As I consider these awful times, I’ve wandered into the trap of asking, “What’s the purpose of poetry?” Unfortunately, it’s a too-familiar question: What can words on a page or screen possibly offer against crises of such scale? Bookstores are currently closed because of the pandemic, things are looking grim for publishers. Teachers and students are adrift without a classroom to gather them into community. Readings are depersonalized by the homogenizing screen. There has to be a better way. What might poetry offer that might help us all?
As an editor, I trust that poets, and other writers, will help guide our shared conversation, and I look to them to help me shape my own thinking and feeling. The conversations that so many poets have been shepherding for years are again erupting more visibly, and necessarily, into our streets. I often draw upon Keats’s touchstone reminder that poets should be able to live “with mysteries, uncertainties and doubt” and while, at first, that idea struck me as quaint and insufficient for these times, I considered whether those beyond the poetry community might learn from poets how to live with this “negative capability.” Maybe the answer is there, in poems across the years.
Over the past few days, I’ve been turning once again to Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, not for certainty, but for solace, and for the thrill I felt when I first read the manuscript. As a Black man in America, Jericho has had to face “uncertainty and doubt” his entire life—and he’s bent that toward the beautiful mysteries. His poems and the poems of those who have led to his voice—June Jordan, Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, even Walt Whitman—have shared in the making of mystery out of our uncertainties, and have become part of a greater active imagination. Personally and professionally, for me The Tradition is more than a book title, it’s more than an awareness of those who laid the path for us, it’s more than an investigation of negative (and positive) histories: It’s a participatory way of being in the world that in turn guides the types of books I seek as an editor. Poets are my teachers, and poems help me find words in these uncertain times, just as they will help future poets and non-poets struggle with their own uncertainty and doubt. Poems push humankind forward, and as we move further into uncertainty, the poet Hayden Carruth reminds us:
...but in what is
ours, here, let
justice be primary
when we sing
—Michael Wiegers, executive editor and editor in chief, Copper Canyon Press