William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there” (from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.”)
Poetry published in newspapers, known as “newspaper poetry” or sometimes “magazine verse,” was a common feature of 19th- and early 20th-century Anglo-American literary culture. American “newspaper poetry” dates at least from the Revolutionary era. (Wikipedia) The poetry dealt with many things; occasional verse, addressing memorial poems for floods, train accidents, mine disasters and the like and the poems were frequently written as lyrics in ballad stanzas. (Wikipedia) There was much verse laced with satire, and plenty responding to the circumstances of the times, for example, “newspaper poetry” was among the ways Americans responded to the turmoil of the Civil War. Such poetry can easily be categorized as a genre, namely “topical poetry.” After all, occasional verse is poetry written with reference to a particular event. (Harvard Glossary of Poetic Genres)
Be it characterized as political poetry, occasional poetry, or otherwise poems addressing the state of things “The way in which events or circumstances stand at a particular time or within a particular sphere; the current situation” (Oxford Dictionary) have a definite place in the poetry canon.
As importantly, since such poetry is relevant to the general populace, it has a good chance to be both read and taken seriously which is what renders such poetry essential in terms of bringing poetry into the living room of 21st century American culture. Consider but two quick examples, one historically relevant, one of contemporary significance. Dmitri Shostakovich the Russian composer said, “People knew about Babi Yar before Yevtushenko’s poem, but they were silent. Art destroys silence.” Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country, is the first book of poetry to debut at No. 1 on USA Today’s Best-Selling Books list. And not just debut, but the first book of poetry to even claim the top spot on the list since its inception in October 1993. Understanding there are many factors which play their part in this success story, the amount of interest generated in terms of the general public cannot be overlooked.
But back to Yevtushenko, and poets of the topical like Carolyn Forché. While Forché may have a particularly nuanced definition for poetry of witness, the impetus for such efforts in general is best enunciated by Elie Wiesel who said “Who will bear witness for the witness?” and “They left us without a trace, and we are their trace.” He speaks of those exterminated during the Holocaust, but the sentiment may be applied to others in other circumstances as well.
Demagogues and autocrats and totalitarian regimes recognize the power of poetry. “In Burma, ‘they have come for the poets’” is a recent opinion article in the Dallas Morning News by Christopher Merrill, award-winning poet, essayist, and journalist. He writes of the tragic situation in Myanmar/Burma and in his account of the imprisonment and murder of Burmese poets shares the remark of one local observer, “They have come for the poets.” The article concludes with a poem by Burmese poet Maung Yu Py.
Czeslaw Miłosz said “What is poetry which does not save nations or people?” He said “In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.”
For further reading:
“American Poetry and the Daily Newspaper from the Rise of the Penny Press to the New Journalism” Elizabeth M. Lorang University of Nebraska-Lincoln