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In the present day, poetry is often viewed as an inaccessible literary form – one that is made by and for those with a certain education and class background. T. S. Eliot commented that ‘it appears […] that poets in our civilisation […] must be difficult’ to be considered important. However, the origins of poetry do not support the notion of the art as an as it began as an obscure form. It began as an oral and aural form, one which everybody could enjoy and take part in. This openness has provided the opportunity for poetry to undertake great risks – addressing social issues and defying normativity. Poets from marginalised communities dare to defy the societal conventions which demand their silence and complacency, simply by being poets and using their voices. People of social privilege risk being rejected also, by choosing to discuss taboos and seek greater understanding of the world we inhabit – and others within it. Thus, poetry can be regarded as a space for social deviance, a form which dares to undertake risks for a greater good. This important function of poetry is evident in and is here explored via ‘We Real Cool’ by Gwendolyn Brooks, ‘next to of course god america i’ by e. e. cummings (lowercase intentional), and John Clare’s ‘Gypsies’.
Brooks’ poetry is inherently daring, as she was an African-American woman living amidst the battle against segregation. Her decisions to prioritise her own voice and share her words was a defiant and risk-filled act, as hers was a voice which racist and misogynistic American society did not wish to hear. Hers was a voice that people actively sought to stamp out, but she continued to produce poetry. In ‘We Real Cool’, that Brooks’ focus is specifically on the African-American experience is emphasised by the frequent repetition of the plural pronoun ‘we’ (ll. 1-7). This word appears on every – bar one – line, refusing to allow the reader to forget for even a moment who is at the heart of this poem. This relentlessness is coupled with the use of enjambment – the ‘we’ arriving at the end of each line and the statement appearing on the following. Such a technique creates a sense that Brooks’ is rushing to tell this story, desperate to get it out of her as quickly as possible – and lurking behind this is fear. As a woman of colour, she is forcibly aware that her voice and this space to use it may be cut short and taken away at any point – her insistence that this narrative of her people, who ‘Left school’ (l. 2) and ‘Strike straight’ (l. 4), be told is a risk she undertakes in her work and her life. This need to finish telling is further demonstrated through the sparseness of the poem, which consists of just 8 lines and a 2 line epigraph. Each of these lines are short, as are the words themselves – ‘Lurk’ (l. 3), ‘June’ (l. 7), ‘gin’ (l. 6) and each of the others are single syllable words, intensifying the rapid pace. Brooks’ hurries herself along, daring to speak this truth but ever aware of the risk inherent in doing so.
Similarly, John Clare was born into a peasant family and therefore was of a lower class than those deemed important and worthy of attention. This meant that he too was daring in deciding to make his voice heard amongst the literary elite of his day. However, unlike Brooks he did not choose to prioritise his own experience in the poem ‘Gypsies’, opting for a 3rd person tone in talking about ‘The boy’ (l. 2) and ‘The gypsy’ (l. 4). Whilst this could be argued as a way to avoid the risk of talking about his own lived experiences, it should also be understood as an even greater risk. Clare chose to write about a population far more marginalised than he was and shed light on the struggles faced by those who were not even well tolerated by his own class. He does not mince his words in depicting the scene – much like Brooks does not allow the reader to ignore who she writes of, Clare refuses to shelter the reader from the reality in which the ‘Gypsies’ lived. The opening description is of ‘The snow fall[ing] deep’ (l. 1), which eases the reader in, as it could belong to any poem about nature. However, once context is provided – this snow covers the ‘squalid camp’ (l. 5) in which people are trying to live, but are an ‘unprotected race’ (l. 14) – the horror of the situation sinks in. Many people ignore the conditions in which marginalised people live in – even ignore that they are truly people – but Clare insists on revealing this truth to them, in the hopes of it changing some people’s attitudes. He risks ruining his own social standing – he perhaps even risks his career – but is seemingly aware that his is a risk which pales in comparison to this freezing, ‘half-wasted’ (l. 9) population.
E. e. cummings was born of greater social privilege than both Clare and Brooks, but he too is daring in his poetry. In ‘next to of course god america i’, he risks being viewed as deeply unpatriotic – which in America, even in the present day, amounts to a terrible wrong. He utilises the sonnet form, traditionally associated with love and romance, to mock Americans’ devotion to their country. Furthermore, he includes a small section from the National Anthem – ‘oh / say can you see by the dawn’s early’ (ll. 2-3) – amidst questioning the faith and loyalty that the song is supposed to incite. He goes on to openly address this unthinking devotion, writing of people who ‘rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter’ (l. 11) and ‘did not stop to think [and so] they died instead’ (l. 12). The zoomorphic simile of the former line is a particularly interesting one, as lions connote bravery and strength – this is how the people fighting for their country feel about doing so. However, the transferred epithet of the ‘roaring slaughter’ (l. 11) suggests that what these men faced was fiercer than they knew, and that their defeat – death – was inevitable. In daring to suggest that war was not a chance to protect and boast the excellence of America – that it was a careless and destructive beast – cummings risks being ostracised, even accused of treason. He refuses to be made ‘mute’ (l. 13), knowing that the risk must ultimately be worth the pursuit of freedom for all.
