The Washington Socialist <> May 2014
By Kurt Stand
What is Freedom? – ye can tell
That which slavery is too well –
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own.
’Tis to work and have such pay
As just keeps life from day to day
In your limbs as in a cell
For the tyrants’ use to dwell,
So that ye for them are made
Loom, and plough, and sword, and spade,
With or without your own will bent
To their defence and nourishment.
‘Tis to see your children weak
With their mothers pine and peak,
When the winter winds are bleak: –
They are dying whilst I speak
‘Tis to hunger for such diet
As the rich man in his riot
Casts to the fat dogs that lie
Surfeiting beneath his eye.
‘Tis to be a slave in soul,
And to hold no strong control
Over your own wills, but be
All that others make of ye.
And at length when ye complain
With a murmur weak and vain
‘Tis to see the Tyrant’s crew
Ride over your wives and you –
Blood is on the grass like dew.
These stanzas, written by Shelley in 1819 after English workers were massacred by soldiers in Manchester, were read aloud by Pauline Newman in 1911, at a memorial meeting for the 146 workers killed in Triangle Fire – killed because they unable to escape the New York sweatshop as the doors were locked (to keep union organizers out). Newman, a Russian Jewish immigrant, herself had recently worked at that very factory. Without formal education, she taught herself to read and then taught others, joined the Socialist Party, became an advocate for women’s rights, and an organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. A century earlier, Shelley, his wife Mary Shelley, and their friend Lord Byron, following on the influence of (Mary’s parents) radicals William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft – author of the Vindication of the Rights of Women – acted on a revolutionary definition of democracy that celebrated the French revolution, embraced fighters for Irish freedom, feminism, workers rights. They sought a way of living that combined personal independence, commitment to social justice, and an unending search for beauty and meaning in daily life. Those same goals Newman, her fellow workers, her fellow comrades, sought in a struggle that embraced hope even when all seemed hopeless.
Michael Demson and Summer McClinton wrote and drew Masks of Anarchy, a graphic novel that interweaves the story of Shelley and Newman. The book tells of a poem written in response to violence and poverty in a society ruled by greed and read nearly a hundred years later as an outcry against the continuing brutalities inherent in a another society ruled by the power of greed. Poetry as an expression of love of life and a cry against oppression has as much meaning in this century, as in centuries gone by.
Proof of that statement was in evidence March 27-30, for the spirit that moved Shelley, Newman and others was visible, audible, during Washington DC’s fourth bi-annual Split This Rock Poetry Festival. Born in 2008, when Poets Against the War marked the anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq with public readings of “Provocation and Witness” which brought together voices demanding an end to the violence and oppression that mark so much of our country’s policies abroad, our practices within. This year’s event drew over 600 people to workshops and public readings that sought to continue dialogue and engagement – engagement including a “group poem of protest” in front of the White House denouncing government spying and surveillance.
Split this Rock’s call for repeal of the PATRIOT act and the 2008 amendments to FISA that have permitted unfettered government abuse of civil liberties reflects the festival’s values. Government intrusion into private lives, government infiltration into organizations engaging in public protest, contributes to a state of fear that induces silence. It is that silence which builds walls between segments of society, that undermines empathy and personal freedom, that allows social injustice and oppressive interpersonal relations to exist unchallenged. And it is that silence which poetry, poetry of engagement and imagination challenges. In the words of the late Adrienne Rich (amongst those writers honored during the festival) “Poetry is always being created anew, in new places by unforetold hands and voices. In this it is like the many movements against demoralizing power. We don’t know where either will come from. This is a story without an end.”
At the heart of the festival were over 50 workshops, which engaged in discussions of activism, of gender, of race, of history, of understanding space and movement; poetry serving as a medium of expression and as a means to communicate across borders that powerful, if often invisible, walls normally make unbreakable. Telling of the achievement behind that is that panelists and participants in those workshops brought together urban youth from DC’s high schools whose writings challenge conditions of life too often taken for granted, with academic poets working in university settings who often speak to the discomfort that lies behind the lives of those who appear comfortable. Poets from rural settings, from immigrant backgrounds, of different ages and different belief systems, combined to produce a mosaic of people far richer than many cultural – or political – events are generally able to attract.
