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Have We Forgotten the Power of Poetry?

Have We Forgotten the Power of Poetry?

Mar 5 2013
While Afghani women risk their lives for verse, we ignore it.

What would you do for poetry? What would you sacrifice just to pen a verse? Would you spend a few minutes a day to read a few lines? Would you give money to support a poet? Would you gamble your life to write a poem?

Some women from the rural provinces of Afghanistan are doing exactly that—risking their very lives for poetry. A poignant essay in the New York Times Magazine describes the lengths some impoverished, oppressed, and unschooled women and girls will go just to grasp the bits of freedom poetry gives. In writing and reciting their poems, these women give voice to the fears and injustices—and to the hopes and dreams--that define their lives.

For many of them, poetry is their only form of education. Their literary societies are so dangerous that they gather in secret, like the women immortalized a decade ago in Azar Nafisi's memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran. In some of the groups, recitations and lessons are offered surreptitiously over cell phones. Getting caught could cost the women their lives, just as it did one girl who set herself on fire two weeks after a beating by her brothers who had found love poems she'd written in secret. To write a love poem suggests a lover, and to have a lover is a sin punishable by death in some communities. One girl interviewed told her poetry call-in group, "I want to write about what's wrong in my country." Through tears, she recited a folk poem of her people:

"My pains grow as my life dwindles,
I will die with a heart full of hope."

"Record my voice," she instructed the other women who'd called in, "so that when I get killed at least you'll have something of me."

Voice. This is what poetry offers that makes it worth dying—and living—for. Perhaps only those without a voice can truly understand this power. How could we whose voices are amplified to deafening decibels—by the Facebooks, the Twitters, the blogs, the Internets, the cell phones, the texts, the reality shows, the Good Reads, the "like" buttons, the "dislike" buttons, the comments—understand the death-defying power poetry has to offer a life-giving voice?

We seem, sadly, to have lost an understanding of poetry's beauty and power. A few years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts found that while fiction reading is on the rise, poetry reading had fallen to a years-long low. The lukewarm response to (and at times downright confusion at) the inclusion of poetry at President Barack Obama's inauguration earlier this year is yet another sign of our antagonism. Most people I've talked to didn't even know the U. S. has a poet laureate, let alone who the current one is. For many poetry is too stuffy or too quaint—or worse, simply irrelevant.

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