The founder of The Christian Science Monitor, Mary Baker Eddy, was not impartial about the power of poetry. A list of her contributions to the newspapers of the 19th century is studded with poem after poem. And some of the titles, like “Our Country” and “The Flag of Our Union,” speak to an appreciation of how poetry can unify and point to higher ideals.
So it seems fitting that the Monitor, in this week’s cover story, looks at how poetry and prose are helping to bridge divides and bring healing to the city of Cleveland. From literary prizes to at-work book clubs to poetry slams, Clevelanders are uniquely leveraging the written and spoken word as a tool for progress. To some, it offers a voice. To others, it offers a mirror for introspection.
To all, it offers something ineffable yet palpably real. When the founder of one of the city’s arts programs for minority youth says, “What better place, what better opportunity, to dream a new world?,” he is not indulging in fantasy. He is involved in the first essential act of change: the audacity to imagine something better. And the process of wringing from that vision something that feels shared and true is more than simply a clever arrangement of words. It is an act of daring – the determination to find meaning and beauty in every corner of human life, be it trivial or traumatic.
“A lot of people might think that poetry is very abstract, or that it has to do with having your head in the clouds, but poets, actually, walk on the earth. They’re grounded, feet-first, pointing forward. They’re moving around and paying attention at every moment,” Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine, told The Atlantic. “And a poet wakes up and thinks, ‘You know, anything is possible.’ They imagine things before they’re possible.”
By struggling to look through the froth of the present to deeper truths percolating beneath, poets have in many ways offered the most unvarnished view of the times. Somewhat immodestly, Percy Bysshe Shelley once declared, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
Walt Whitman looked past the mounting tension of the coming Civil War to write: “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” His claim was founded in the conviction that “both poetry and democracy derive their power from their ability to create a unified whole out of disparate parts,” wrote Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty University, in The Atlantic.
And that poetic vision echoes today as America’s poet laureate, Tracy Smith, travels the rural areas of the country. “This is a strange period where, nationally, we’re being reminded or convinced of the great divisions that separate coastal and urban communities from the central and rural communities,” she told The New York Times. “I’ve always distrusted that.”
“I think there are lots of places where we have something very clear, compelling, and welcome to say to one another.” The lens of poetry, she says, is ultimately a “rehumanizing force.”