Use Your Words: The Political Power of Literature

by David Ebenbach

“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.”
-George Orwell

It may be nonsense in our time, too.

In his essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell reminded us that lots of good writing springs from a “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” He continues: “No book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

And writing has pushed the world. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was such a powerful and mobilizing call against slavery that Abraham Lincoln was said to have called Stowe (in a comment that is, strangely, both dismissive and admiring at once) “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, an outcry against inequality and injustice, famously forced reforms to the food production industry that had been so harmful to its workers and consumers. In Stalinist Soviet Union, poets were persecuted because they were feared for their ability to nurture and inspire popular resistance; the poet Pablo Neruda was exiled from Chile for the same reason. Chinua Achebe changed the way the world looked at Western imperialism; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale galvanized a generation of feminists to take on misogynistic political forces; Orwell himself has left us properly wary of doublespeak and unchecked governmental control. The history of the written word is a history of impact.

Of course, in the 21st century, the picture may be more complicated. The potential reading world is inundated with captivating alternatives to words on paper: TV, movies, social media, streaming video, and all the other usual suspects. It’s probably harder to reach people with our writing. And yet the world still needs pushing—desperately. How can we continue to have influence?

Well, one thing we can think about is indirect influence. Many writers are also teachers, or participate in Writers in the Schools programs, all of which puts us in contact with emerging generations of people—people who will go on to shape the world. As it turns out, getting books into young hands is a powerful thing. For starters, literature has repeatedly been shown to increase readers’ empathy—something we need a lot more of in our time.

Or there’s the influence that comes from the power of literary community. Poets Against the War didn’t bring the second Iraq war to a screeching halt, but it ultimately produced Split This Rock, an organization that, year after year, raises up “poems of provocation and witness” and that has, through festivals, conferences, and youth programs, rallied many people to do some much-needed pushing themselves. Literature produces countless communities, big and small, that inspire and hone and launch voices into the public sphere.

But let’s not discount direct influence, either. Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen has shaped a national conversation on the ways racism can permeate our everyday social interactions; Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex has helped to complicate the public understanding of gender; novels like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, and Mahbod Seraji’s Rooftops of Tehran have brought a wide range of history into global view. And sometimes our work affects powerful people indeed; President Obama, for one, has cited novels like Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook as a major source of influence in his life. Even if we don’t quite reach the president, there are a lot of decision-makers in our world, nearly countless people we might find with our work. And each person we affect has the ability to affect others.

Besides, of course we can jump off the page if we need to—screenplays that get turned into movies reach a lot of people, good blog posts go viral, and after Jennifer Egan released her story “Black Box” in 2012 as a series of tweets, social media became fair game for the rest of us.

The point is that we probably still feel the desire to push the world—many of us more than ever in these troubled times—and that we have the leverage to do it. One thing we have learned from this election is that words still move people; they can incite fear and resentment—we’ve heard plenty of those kinds of words, lately—or they can inspire justice and empathy. We need a lot more of the latter.

If you’re a writer, you have gifts and skills that not everyone has. The world needs those gifts.

Put them to use.

agni blog logo smaller

David EbenbachDavid Ebenbach is the blog editor for AGNI, and also the author of seven books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved. He lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Georgetown University.


Books as Bibles

by David Ebenbach

Don’t mess with Moby Dick. And I’m not talking about the whale, though you should probably leave the whale alone, too—I’m saying don’t mess with the book.

A while back I posted a piece on Medium called “Call Me Irritable: A Chapter Outline of Moby Dick in the Form of an Increasingly Frustrating Conversation with a Guy Named Ishmael.” I had just finished reading Moby Dick for the first time (For shame! How could I have waited for so long?) and I had not enjoyed the experience. So I wrote the fictional conversation as a way of poking fun at what struck me as a novel whose scattered great parts got lost in a book that was in general bloated, shapeless, and dull.

Some people liked the fun-poking; I’m not the only person in the history of the world to not enjoy Moby Dick. But some other folks had advice for me. They told me to read the book more slowly, or to apply different standards to the book, or to try to appreciate the little things instead of the big picture. In one way or another, these folks told me that I was reading the book wrong, or that my dislike of the book just pointed to my own deficiencies.

This confirmed my perception that Moby Dick is one of those special books that has become so firmly entrenched as a literary classic that it has become something more than a novel—it has become the literary equivalent of the Bible.

