Poetry Called Present by David Stone

I stammer taking roll call the first day of a new school year. My multicultural classroom comes with a roster with names like those of the United Nations. After more than a decade at the same school, I have the advantage of having practiced a fair number of surnames, but the first name of a sibling can often leave me stuttering its first letter in a stall to determine which syllable to accent.

Jason McCall’s “Roll Call for Michael Brown,” published by Rattle on August 17, brought new meaning to roll call anxiety for me. His poem evoked my feelings of the inevitability of “honest mistakes ” but then led me to the “groans” of grief and the weight of responsibility as I came to identify my connection to the death of a young man who lived halfway across the country.

Attempting to make personal sense of Michael Brown’s death and the ensuing demonstrations and violence in Ferguson, Missouri, I found more in McCall’s poem than many of the news articles I read. I am convinced that America needs more poets to answer the roll call and write in response to events in the news. In the wake of advertisement revenues dispersing to an ever broadening array of media outlets, our nation’s newspapers falter. The number of reporters pounding the news beats of America dwindles. No wonder we turn to the archetypes of town criers, jesters, and troubadours.

I do not wish for a further demise of our nation’s longstanding fourth estate, the newspapers of traditional print journalism; however, I am grateful for our contemporary criers, the newer Internet news agencies, and our jesters, the comedic news shows that fill the expanding gap left by the thinning of America’s newspapers. I wish for more venues for troubadours, more poets to sing the songs of our evolving history.

Rattle’s new weekly “Poets Respond,” an online project that presents one poem about an event that occurred in the past week, joins New Verse News in what I believe is a small number of current-events poetry publications. James Penha has edited New Verse News since founding it in early 2005.

On Sunday, August 31, the Los Angeles Times ran a page of “opinionated poetry” for a second time as a result of the more than 1,500 poets who responded to last year’s call for current-events poems.

Southern Californians interested in poetry, music, and art promoting peace will find current-events poetry live at numerous venues on Saturday, September 27. Search the Internet for 100 Thousand Poets for Change to locate the nearest venue. Since 2013 the grassroots organization 100 Thousand Poets for Change annually organizes an international day of events.

Newspapers should seriously consider the regular inclusion of current-events poems. People still buy papers for the comics. I bet some would buy them for poems.

The poet and political activist Denise Levertov wrote for a 1967 symposium, “Good poets write bad political poems only if they let themselves write deliberate, opinionated rhetoric, misusing their art as propaganda.”

As much as current events are too important to be left to the bare recitation of facts or the fulminations of politicos and pundits, current-events poetry needs to be more than mere propaganda.

Levertov questioned whether the role of a poet should be “observer” or “participant.” I would argue we need both in our newspapers. Contemporary war poetry shows the power of both perspectives. Citizens need to read poems from soldier poets like Collin Halloran’s Shortly Thereafter and spouses like Elyse Fenton’s Clamor.

Well-written poems provide more than a sound bite.

No doubt, we need more poetry called present.

David Stone is a poet who teaches English at Loma Linda Academy.