Poetry Has Power
By BookishBeemer on April 21, 2010
Creative writing is one of two things: commenting on social issues or creating them. A mistake that is commonly made in the American conversation is that when something is socially unacceptable, irresponsible, disrespectful, etc , and the speaker or writer is called on it—the reader is accused of violating someone’s free speech, or censoring someone. This is not so—a writer has the right to write anything they like, and the reader has the right to opine on the piece.
A poem where the narrator fantasizes about hitting women is disturbing, disrespectful, and socially irresponsible, not to mention insensitive. It is a distasteful subject in the first place, and unpleasant to read by most. In a society where it is not uncommon to hear songs, novels, movies, and everyday speech referring to, threatening, or making a joke of violence against women—a poem of this sort is not surprising, in one sense. That this poem was written by a student of an institution of higher learning, thought to be appropriate to be submitted to a poetry contest, selected by a committee of representatives of a higher learning institution for a guest poet to choose a winner from is shocking.
A college campus is a world within a world, isolated from the very things that are being taught and commented upon. However, not only do students, faculty, and staff come from all different backgrounds, but universities are looked to as an example of maturity, learning, and social and philosophical awareness. What example are we setting when we decree that a poem dreaming of doing violence to a woman, because of her womanhood, is chosen as a piece of literature worthy of elevation?
Every human being knows that violence done to another human being is wrong. It is even more so, to the point of horror, for violence to be done to a fellow human being because of a physical attribute. Violence toward people because of who they are or how they appear is wrong. Elevating the promotion of this is wrong. We are a country that idealizes free speech. But this is not an issue of free speech. It is not an issue of censorship. It is an issue of being good, of being respectful toward our brothers and sisters. Conscious of the struggle that our brothers and sisters struggle against for who they appear to be to the world.
Literature’s purpose is recording the human experience. Literature is about human struggle and exploration. What were the motives for choosing this piece? No one can know the motives of the committee, not even, dare I say, the members of the committee themselves. As an attendee of the Goldenrod festival, I can say as a lover of literature and poetry, as a writer of it that this poem was not on par with the rest of the pieces chosen for the poet’s consideration. I can only speculate, but my gut, my heart, and my mind are all in concert, telling me that this poem was chosen for its controversy and shock value.
Choosing a poem with such a motive is unthinkable. Poetry is not in the business of garnering attention via shocking and attention-grabbing content. Poetry is not a university’s gossip magazine.
Poetry is not in the business of sending yet another message to the women of the world, and in this instance, the women of Western Kentucky University, that being beaten, tortured, and killed, for who we are, for the entertainment of others, is something that is not only tolerated by our society, but acceptable to our institutions of higher learning.
It is heartbreaking, even as we become more welcoming, accepting, and warm toward our homosexual faculty and staff, that we are becoming crueler toward the women of WKU.
Having someone stand in your face and threaten violence to you for no reason other than who you are is frightening. Having your university stand and say, in the acceptance and elevation of this piece, that this horrific reality for millions of women is acceptable is horrific.
I cannot describe how I felt as I sat there, in Cherry Hall, my unofficial home of my undergraduate years, and listened to this poem being read—not, as the writer meant, experiencing the poem from his perspective, that is, wishing to beat a woman and fantasizing of all the different ways he could do so. I was in the shoes of the woman he stood in front of, walked beside, lived next door to, knowing he wished to do me harm, and living with that threat, and that fear. I sat in the same room as this man, knowing from personal experience the likelihood of it being a poem simply of whimsical speculation was low. I marked his face, feeling less safe, and wondering how many times we passed one another in the hall with whatever inspiration for this work in his mind.
Then I realized that this man’s disgusting poem had been pre-selected by my peers! I wondered then about them, too.
I felt ashamed to be a member of the English club.
I felt ashamed to be an English major.
I felt ashamed to be a Hilltopper.
I wanted a goddamn cigarette.
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