What do I mean by that? I mean this: when a piece of literature becomes a Bible, it is no longer open to question, or at least to certain questions. We can ask, “Hey—why is this so amazing?” and “What did Melville mean with this symbol?” and “How can I get more out of this?” We can ask questions intended to help us understand and appreciate the book more thoroughly. But we can’t ask questions like, “Um, isn’t this book a complete mess, with truly striking, beautiful, exciting stuff broken up by many incredibly boring chapters full of protracted (and often misinformed) lectures about whales and whaling equipment and whaling technique?” We can’t ask questions, in other words, that question the goodness or rightness of the text.

Because here’s the thing about a Bible, understood traditionally: when you have a problem with a Bible, there is no possibility that the Bible is wrong—this is supposed to be divine stuff, after all. There is only the possibility that you are wrong, and you can only hope to work harder in order to better grasp the wisdom of the Bible.

For the record, I don’t think that the Bible should be read this way, either, but that’s a subject for another essay. More to the point, classics of literature may be wonderful, but not one of them was written by a god, and it seems to me, as a reader, that every one of them should ultimately be open to all possible questions that enter your mind. These include: “Is this working?” “Should some of this be cut/expanded?” and “How might this be improved?”

And here’s another question that ought to be allowed: “Should I stop reading?”

I want to get something out of a book, but if it just isn’t happening, there are approximately 78 quadrillion other books out there that might prove more moving and useful. If, after putting in some real effort, my dissatisfaction builds up too much, I try to figure out what’s not working for me (so that I can be sure not to reproduce the problem in my own work), and then I do a potentially sacrilegious thing: I put the book down. I put it down and move on. And surely that happens sometimes with my own books—people put them down and walk away. That’s the reader’s prerogative.

Of course, it’s a delicate balance. When I start reading a book—not just a “classic” but any book—I do enter it somewhat Biblically, in the sense that my mind is open and my stance is humble. I’m ready for it to be good, to teach me something. And if I have early buzzings of uncertainty, as long as they’re not too loud, I try to stay in there. I want the book to succeed. I want to get something out of it. After all, being a writer in part means being very inclined to get things out of books. If lots of other people have liked the book—if it is considered a classic, for example—I work even harder to keep my mind open. If trustworthy friends have recommended the book, I work harder still. I definitely don’t want to miss an opportunity to be wowed by a piece of writing, so I give it every chance I can.

And don’t we want people to approach our own work that way? I think each writer produces work that, if it’s any good, makes fresh demands of the reader—by messing with the rules of point of view, say, or using voice in a new way, or taking an idiosyncratic angle on structure or pacing or characterization or whatnot—and we don’t want people to say, “This isn’t what I’m used to, so it’s bad.” Naturally we each hope that readers will be open to the possibility of meeting the work’s demands. And we believe that they’ll be rewarded for hanging in there with an open mind.

If I’m honest, I think that’s part of what bothers me about Moby Dick: envy. Not envy of the writing, but envy of how it’s received. It’s a “classic,” so people automatically come at it with a Biblical mind-set. Meanwhile, they probably look at contemporary writing (e.g., mine) with a more critical eye. (After all, Melville was pretty much dismissed in his own lifetime.) My ideal is something more equitable, with every piece of writing getting the benefit of the doubt provisionally, at first. That’s the hope I have as a writer, and it’s the ideal I shoot for as a reader: each text approached with the question Is this maybe kind of Biblical? If the answer turns out to be yes, great. If the answer is no, that’s fine, too. You’re allowed to put the book down. Let someone else call that guy Ishmael.

agni blog logo smaller

David EbenbachDavid Ebenbach is the blog editor for AGNI, and also the author of seven books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved. He lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Georgetown University.


The Ultimate and Decisive “Is Poetry Dead?” Article!

by David Ebenbach

The “Is Poetry Dead?” articles are coming. Often they show up in National Poetry Month (April), but they can appear at any time. Spring or Fall, day or night. Maybe you’re in the middle of writing poetry, or reading it, and you look away from the poem—only for a second, but still—and there, on social media, out from behind a curtain or something, jumps the article, screaming: IS POETRY DEAD IT’S TOTALLY DEAD ISN’T IT DON’T LIE IT’S DEAD I TELL YOU! DEAD! DEAD?

