Vision of a Better World : Let the Poets Speak

Meridel Le Sueur. Photo from Working Women.

Class, race, empire, and resistance:
The vision of the poet

By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / June 28, 2010

  • Oil Spills as the Gulf of Mexico is Destroyed
  • Judge with BP Stock Rules Against Government Regulation
  • Several States Contemplate Arizona-Like Laws to Install Police Repression Against People of Color
  • Millionaire Politicians Vote to Cut Off Benefits to the Jobless
  • Media Ignores Massive Detroit Mobilization Against Poverty and War
  • Media Continues to Advertise “Tea-Party” and Sarah Palin Without Ever Addressing Capitalism(fantasy headlines by the author, morning June 26)

Some of our finest poets described so well the nature of the empire in which we live and the need for resistance against it. Meridel Le Sueur, the socialist/feminist poet, novelist, and chronicler of the Great Depression and beyond wrote with power about twentieth century America in a way that could have been written this week.

None of my sons or grandsons took up guns against you.

And all the time the predators were poisoning the humus, polluting
the water, the hooves of empire passing over us all. White
hunters were aiming down the gunsights; villages wrecked,
mine and yours. Defoliated trees, gnawed earth, blasted embryos.

We also live in a captive country, in the belly of the shark.
The horrible faces of our predators, gloating, leering,
the bloody Ford and Rockefeller and Kissinger presiding over
the violation of Asia

Meridel Le Sueur

Langston Hughes. Photo from Arts Edge / Kennedy Center.

Langston Hughes, African American poet, captured United States history powerfully in the words of class and race

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek —
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean —
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today — O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

— Langston Hughes

Woody Guthrie, 1943. Photo from Rounder Records / Bluegrass Journal.

And balladeer Woody Guthrie wrote verses, often unsung, for the unofficial American anthem, “This Land is Your Land?”

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

— Woody Guthrie

Carl Sandburg. Photo by Al Ravenna, 1955 / World Telegram / Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons.

Carl Sandburg, poet, biographer of Abraham Lincoln, and children’s author, reminded us of who has made history and ironically created the exploitation of the producing class.

I am the people — the mob — the crowd — the mass.
Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?
I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and
I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me
and the Lincolns. They die. And then I send forth more Napoleons
and Lincolns.
I am the seed ground. I am a prairie that will stand for much plowing.
Terrible storms pass over me. I forget. The best of me is sucked out
and wasted. I forget. Everything but Death comes to me and makes
me work and give up what I have. And I forget.

— Carl Sandburg

Poets usually are driven by a vision of a better world. For Langston Hughes:

O, let America be America again —
The land that never has been yet —
And yet must be — the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME —
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

— Langston Hughes

And for Woody Guthrie:

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

— Woody Guthrie

And finally poets offer the hope of resistance and change:

How can we touch each other, my sisters?
How can we hear each other over the criminal space?
How can we touch each other over the agony of bloody roses?
I always feel you near, your sorrow like a wind in the
great legend of your resistance, your strong and delicate strength.

It was the bumble bee and the butterfly who survived, not the dinosaur.

— Meridel Le Sueur

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

— Woody Guthrie

Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to
remember. Then — I forget.

When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the
lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year,
who played me for a fool — then there will be no speaker in all the
world say the name: “The People,” with any fleck of a sneer in his
voice or any far-off smile of derision.

The mob — the crowd — the mass — will arrive then.

— Carl Sandburg

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain —
All, all the stretch of these great green states —
And make America again!

— Langston Hughes

Selections from the following poems:
Meridel Le Sueur, “Doan Ket
Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again
Woody Guthrie, “This Land is Your Land?
Carl Sandburg, “I Am the People, the Mob

[Harry Tarq is a professor in American Studies who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. His blog is Diary of a Heartland Radical.]

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1 Response to Vision of a Better World : Let the Poets Speak

  1. Jenifer Palmer-Lacy says:

    Thank you for reminding us…as a teacher, Woody Guthrie’s words are always part of my Humanities curriculum, from kindergarten on up.
    Jenifer Palmer-Lacy

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