What is the role of poetry in the world? Writers have been wrestling with that question for centuries. In 1821, Percy Bysshe Shelley said that poetry helps us strengthen the muscles of our morals, and that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Fast-forward to Joe Biden’s inauguration in January: Amanda Gorman recited her poem “The Hill We Climb,” a call not just for unity but for justice. That moment was an affirmation for those who believe deeply that poetry is an instrument for social good, and one that can reach people across many miles and boundaries. But many have questioned whether poets, in the end, have much power to effect change. Earlier this month, the age-old debate surfaced on the internet, sparked by a tweet arguing that poetry isn’t socially powerful.
In “Lately, I’ve Taken To,” Linda Gregerson doesn’t address this question head-on. But she does show how poetry can act as a way of processing the world, of giving shape to our nebulous pain, both personal and political. She connects her own autoimmune-related hearing loss to the vanishing ozone layer—another instance of a system defeated by its own defenses, a reaction to supposed harm that ends up causing harm itself. That brings her to the 2012 terrorist attack carried out in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik. There is grave danger, she says, in preoccupation with borders and barricades. In linking these disparate strands, she gives them a new dimension.
So does poetry matter? If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Most people aren’t reading poetry. But some people are. For those of us who do, poems like Gregerson’s serve to deepen our humanity. Maybe that’s enough.
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