Plowshares, Pruning Hooks, and Poems

Bridging Faith, Literature, and Advocacy

“Poetry makes nothing happen,” W.H. Auden famously wrote in “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.” And indeed, writing poetry often feels that way, since it’s on the fringes of both literature and public discourse. Writing in other genres—essays, even stories—seems closer to the world of action, of making things happen. It’s said (apocryphally) that Lincoln, upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, exclaimed, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” The contrast between the condescending “little” in the same sentence as the word “great” suggests that Lincoln—if he actually said this—knew it wasn’t that simple. Even so, the statement recognizes that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was part of the mix that led to major social change in America.

I’ve been teaching a Readings in Contemporary Poetry course this term. We’ve been talking a lot about poets’ need to defend poetry dating all the way back to Plato’s Republic, wherein Socrates proposes that poets be excluded from his utopian society because they draw their readers away from Truth. In the process, we’ve been reading books by contemporary authors and teasing out different expectations about what poetry does, from both the writer’s and the reader’s perspectives. Among them:

• A poem is an Aesthetic Object—art for art’s sake, without any direct use or purpose;

• A poem is a Political Act—engagement with the poet’s world to support the status quo, or to call out injustice and imagine change;

• A poem is a vehicle for Personal Expression—think Wordsworth‘s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”; or

• A poem is a Social Exchange between writer and reader—as in Whitman‘s “And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as sure belongs to you.”

These functions are also lenses through which to understand different poems, and often a single poem or poet is privileging one of these functions over the other. Students in the seminar vary in their own beliefs about which function should be central, but changing the lens enables us to meet each work on its own terms, case by case, poem by poem.

How does faith figure in this list of functions? I’d argue that it potentially permeates all of them. Writing for writing’s sake, for instance, implies that a poem is somehow liminal, in the world but not of it. Or, as Auden puts it just after his conceding poetry’s inability to make things happen: “… it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper.”

The midcentury American poet Archibald MacLeish wrote, in his “Ars Poetica,” that “a poem should not mean / But be,” which has a very spiritual ring to it, whatever one’s religious practice is, but Christians can find a connection in Matthew 21:12-13, where Jesus furiously defended the place of worship—a sacred, liminal space—from the depredations of money-changers (executives?).

For those whose faith is more active than contemplative, the second function—poem as political act—prioritizes the importance of valuing the good and envisioning a more just world. “Political” in this sense doesn’t need to be reduced to “Democratic” and “Republican.” Rather, it can refer to any power relations among people, and the teachings of Jesus Christ are replete with lessons about that: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, speak for those who are marginalized.

The idea of the poem as a vehicle for personal expression conjures images of Emily Dickinson writing on envelopes and secreting her work inside a drawer, or of someone praying in the way Jesus instructed in Matthew 6:6: “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

But there are times when praying together is important, too, as Matthew 18:20 indicates: ” For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” This relates to the fourth function, poetry as a social exchange, in that gathering together in prayer operates on the assumption that there is strength in numbers, and also recognizes that “every atom belonging to me as sure belongs to you.”

Now, if you haven’t had much of a look at a poem, or considered the functions of poetry, of literature, of art in general since Mrs. MacClenny’s AP Lit class in the 11th grade, you might be thinking this is all well and good. But, really, does it matter in any practical way? Especially for people of faith, compassion, and justice?

It does.

Once a month, for more than a year, people in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have been gathering together to bridge the distance between poetry (and other literary forms) and activism. The aptly-named Bridge Series began following the 2016 presidential election. Two Pittsburgh poets, Kristofer Collins and Jason Baldinger, were distressed over the election of President Trump, whose racism, ableism, and misogyny had been on full display throughout the campaign. They reached out to other writers in the area, myself included, to form an advisory board for a literary reading series that would identify organizations advocating for human services and people’s rights, invite activists to speak about their needs and goals as part of the reading program, and raise funds for those organizations.

“This painfully long election season resulting in the election of Donald Trump to the presidency has left a lot of us in the Pittsburgh writing community feeling hollowed-out, despairing, and at loose ends,” Collins and Baldinger wrote in their first email. “How could this have happened? What do we do now? How do we move forward? To paraphrase labor organizer and songwriter Joe Hill, ‘Don’t mourn – Organize!'”

…gatherings like this remind people why they stand up for what they believe in, and literature—including poetry—helps to affirm that belief, even to crystallize it, because it speaks not only to the head but to the senses and the heart.

