Rereading and reexamining Tim Seibles's "An Open Letter," I'm caught by the line "What the hell happened to the notion of poet as town crier, rabble rouser, shaman, court jester, priestess, visionary, madman?" I'm wondering if, after attending a few open mikes, teaching a few classes and reading a few books from the library, poets haven't forgotten their responsibility. There seems to be an aesthetic of "clever" that permeates a lot of poetry today--poetry that says little, but works on some level as a joke or entertainment. While this may work to sell poems, and appeal to a wide audience, I'm wondering if it doesn't detract from the purpose of poetry as a whole. I'd like to urge poets to consider the responsibilities they have to their readers and to their communities as a whole, and challenge them to take up the mantles that Seibles calls for.
A town crier was an official court position in the 18th century. They were elaborately dressed men who would ring a bell in the town square, and make official proclamations from the court. They would also bring the news to the people, as the majority of the population was illiterate. The traditional cry of the town cryer was "Oyez!" which is the name of a literary journal out of Roosevelt University. Considering the social and cultural illiteracy that permeates our country, that so many get their news through 30 second sound bites between Top 40 hits on the radio and allow it to grow and fester through rumor, I'm wondering if more poets couldn't take up this mantle. Williams writes, "My heart rouses/thinking to bring you news/of something/that concerns you/and concerns many men. Look at/what passes for the new./You will not find it there but in/
despised poems./It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there." Where are the poems that men are dying for the lack of? Why aren't we writing these poems?
A rabble rouser is one who excites or inflames a group of people into action, who appeals to the emotions and values of the group to spur them into acting. What is important about a rabble rouser is that they appeal to the EMOTION of the people via rhetoric, not the LOGIC of the people. Where are the poems and poets that are appealing to our emotions, that spur us into action? Where are the poems that challenge and usurp the ochlagogues that permeate our televisions and radios?
A shaman is a religious figure that reaches altered states of consciousness through ritual to enter the spirit world. There, they deal with spirits, both good and bad, and channel these energies and messages back into this realm. Often these messages are those of healing or prosperity, the shaman having been asked to deal with a specific illness or malevolence plaguing an individual or the tribe in general. Our world is faced with so much suffering, so where are the poems of healing? Jerome Rothenberg's anthology, Technicians of the Sacred, is filled with poems from shamans. What can we, as poets, learn from these ancient texts?
Traditionally, there are two types of jesters or fools: the natural fool and the licensed fool. Natural fools were those who, through some illness or ailment, would act inappropriately. According to Allison Chaney, "The fool's status was one of privilege within a royal or noble household. His folly could be regarded as the raving of a madman but was often deemed to be divinely inspired. The 'natural' fool was touched by God." The licensed fools were trained individuals who were given leeway by their master to act in such a way. In the case of the licensed fool, their role was not merely entertainment, but one of critic. In either case, the jester operated outside of the bounds of society's rules and regulations, and their words were seen not as madness, but as wisdom. Often speaking in riddles, the fool criticized the prevailing social order and challenged status quo. So where are our poems that work as riddles to challenge and critique? How can we use divinely inspired madness to work outside the social order and challenge it's foundations?
If the Court Jester can be seen as "The Fool," the first unumbered card of the major arcana, then the High Priestess is the third card, numbered as "2". She is seen as a visual representation of Shekhinah, or the female embodiment of the Divine. Interpretations vary, but often she represents a secret being revealed, often through wisdom, sound judgement or common sense, or even intuition. Where, then, are the poems that split open the secrets which are being kept, which reveal the truth through common sense and wisdom for the reader?
A visionary is one who has visions. Often these are visions of events to come, or the future. Mystical poets and prophets probably fall under the heading of "visionary." There is even a style of art called "visionary art" that purports to "transcend the physical world and portray a wider vision of awareness including spiritual or mystical themes, or is based in such experiences." If there can be such a thing as visionary art, then why not visionary poetry? In his poem "America," Allen Ginsberg writes " I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations." Where are the poems of vision, of the future? Where are the poems that prophecy?
d. a. levy, in "The Cleveland Manifesto of Poetry," writes that poets should "create new myths, madness and mass from the contemporary waste of intellectual energy." Madness is associated with the insane, but how is that insanity defined? Folks with diseases--clinical depression, bi-polar disorder, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, etc.--are all seen as unwell, mentally and emotionally, by the status quo. While we have visions of madmen struggling against their straitjackets, locked in padded cells and frothing at the mouth, all too often madness is simply seeing the world in a new or unique way, a way that challenges the status quo so thoroughly that it is seen as threatening. Where are the voices, then, that rise up from what levy sees as "the contemporary waste of intellectual energy" and, through their madness, bring about change for the reader?It is no longer enough to be safe. Is is no longer enough to be cute or clever. Readers thirst for a poetry that will revitalize and rejuvenate them, not merely fill them for the moment. We poets can no longer be stand up comedians, entertaining our readers with the literary equivalent of Twinkies. We can no longer gaze at our navels and expect that the drudgery of our lives will be so profound as to shake a reader from their own drudgery. We must be better before we fade into oblivion completely.