It’s almost cute—each time it’s like the article thinks it’s the very first one to ever think of the idea.

Except that the argument definitely gets old. You hear the same things again and again: declining readership, only poets read poetry, it’s not in the newspapers, the Kardashians don’t keep up with it, et cetera. And then poets get defensive and flood the message boards and try not to use the word philistines or, also, assholes. (I once used up a whole, perfectly good day live-tweeting sarcastic rejoinders at Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri in the wake of her article titled, well, “Is Poetry Dead?”)

And we do this over and over.

Well, it’s time to resolve this debate, once and for all, so that nobody ever needs to write an Is Poetry Dead article ever again.

How? With science.

(Because, in America, science resolves all debates.)

You see, there is a biological definition of life. (This exists so that, when someone goes to create a Frankenstein’s monster, they can’t just start yelling “It’s Alive!” without first checking a few things.) According to scientists (i.e., Wikipedia), all living things have to meet seven criteria: they have to respond to the environment and show metabolism, reproduction, organization, homeostasis, growth, and adaptation. And so, ipso facto, cogito ergo sum, if poetry meets these criteria, it’s alive, and we can stop asking the question.

Pretty good idea, right? I know.

So? Is poetry alive?

Let’s start with the easy stuff: poetry, first of all, does Respond to the Environment. I’ve been to a lot of open mic readings in my life, and I can tell you: whenever there’s a tragedy in the news, or something wonderful happens, whether in the world or in an individual life, people write poems. Whole poetry organizations come about this way, like Split this Rock, which developed out of the group Poets Against the War, which happened because of the first Iraq War. Poetry is an Environment-Responding superstar: check.

And why do poems respond? Well, for lots of reasons. One reason is that this helps the poet to process the happening, the experience. Looking at it close up, through the refracting lens of artful language, allows the poet to turn the thing into another thing. Confusion can become clarity, or the beginnings of it; certainties can become good questions; pain can become beauty and vice versa; helplessness can become a handhold, a grip. Poetry transforms (and in its presence we can be transformed). In other words, Metabolism: also check.

Poetry, meanwhile, definitely Reproduces. How do you make poetry? Well, I don’t know about you, but what I do (and what a lot of my friends do) is begin by reading a bunch of poetry written by other people. Eventually, after a lot of friendly mingling with this other poetry, I get a tingly poetry feeling in me, and a poem of my own starts to form. Then I put the other folks’ poetry down and get to writing. This really works; poetry makes poetry. Reproduction: hell, yes.

Organization may be a tougher call, especially given that some poetry readings start an hour and a half late because the poet who’s supposed to read in fact caught the wrong bus. But that’s not what biology means when biology talks about Organization. What biology means is a life form is an orderly form, that there’s a hierarchical structure there. Atoms make up molecules make up organelles make up cells, etc. And poems are like that, of course, with phonemes and words and sentences and stanzas, though it all gets complicated by lines, which may be smaller or larger than sentences, or even words, might be the same size as stanzas or smaller. But the bigger point is that a poem has form. Sonnets, sestinas, villanelles have obvious form, but even free-verse follows a logic—it just invents its own internal logic with each new poem.* If a poem is any good—and lots of them are—it’s got Organization. So, check.

Related to this is Homeostasis, which is about internal balance, or what Barbara Herrnstein Smith (who is kind of a genius and deserves a specific shout-out) would call stability. A living thing is regulated so that everything stays in tune with everything else and nothing goes off the rails. Bad poems probably don’t have this—the end of the poem doesn’t bring closure to the beginning, the image set shifts violently for no reason, the diction of the poet vacillates wildly—and those poems are, I guess, dead. Or at least in critical condition. But good poems? Good poems are whole, and each part secretly knows about each other part and stays in balance with it. The regulator is the poet, who repeats a sound or a word in order to keep the current line in touch with other lines, who only lets the poem say what it’s been set up to be able to say—or who changes the set up so that it matches what gets said—and who goes back through an early draft to make sure the poem coheres in its voice, in its structure, in its energy. So, yeah: Homeostasis.

