Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What's in the briefcase, sir? A bomb, or a literary journal... or, Lord help us, both?

I had a student (a poetic, mohawk-ed one, I might add) say, "The only way people take notice in this country is if you blow something up." I might have stored the comment in the de-atomizer of my brain until its virulent energy dissipated. However, this student is interesting, and the comment struck a chord. I've decided to detoxify his words through this blog post... if I can. The literary equivalent of rolling a nematode up on a matchstick. Before it lays eggs.

The question that prompted the comment had to do with whether or not poetry is still an effective means of protest in today's society. I suppose it's debatable whether or not poetry has ever been an effective means of protest... but then of course I've been teaching them that it is by showing them Ginsberg and Snyder and the oldies like Oliver Wendel Homes, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Bob Dylan, etc. I've realized I'm far more faithful to my ideals at the front of a classroom. I'm stronger. Quacking into this thing, or late at night when I'm alone with my thoughts... that's when the voices come out and really do their thing. I mean, right now I'm thinking... my God, maybe this student is right! Maybe we've allowed terror to degrade our society and we've empowered violence with our orange threat levels and airport security checks...

At this point, the spokesperson for my parent's generation (who looks like Lewis Black) comes out on stage in my imagination and laughs derisively... in my face. "You pussies have it easy compared to what my generation had to go through! Ever hear an air raid alarm? It makes your @$$hole pucker up! Ever been asked to hide under your desk in case a nuclear bomb hits the school? You guys are afraid of toothpaste, or that some person will build a bomb into their shoes, or (God forbid!) stick one up their @$$. You're afraid to write detentions because some pissed off kid will come in and shoot up the place. That's what you should have done with mohawk. Teach him to raise his hand if he has something to say. What ever happened to the nuke! What ever happened to a worthy f*%#@ing adversary?! And, after all, isn't war itself one big protest movement? Furthermore, what human rights or cultural freedoms were ever earned through poetry? Aren't poets the equivalent of big top performers willing to sell their very souls for a drip of praise? They're not social revolutionaries. Writers are overeducated window lickers!"

Luckily, Lewis stayed in the basement of my mind tinkering with his model trains when the money was on the table. I reacted with poise. My fingers did not twitch for a cigarette ( I haven't smoked in months), nor did I fold under the pressure and crap out a redirection. I squared my shoulders and hit that baby. Over the fence, I think.

"In one hundred years, society will forget the names of the extremists, and more than likely, we’ll forget their causes. The initial shock of an exploding airplane is more powerful than a poem or a story, but the effects aren’t likely to last as long, or penetrate as deeply into our minds and hearts. Language has the power to change the world for the better. Bombs and guns and terror do not."

I wasn't even sure if I believed the words coming out of my mouth. But now I know. I believe this with my whole heart. Even now, while Lewis is chain-smoking Chesterfields and asking me, "Well, what about MLK, and Christ and Gandhi, and Phil Hartman?!"

Be quiet, Lewis. Go watch the Home Shopping Network. Let me have this one. It sounded good.

Heck, it even sounded patriotic.

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