And so we did. The first event took place a month after the inauguration. As Washington buzzed with Trump and his Congress’s eager plans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, a packed crowd gathered in the upper room of a neighborhood bar to listen to Jude Vachon, of Be Well! Pittsburgh, an organization that helps the uninsured navigate the health system. Proceeds from $5 door donations went to Be Well!.

Pittsburgh poet Jan Beatty read from her new book, Jackknife: New and Selected, including hard-hitting poems about sexual violence and social class. Adriana Ramirez read from her nonfiction novella, Dead Boys, for which she won the 2015 PEN/Fusion Emerging Writers Prize; the prize recognizes unpublished nonfiction by young writers about an important global or multicultural issue. And Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman, who for decades has offered incisive cultural insights to readers of the daily newspaper, read his reflection on the election.

Hearts were heavy. Already, Trump had implemented his Muslim ban and appointed or nominated several people to head agencies they had a track record of opposing. But gatherings like this remind people why they stand up for what they believe in, and literature—including poetry—helps to affirm that belief, even to crystallize it, because it speaks not only to the head but to the senses and the heart.

Since that first reading in February of 2017, the Bridge Series has raised funds for and invited participation by the Northern Area Multi-Service Center of Allegheny County, an umbrella group for nonprofits such as ACCESS and Meals on Wheels; the prison writing program Words Without Walls; the Alumni Theatre Company, which engages young urban artists in stage productions; the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, part of whose mission is to help immigrants navigate living in a new language; the City of Asylum, which advocates for freedom of expression among writers from all over the world; the Center for Hearing and Deaf Services; Pittsburgh United, a group helping to make sure working people are not left behind by the rising housing and other costs related to Pittsburgh’s “reincarnation” as a med-tech city; the Persad Center, which provides services to sexual and gender minorities; Planned Parenthood; and She Runs, an organization in support of women running for public office. The Bridge Series, for its second season, garnered the support of the Pen American Press Freedom Incentive fund, and will continue through 2018 to present a diverse range of Pittsburgh literary artists, journalists, activists, and advocates aiming to create community and awareness.

At the end of February, the launch of the Bridge Series’ second season highlighted the Coalition for Racial Justice in Media. Spokesperson and cofounder Shanon Williams spoke of the case of a young Black man who had been present at a shooting and reported the shooter to the police. Because the local media failed to protect his and his family’s identity, he was killed within days of coming forward. CityLab journalist Brentin Mock, Pittsburgh City Paper editor Charlie Dietch, and Creative Nonfiction managing editor Hattie Fletcher shared writing of witness and engagement; local podcaster and educator Matt Ussia hosted a discussion with presenters and the audience.

There’s more to come. All of it so much more than “just words.”

Isaiah 2:4 instructs us to beat swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. We can take that further to mean that we might be able to turn pistols into pens, partisan keyboards into inclusive communities. I have been involved with a lot of reading series in my 30-odd years as a literary citizen. But the model the Bridge Series follows is something I’ve never seen before. We are learning how to restore our faith in democracy and in one another with each new installment of the series. Poetry, prose, and open dialogue are making that happen.

Alumni Theatre Company, Ars Poetica, Be Well! Pittsburgh, Bridge Series, Center for Hearing and Deaf Services, City of Asylum, CityLab, Creative Nonfiction, Dead Boys, Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Isaiah 2:4, Jackknife, Matthew 18:20, Matthew 21: 12-13, Matthew 6:6, Meals on Wheels, Northern Area Multi-Service Center, PEN American Press Freedom Incentive fund, Persad Center, Pittsburgh City Paper, Pittsburgh United, Planned Parenthood, Tony Norman, W.B. Yeats, W.H. Auden, Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth, Words Without Walls

Ellen McGrath Smith

Ellen McGrath Smith teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and in the Carlow University Madwomen in the Attic program. Her writing has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Los Angeles Review, Quiddity, Cimarron, and other journals, and in several anthologies, including Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Smith has been the recipient of an Orlando Prize, an Academy of American Poets award, a Rainmaker Award from Zone 3magazine, and a 2007 Individual Artist grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her second chapbook, Scatter, Feed, was published by Seven Kitchens Press in the fall of 2014, and her book, Nobody’s Jackknife (West End Press, 2015) explores alcoholism and yoga through poetry. She has written on poetry as prayer for Talking Writing.


Cover Image: Tim Marshall, “Painted red” (July 26, 2016). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.

Inside Image 1: João Silas, “Reading with magnifying glass” (Mar. 9, 2016). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.

Inside Image 2:  Trust “Tru” Katsande, Untitled (January 4, 2018). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.