Didacticism's Poetic Drag

Today a poem came into my inbox that raised a question: can poetry cause an individual to act? But that question is too broad, and it's kind of lame. So then, a better question is, can didactic poetry with a moralistic slant cause an individual to act in the way the poem wants the person to act? My answer is no, mostly because a poem is a piece of art, is artifice, and we mainly read for enjoyment, even when pursuing academic aims. To demonstrate a poem that tries to move us, here is one example:

The Truth About the Present

after Bei Dao

when rivers are intoxicated
with dioxide you gather lotus shoots
to pick their pockets is
the clock of the age

when the last songbird
shivers with undue cold like wires overhead
to handle harsh metals is
the clock of the age

when your keyboard dissolves
in the pit of nations
to write in echoes is
the clock of the age

when you forge transparencies
in the foundries upstream
the bridges are blocked by karaoke
their digital sand is
the clock of the age

the cell phone's face is always
time-dependent on fingers somewhere
today opens to the nearby delta
and tomorrow
is the clock of the age

Do you feel like doing anything...other than turning the page? John Lane's poem attempts to criticize consumer culture, create guilt because of that culture, and show what to do–avoid certain products–by revealing their harmful afterlife, while at the same time subverting the poem's rhetoric through awkward syntax, repetition of an abstract phrase "clock of the age," and the conjuring of Bei Dao, writer and activist. I mean, I get it, the bad things, but I want to tell my friends to be sure to recycle their electronics by pointing them HERE instead of this poem.

For poetry with moralistic goals to work it must be entertaining–it should want to be read again and again. When writing poems that feel accusatory this becomes difficult because the reader is resistant; for the poem to work it must invite the reader to join in on the bad-bashing. I don't feel invited into this poem but cast out, as if I need to write the poet a letter and assure them that I'm not the "you" who doesn't recycle or understand where the precious metals came from to build my motherboard.

I have yet to read a poem that inspires me to do some "good," though I have read investigative journalism that has. I've read poems that made me think, "Wow, that poem was awesome," like this one, but that's where poetry's force stops for me. I want to believe it can change the minds of millions and inspire a wave of do-gooders to combat Bush's evil-doers and all other "bad" things, but I just don't see it. I want to be entertained when I read, not scolded, but maybe I just haven't found the right activist-poetics to light my fire?

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