The Poet as Activist
Reclaiming the Truth About Imagination

by Stephen Wing


Poetry is an act of imagination.

The primary form of imagination in U.S. popular culture, from Hollywood to the New York Times best-seller list, is fantasy. This includes the romantic fantasy of boy-meets-girl, the mythic fantasy of good guys vs. bad guys, the escapist fantasy of sci fi and horror and the Broadway musical. But too often it’s the self-serving fantasy of “manifest destiny”: the heroic wresting of a continent from savages, the innate superiority of everything white, male, and “American,” the glorification of warfare and the triumph of the violent.

Poetry in the United States has served a higher stratum of fantasy, but fantasy nonetheless: abstract, intellectual, cerebral, valued and studied only by literary specialists within the confines of academia. Exceptions like Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg aside, the poets celebrated by the American literary establishment have mostly been unknown to working people, disconnected from ordinary lives and struggles, uninvolved in the great popular movements for social reform – labor, civil rights, peace, justice and equality. “Political poetry” has long been a term of disdain and dismissal in the academic poetry establishment.

By contrast, in Latin America and most of the Third World, poets are a vital piece of popular culture, beloved by millions, memorized and recited and quoted, precisely because poverty, injustice and resistance are so often central to their subject matter.

This may be superficially explained by the fact that poverty and injustice are central to the experience of most people in the Third World, and quite alien to most middle-class Americans. In fact, the American middle class arguably owes its decades of prosperity to the poverty enforced on the Third World by U.S. trade and banking policies, military aid and intervention in support of U.S. business interests. Naturally our popular culture is going to reflect our self-image as superior beings deserving of our relative wealth and privilege. And naturally the victims of U.S. military dominance will be deemed equally deserving of their fate – the “savages” of the past transformed into “gooks” and “Commies,” “ragheads” and “terrorists.”

This is ironic, because only a few generations ago, our society closely resembled today’s divided world of haves and have-nots. The Native Americans had been defeated, the continent was won, the Industrial Revolution was cranking up, and wealthy capitalists were growing fat on the sweat of working people and black sharecroppers. The history books barely mention the millions of Americans who took to the streets to demand a share of the profits of industrialism, or the brutal response of the factory owners and the government. The rise of the postwar middle-class lifestyle was a direct consequence of the labor movement’s organizing, marching, striking, struggle and sacrifice – even though the response of the factory owners and the government was simply to export the exploitation of labor in the form of corporate globalization and "Free Trade."

The fantasies of American popular culture seem to be designed to erase these realities from middle-class consciousness. But imagination has other functions beyond fantasy.

One of the more powerful of these is compassion: the ability to project oneself into other people’s shoes, imagine their lives and surroundings, vicariously experience their experiences and feel their feelings. This is what motivates the truest forms of activism – selfless giving, sharing, volunteering, heroic dedication and sacrifice for the rights and well-being of strangers halfway around the world. Raising this deeper kind of awareness is the calling of the activist poet.

Recent events have shredded the myth that the middle-class lifestyle we took for granted for so long is the God-given “manifest destiny” of every American. The financial elite that profited from slavery, Jim Crow, and child labor (etc.) went on to profit from covert wars in Latin America (etc.), overt wars like Vietnam (etc.), and brutal dictatorships like those of Pinochet in Chile, Marcos in the Philippines, and Duvalier in Haiti (etc.). Today, the wealthy and powerful few fund the suppression of popular movements throughout the Third World just as their grandfathers once resisted the American labor movement. And as hard as it is to believe for those raised on Hollywood fantasies, these wealthy “Americans” have proven just as willing to exploit and oppress a Wal-Mart “associate” in the U.S.A. as a Guatemalan campesino or a South African mine worker. As a result, the American middle class, its prosperous lifestyle, and its fantasies of superiority are rapidly becoming history.

Imagine how different the world would be if poets had played a part in U.S. popular culture as champions of compassion for the victims of U.S.-made bombs and bullets and U.S.-based corporations, both at home and around the world. If poets had celebrated the heroism of idealistic activists, both in our own history and in resistance movements around the world. If poets had continually reminded us that what can happen to nameless foreigners can also happen to us – and that the best use of our prosperity is to help those still struggling in poverty to overcome the corrupt and powerful who keep them there.

Which leads me to yet another use of imagination, perhaps the most sublime of them all: to envision the possibilities of the world that could be, a reality more just and peaceful and prosperous for everyone. And to discern, step by step, the path of heroism without violence that can take us there.

Poetry is an act of the imagination: not just imagination itself, but the act thereof. Poetry is action. Poetry is activism.

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