Workshop titles give a measure of the richness of the program: “How Political Engagement Affects the Writing Process,” “Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence,” ”Gathering Forces: A Living Anthology of Black LGBTQ Poetry,” “Voices from the Latino Heartland: A Reading of Identity & Displacement by the Latino Writers Collective,” Poetic Strategies for Change,” “March to Equality: How Poetry Can Connect Youth to History,” “Poetry and the New Black Masculinity,” – and many more. Listing these only touches upon the range of topics discussed for key to them all was encouraging those sitting and listening to not just take-in, but to speak and give back. They provided a change to think through what Tim Seibles suggested when he wrote:
Among the brothaz, a certain
grip in the eyes. A sense
Swallowed not chewed –
as if they’d been made
a story and were dying
to untell themselves:
profiles – prisons,
the sports inside The Sport.
Outside, the wolf
huff and a puff.
Culture: a kind of knife:
cuts one way opens
your brain to a certain
breed of light shaves
consciousness to its
purpose, its cross: the nail
thru your hand >< your
other hand holding
As those lines should indicate, if the workshops were the heart of the festival, the readings were the soul. Seibles was amongst those who gave readings, so too was Dunya Mikhail – the following stanzas (19-24) of this Arab-American poet of today relating a reality that one can imagine Pauline Newman of old understanding:
Far away from home –
that’s all that changed in us.
Cinderella left her slipper in Iraq
along with the smell of cardamom
wafting from the teapot,
and that huge flower,
Its mouth gaping like death.
They spark new lives
waiting for a country to download,
a land that’s little more
than a handful of dust
when faced with these words:
“There are no results that match your search.”
The dog’s excitement
as she brings the stick to her owner
is the moment of opening the letter.
We cross borders lightly
Nothing carriers us,
but as we move on
we carry rain
and an accent
and a memory
of another place.
How thrilling to appear in his eyes.
She can’t understand what he’s saying:
she’s too busy chewing his voice.
She looks at the mouth she’ll never kiss,
at the shoulder she’ll never cry on,
at the hand she’ll never hold,
and at the ground where their shadows meet.
Altogether, five free poetry readings were presented during Split this Rock, each at the National Geographic auditorium, in addition to two later night open mic sessions as Busboys and Poets. Each began with a recording of a poet who had passed away in the preceding year followed by a DC Youth Slam Team member reading from his or her own work. After that three or four published poets, of different backgrounds and styles, would read – some deeply emotional, analytical, challenging, in Shelley’s sense, heart and brain.
Too often formal writing separates the search for self and for individual meaning, separates out incisive observations on the everyday, from any thought of the social context in which those observations are made – as though personal heartbreak or joy, as though intimate observation, can somehow have meaning when abstracted from the world of work, pain, hatred, war in which our individual lives take place. And, one can add, too often activists, engaged in struggles for peace and justice, neglect to take the time to reflect back on the intimate and the introspective; pretending that these are unconnected with a life of engagement. To the contrary, political action and cultural awareness ought to be critical and self-critical, touching on what is directly in front of our eyes as well as on what is known even when not seen.
True empathy and solidarity cannot take place without self-knowledge, just as self-knowledge is emptied on content is conceived as taking place in isolation from the lives of others. The readings, as the workshops, made those two as one, the poetry of speech, alternately angry and loving, emotional and thoughtful, opened a window on the poetry of life. Another of the poets reading during the festival, Joy Harjo, expressed that sentiment:
I don’t know exactly where I’m going; I only know where I’ve been,
I want to tell the man who sifted through the wreck to find us here
In the blues shack of disappeared history –
I feel the weight of his heart against my cheek.
His hand is on my back pulling me to him in the dark, to a place
No soldiers can reach.
I hear the whoop-cries of warriors calling fire for a stand
Against the brutality of forgetfulness —
Everybody has a heartache –
We will all find our way, no matter fire leaping through holes in
No matter earthquake, or the breaking of love spilling over the
dreck of matter
In the ether, stacking one burden
Against the other –
We have a heartache.
It is that recognition that returns us to Pauline Newman’s story, for she found herself ground down by a life of poverty, by a world of anti-Semitism, by the mistreatment of women who were treated as below men not only by society at large, but also within the Jewish community, in the trade union and socialist movement – a status she, and others, challenged. Her first activism was, while still a teenager working in the garment trade, organizing a rent strike amongst the other slum dwellers. That fight gave her the courage to seek an education within the male-dominated workers’ reading library she discovered in New York. Each step was a part and parcel of breaking through to a wider world, opening up doors that had been closed.
