, including Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law(1963) and Leaflets (1969). The content of her work became increasingly confrontational—exploring such themes as women’s role in society, racism, and the Vietnam war. The style of these poems also revealed a shift from careful metric patterns to free verse. In 1970, Rich left her husband, who committed suicide later that year.

It was in 1973, in the midst of the feminist and civil rights movements, the Vietnam War, and her own personal distress that Rich wrote Diving into the Wreck, a collection of exploratory and often angry poems, which garnered her the National Book Award in 1974."

Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka was born LeRoi Jones in 1934.  His work and his life have been confrontational and controversial. As a member of the avant-garde during the 1950s, Baraka—writing as Leroi Jones—was associated with Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; in the ‘60s, he moved to Harlem and became a Black Nationalist; in the ‘70s, he was involved in third-world liberation movements and identified as a Marxist. More recently, Baraka has been accused of anti-Semitism for his poem “Somebody Blew up America,” written in response to the September 11 attacks.  The Poetry Foundation

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