Whilst cummings dares to address the issue of patriotism and its effects, Clare notices the outcomes of xenophobia, racism, and classism. He depicts how ‘The boy goes hasty for his load’ (l. 2), illustrating that children are forced to perform labour when their families are in such a desperate situation as the ‘Gypsies’ are. By using the image of a child, Clare evokes sympathy for these people as the wider population finds caring for the lives of children easier than their adult counterparts. Clare also highlights the malnourishment of the travellers – explaining that ‘none a bit can spare’ (l. 11) and that their food is ‘tainted’ (l. 8) – an effect of poverty which is linked to exclusion from society and thus reasonably-paid work. Although Clare does not explicitly outline this as a direct cause of the travellers’ marginalisation, the closing line – ‘A quiet, pilfering, unprotected race’ (l. 14) – suggests that prejudiced attitudes are the reason for their situation. They are an ‘unprotected race’ because the rest of society do not care for them, and assume the worst. They view them as ‘pilfering’ but do not consider why they are compelled to steal – when confronted with this picture of their lives, the reader is forced to examine this. This is a daring act as it questions the social position that the travellers have been placed into and asks the reader to shift their perceptions.
Brooks equally makes suggestions that the marginalisation which African-American people experience significantly impacts their day to day lives. She writes of aspects of their lives which might seem deviant to white America – they ‘Lurk late’ (l. 3) and ‘Sing sin’ (l. 5). However, she dares to normalise and humanise these activities by writing of them. This normalisation is furthered by the rhyming with other activities such as to ‘Strike straight’ (l. 4) and ‘Thin gin’ (l. 6) – activities which white Americans would even have partaken in. In doing so, she implies that what makes their preferred activities appear deviant is prejudiced perceptions – that in many ways they are no different to the people who oppress them. A further thing which Brooks normalises is that they ‘Left school’ (l. 2), something which in 20th century America was looked down upon. Brooks does not give an explanation for their leaving school – although poverty and racism can both be cited as issues which affect education – but this makes it more impactful. She is not interested in reasoning nor excusing – it is merely a fact of some people’s lives and does not require justification. This challenges the readers’ expectations as they are reading this from a published poet – and this challenge to their understanding of education is a bold statement within the poem. As the poem is called – and states within – the ‘We real cool’ (l. 1), these situations and activities are presented as ordinary and even positive, thus defying societal norms. cummings’ main challenge to patriotic convention is achieved through sarcasm. The title and opening line ‘next to of course god america i’ (l. 1) refers to the reverence with which Americans view their country – placing it on a par with god – and mocks this. The phrase ‘of course’ situated within the line sounds dry and ironic, as if the writer cannot believe that people genuinely feel that way. This derisive tone is furthered by the use of ‘and so forth’ (l. 2), as this dismisses what is said in praise of America as if it is all the same and all meaningless. However, the crux of cummings’ sarcasm towards patriotism is in the lines ‘what could be more beaut- / iful than these heroic happy dead’ (ll. 9-10). cummings implies that attitudes towards the deaths of people at war as brave and beautiful is ridiculous by placing the words ‘heroic’ and ‘happy’ in sequence with ‘dead’. The juxtaposition between the words and their connotations is startling, and highlight the absurdity of thinking of death in such a way. Thus, cummings dares to challenge prevalent understandings of casualties of war and in turn challenges the place of war in American minds.
Poetry has the potential to deviate from its own structural conventions, as well as social expectations. Brooks, Clare, and cummings each demonstrate this in their own way through the poems explored in this essay. Each poet risks being silenced, isolated, or having their social position affected, and yet they dare to challenge the dominant culture for a greater good. Therefore, although literature – and particularly poetry – has at times in history been viewed as an elitist art, it can also be understood as an opportunity to share and hear the voices and experiences of marginalised groups, and to question the status quo.
Brooks, Gwendolyn, ‘We Real Cool’, in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. by Margaret Ferguson, 4th edn, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), p. 1481 cummings, e. e., ‘next to of course god america i’, in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. by Margaret Ferguson, 4th edn, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), p. 1284 Clare, John, ‘Gypsies’, in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. by Margaret Ferguson, 4th edn, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), p. 823
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