It is that struggle to open up doors, not just to a few, but to all, which connects her activism with the struggles of today. The rate of illiteracy is growing in the United States, a growth particularly high here in Metropolitan Washington DC – a fact that should be shameful, though apparently many of those dictating public policy are beyond shame. And so too, rates of inequality, of poverty amidst plenty, of hunger, of ill-paid work or of no work, are all growing in our nation’s capital and beyond. It is little wonder that in such circumstances, violence grows. Realities such as these make freedom something ever-harder to find in life. After defining slavery, Shelley goes on to describe the freedom he means – it is a freedom he describes to which we still aspire, for which we still need to struggle:
What art thou, Freedom? O! could slaves
Answer from their living graves
This demand – tyrants would flee
Like a dream’s imagery. …
For the Laborer thou art bread
And a comely table spread
From his daily labour come
In a neat and happy home.
Thou art clothes, and fire, and food
For the trampled multitude …
Thou art Justice –ne’er for gold
May they righteous laws be sold …
Thou art Wisdom – Freeman never
Dream that God will damn forever
All who think those things untrue
Of which Priests make such ado.
Thou art Peace – never by thee
Would blood and treasure wasted be
As tyrants wasted them, when all
Leagues to quench thy flame in Gaul.
Science, Poetry and Thought
Are thy lamps; they make the lot
Of the dwellers in a cot
So serene, they curse it not.
Spirit, Patience, Gentleness,
All that can adorn and bless
Art thou – let deeds, not words, express
Thine exceeding loveliness
Split this Rock’s name comes from a Langston Hughes poem – Hughes’ poetry and prose, his political activism, all expressing an opposition to racism and injustice by calling upon the our country to live up to its proclaimed ideals. poetry and political activism. The anger of Hughes’ poems is built on a recognition of a promise broken and of hope of renewal. Poetry – just as social justice activism – is premised on our ability to communicate, on people interacting, listening, learning, and thereby acting. No organizing is possible otherwise – in fact, the mutual support and solidarity inherent in the vision of socialist activism is premised on such an understanding.
Yet our continuing inability to realize our promise as a society is the reason why poems of old speak so forcefully to the present. In the late Amiri Baraka’s words (also honored during the festival), “It cannot come/except you make it/from materials/it is not caught from,” – that is, we look from the outside of the world we are within. To return to Hughes, remembered as a name more often than read,
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft and stealth and lies,
We, the people must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers,
The mountains and the endless plan –
And, all the stretch of these great green states –
And make America again!
How can that be done? One imagines the faces of those mourning the dead listening to Shelley’s call expressing a truth as true today as then:
Let a great Assembly be
Of the fearless and the free …
From the corners uttermost
Of the bounds of English coast;
From every hut, village, and town
Where those who live and suffer moan,
From the workhouse and the prison
Where pale as corpses newly risen,
Women, children, young and old,
Groan for pain, and weep for cold –
From the haunts of daily life
Where is waged the daily strife
With common wants and common cares
Which sows the human heart with tares –
Lastly from the palaces
Where the murmur of distress
Echoes like the distant sound
Of a wind alive around
Those prison halls of wealth and fashion,
Where some few feel compassion
For those who groan, and toil, and wail
As must make their brethren pale –
Ye who suffer woes untold,
Or to feel, or to behold
Your lost country bought and sold
With a price of blood and gold –
Let a vast assembly be,
And with great solemnity
Declare with measured words that ye
Are, as God has made ye, free …
And these words shall then become
Like Oppression’s thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain
Heard again – again – again
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.
For more information on Split this Rock and future poetry readings and other events go to: www.splitthisrock.org
Masks of Anarchy: “The History of a Radical Poem, from Percey Shelley to the Triangle Factory Fire,” by Michael Demson, illustrated by Summer McClinton, Verso Press, 2013 (includes Shelley’s poem by that name, quoted above).
Poetry, March 2014 (Vol. CCIII, Number 6)
BPJ Beloit Poetry Journal, Split This Rock Chapbook, Spring 2012 (Vol. 62, Number 3)
Poetry Festival 2014, Split This Rock Program book.
Selected Poetry and Prose of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Carlos Baker, Modern Library (1951).
The complete “Mask of Death” is quoted from the Baker edited edition (op. cit).
Adrienne Rich’s quote was included in the Split this Rock program book
The excerpts from Tim Seibles, Dunya Mikhail, Joy Harjo and Amiri Baraka poems are all from the March 2014 issue of Poetry
Langston Hughes’ poem was included in the spring 2012 issue of BPJ