On, then, to Growth. According to the scientists (i.e., Wikipedia again), “a growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter.” This is a complicated concept in the sense that I don’t totally know what it means. But, if we look at the poetry analogy, a poem gets to maturity (i.e., final draft form) not just by piling words on, but through the development of all its constituent elements. The voice of the poem clarifies in the beginning, middle, and end. An imagery set solidifies to hold the poem together, informing the poem throughout. Growth is not always just about getting bigger; tadpoles lose their gills as part of their maturation, and there are some fish that show their age through the location of their eyes—they start out with eyes on both sides of their head and end up with both on the same side (which is completely crazy). With poems, the final version is certainly not always actually bigger than the first version—but there’s ultimately a coherent whole that sees not more words but more appropriate words, in that they work more appropriately together to form a grander effect. That is, poems Grow.

Maybe most important for our exploration is the requirement of Adaptation; for something to be alive, it has to adapt to its environment. In some sense, poetry obviously does this. The sonnet, born as a form in Italy, changed when it met the English language. Verse in wild-and-woolly America became decidedly freer; it’s also become more post-modern in an era when people have become increasingly suspicious of truth-claims. Iambic pentameter, stage plays written in verse, slam poetry, perhaps even song lyrics—these have all been adaptations to new environments. And it’s this characteristic that pushes us to ask not, “Is Poetry Dead?” but “Where and how can poetry live?” While we check the Adaptation box, let’s definitely keep asking this second question.

The bottom line: as you can see, technically speaking, poetry is as alive as a kangaroo or a bacterium or the kind of fish that is actually (I kid you not) called a Sarcastic Fringehead. We have checked the vital stats, and the stats are vital. There is officially no need to further rehash the Dead Poetry question; if you question the aliveness of poetry, you basically hate science.

Check, in other words, and mate.

One last and more earnest thought: If you have to keep asking if something is dead, it probably isn’t. So ask away, I guess. Doing so doesn’t kill anybody or anything, and least of all poetry.

*Take, for example, William Carlos’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow,” often held up as a paragon of free verse. But how free is it? Four stanzas, and in each stanza there are two lines. In the first and last stanzas the first line is three words, four syllables total, and the second line is one word of two syllables. In the middle two stanzas the first line is three syllables, consisting of two words and part of a third, and the second line is the rest of that word, two syllables long. That’s some serious order.

agni blog logo smaller

2014 Hairston 08David Ebenbach is the blog editor for AGNI, and also the author of five books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved. He lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Georgetown University.

Wherever, However: Poetry, Pornography, and the Internet

by David Ebenbach

I was once at a poetry talk where the speaker said, “Poetry has benefited more from the internet than anything else has—except pornography.” I was struck by the idea: pornography and poetry, the winner and runner-up in the internet sweepstakes. It’s not necessarily what you would have predicted when the internet was getting started. Well, at least the poetry part.

Of course, the two things probably benefit for different reasons: pornography because people really want it a lot but are embarrassed to go get it in person; poetry because people don’t want it that much, so it helps if they can get it for free without ever even leaving their desk chairs.

Whatever the cause is, though, the effect might be similar. Certainly print media takes a hit in both cases, given that there’s a viable (and cheaper) online alternative. That’s why Playboy is saying goodbye to nude photos—how else to sell a magazine to people who can look at naked strangers without having to make awkward eye contact with the person who’s selling it?—and also why print literary magazines are being threatened with extinction at a number of universities and some print magazines—Ascent, Exquisite Corpse, Shenandoah, TriQuarterly, and others—have gone to an online-only format.

At the heart of this is money, and this is where we return to distinctions between the internet’s big #1 and #2. As it happens, both have lots of content available online for free, which means that hardly anybody is making a profit. As Cade Metz writes for Wired Magazine, “the adult industry is in a bind. Money is hard to come by, and as the industry struggles to find new revenue streams, it’s facing extra competition from mainstream social media.” This is a serious problem for an industry whose endgame is pretty much entirely about revenue; people make porn to make money.

Poetry, however, is different. For better or worse, poets have hardly ever expected to make a living from their verse. In fact, we’ve typically lost money on it. The makers of toner and printer paper took our money so that we could send our work out to magazines, and so did the post office. Magazine editors had to dig into their pockets (often their own personal pockets) for printing and distribution. And so, although free online poetry doesn’t make profits any easier, it does at least cut some costs. As I say, this is a for-better-or-worse point—it may not be a good thing that we’re so accustomed to giving our poetry away. But it does mean that poets have adopted a metric for success that fits the internet: we want readers, and the web has some of those.

