“[Poetry] is a vital necessity of our existence,” attests Audre Lorde in her 1985 essay, “Poetry is Not a Luxury.” “It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action,” says Lorde, who identified herself as a “Black lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.”
Illuminating the centrality of poetry to daily life, Lorde emphasizes the roles of identity, culture, and feeling as key to survival. In the words of Elizabeth Alexander, poet and President of the Mellon Foundation, Lorde teaches readers that “you must name yourself, you cannot depend on others to name you kindly…[your] multiplicity of self is something you can’t allow people to flatten in you.” At the recent event sponsored by the Mellon Foundation, “Reading Poetry, Engaging America,” Joy Harjo, member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and third-term U.S. Poet Laureate, also shared how her own piece, “Fear Poem, or I Give You Back,” would not exist without the inspiration of Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival.” As Harjo described:
The poet is the caretaker of the family’s legacy, of the story of what will go forward. Every family has one, sometimes more than one. We’re the ones keeping history. History lives in our poetry. Our cultures live in our poetry….We’re holding the spirit of the people in what we do.
This year, humanities councils across the country joined Harjo and Alexander in welcoming the beginnings of spring by exploring “identity,” “place” and “legacy” through local poetry. In collaboration with the Hawai‘i State Library System and Arts Council, the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities recently testified before a State House Committee in support of establishing a new State Poet Laureate Program. The House concurrent resolution (H.C.R. 162) began as a dream to connect poetry and civic life in Hawai‘i and received its first hearing on March 23.
Last month, Michigan Humanities hosted its annual Poetry Out Loud State Finals. A partnership of Michigan Humanities, Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, Poetry Out Loud encourages youth “to learn about great poetry through memorization and performance, students can master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about their literary heritage.” Congratulations to Gabriel Blaikie, a senior at Interlochen Arts Academy, for winning the 2022 Michigan Poetry Out Loud State Championship!
Humanities Kansas also spotlighted local voices with “HomeWords.” In this collection, edited by Wyatt Townley, former Poet Laureate of Kansas, “poets of the region considered ‘home’ from micro to macro—from the mobile home of the body, to the house it inhabits, to the land that holds the house, to the sky that enfolds it all.”
To the west, Nevada Humanities will host a meaningful evening of conversation and readings with Pulitzer prize-winning poet Natalie Diaz and Nevada’s Poet Laureate Gailmarie Pahmeier. Attendees of the event, titled “Love, Land, and Language,” will consider the importance of “language, the open spaces of the West, and the critical need for all our voices to be heard” through poetry.
The New Mexico Humanities Council’s Speakers Bureau featured the voices of Poet Laureates Darryl Lorenzo Wellington on “Black Poetry in New Mexico and Beyond,” and Jessica Helen Lopez who explored “How the Spoken Word Empowers Us All” during her talk, “Borderland Poetics and Slam Poetry.”
On the East Coast, New Hampshire Humanities connected residents with the remarkable legacy of poet Lucy Terry Prince. While enslaved, Prince wrote “Bar Fight,” the oldest known poem in the U.S. written by an African American. During her presentation, “Bearing Witness and The Endurance of Voice,” award-winning poet Shanta Lee Gander “illustrates Prince’s importance as a poet and orator, and as one unafraid to fight for her rights.”
Regardless of the season, humanities councils consider how poetry shapes and articulates “home” and identity—connecting people to land, culture, feeling, and each other.