In Blog: Factually Speaking

We are approaching the middle of National Poetry Month, and the Michigan League for Public Policy is collecting poems that bring visibility to individuals who have been left behind or that celebrate social justice movements and positive social change. Do you have some favorites that you’d like to share?

While you are thinking, let me share a few of mine.

William Blake was by some accounts an eccentric Londoner during the 18th and early 19th century, but he was also a fierce social critic, and when he saw young boys sold into chimney sweeping, he became outraged at the society that allowed it. Sweeping out a chimney required a person small enough to fit inside the narrow chutes, and as Blake tells it, boys were sent out to do this task when they could barely even say the word “sweep.” Many developed deformities of the legs and spine and their lives were often cut short by lung disease or cancer. Blake wrote two poems about the chimney sweeps. The first appeared in his Songs of Innocence, and shows the naïve (and heartbreaking) hope of the boys that their lives will eventually get better:

The Chimney Sweeper
By William Blake

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved, so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.

Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

(Provided courtesy of the Poetry Foundation)

Detroit’s own Philip Levine, who began working in an automobile plant at age 14, wrote of the experiences of assembly line workers—and of the discouragement of the unemployed worker hoping to get a job in a plant:

What Work Is
By Philip Levine

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

(Provided courtesy of the Poetry Foundation)

It is also through poetry that we can listen to and begin to understand the perspectives and insights of those whose experiences have been very different from our own. As a child, in a now-defunct magazine called Children’s Digest, I came upon a poem that I remembered for a long time and eventually learned was by Langston Hughes. I think (but do not recall for sure) that in the magazine, the poem was accompanied by some explanation of the context in which it was written. Encountering the poem enabled me, a Midwestern white boy, to hear the experience of an African-American woman living in the Jim Crow era, as recounted by her son:

Mother to Son
By Langston Hughes

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

(Provided courtesy of the Poetry Foundation)

Okay, that is enough from me! We at the League would love to know what poems promoting greater understanding or social justice have moved or inspired you. You can leave them in the comments section here or email lauramr@mlpp.org. Include the title, author and the text of the poem, and if you like, a leave a comment on what it means to you or when you first encountered it.

We look forward to reading and compiling your submissions!

 

Comments
  • Avatar
    Jenny Kinne
    Reply

    “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou

    You may write me down in history
    With your bitter, twisted lies,
    You may trod me in the very dirt
    But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

    Does my sassiness upset you?
    Why are you beset with gloom?
    ’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
    Pumping in my living room.

    Just like moons and like suns,
    With the certainty of tides,
    Just like hopes springing high,
    Still I’ll rise.

    Did you want to see me broken?
    Bowed head and lowered eyes?
    Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
    Weakened by my soulful cries?

    Does my haughtiness offend you?
    Don’t you take it awful hard
    ’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
    Diggin’ in my own backyard.

    You may shoot me with your words,
    You may cut me with your eyes,
    You may kill me with your hatefulness,
    But still, like air, I’ll rise.

    Does my sexiness upset you?
    Does it come as a surprise
    That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
    At the meeting of my thighs?

    Out of the huts of history’s shame
    I rise
    Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
    I rise
    I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
    Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

    Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
    I rise
    Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
    I rise
    Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
    I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
    I rise
    I rise
    I rise.

Leave a Comment

happy children in a multi ethnic elementary classroom