Meanwhile all this online-ness has led to new kinds of poetry. Audio poem and video poems are more common than ever—check out Fishouse, 2River View, the Cortland Review, or Poetry Out Loud, for starters, or just do a search on YouTube. Taking more direct advantage of the special powers of the internet, there are interactive poems, too, like some of what you can find at Born Magazine (now defunct, but with a great archive). And you can interact with huge poetry databases, too—like the one at the Poetry Foundation—whether on your phone or laptop. (Incidentally, searching their database for “pornography” turns up this great, solemn poem by Paisley Rekdal.)

By now, the world of online verse is of course a thoroughly accomplished fact; poetry is thriving in digital. (Check out this hefty list of online poetry magazines to give you a sense of thriving.) We’ve figured out how to get the line breaks and indentations right in HTML and how to choose background and fonts to make work readable. Poems move easily through social media. Academic institutions are starting to take web publications seriously as they do their tenure and promotion reviews. And so, okay—probably poetry isn’t anywhere near #2 in the list of web beneficiaries (we have to make room for massive online stuff vendors like Amazon, and video streaming services, and social media, and so on) but there’s no doubt that, if the web is open real estate—if you lived here, you’d already be home!—poets have moved in, in force.

I do find myself wondering if this ubiquity has changed (or will change) the dynamic that drove so much poetry online in the first place. The picture with pornography is mixed; some studies suggest that those negative feelings (like shame) that drove users to their computers instead of to the corner store are on the decline, but others disagree. What about poetry? Has there been any shift in the apathy that made the web a more appealing home? Well, according to the NEA, poetry reading has decreased during the era of the internet, which is not a great sign. (Cue the perennial hand-wringing articles about whether or not poetry is dead.) It may be that the original apathy is still driving the picture; the internet may make poetry easier to find, but probably only if you’re actually looking for it.

One interesting thing: a study by the Poetry Foundation found that a huge majority of people will read a poem if they happen to stumble across it, and tend to generally like what they read. The web doesn’t always allow for stumbling-across experiences, though. In fact, it’s generally best at silo-ing things off, so that people who are very interested in a thing know where to go get it. But maybe websites can diversify; maybe people will start to care about poetry if they run into it while doing other things. (Like visiting pornographic sites? Probably not, though Playboy was once famous for its fiction, and perhaps it will be again.)

Of course, there’s no need to get evangelical. For the people who already love poetry, anyway, the world is awash in the stuff, and (even if it’s not so nice that we’re not getting paid) it’s a good thing that you can get your fix whenever you want it. (The parallel to pornography is obvious enough.)

A final thought: apparently there’s a real chance that hackers are going to dig up everybody’s porn preferences from online search histories (whether searched incognito or not) and release them to the world, identified by people’s names. (This may cause some panic.) Of course, there’s no comparable danger around poetry. In fact, I like the idea that somebody will track down all the things we like to read and blow our cover. Just picture the headlines: Your Goofball Co-Worker Spends Lunch Reading Melancholy Formalist Poetry; Binge-Verse-Reading and Today’s College Student; maybe even Fortune 500 Companies Turn to Poetry-Blockers for their Company Web Browsers. (While you’re in there, hackers, go ahead and unmask any remaining fake Yi-Fen Chous, will you?)

In the meantime, poetry lovers will keep on reading, wherever and however we can.

agni blog logo smaller

2014 Hairston 08David Ebenbach is the blog editor for AGNI, and also the author of five books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved. He lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Georgetown University.

AGNI: Bringing the Web Back

by David Ebenbach

When we told some of our former contributors that we were starting a blog, one of them noted that “blog” is a pretty ugly word. And it is a pretty ugly word; it suggests, maybe, a gelatinous creature that comes down from outer space to smother us in cat gifs, lolz, and rambling meditations on that day’s breakfast.

You know, I think something significant got lost when, way back in the 20th century, the word “weblog” dropped its clear reference to “web.” Because the web part of the weblog is often more interesting than the log part. It reminds us that the internet is supposed to be about more than just self-expression; it’s also supposed to be about interconnections.

For sure that’s how we’re thinking about this blog here at AGNI, where we’re very interested in bringing things together. We’re envisioning this as a space where connections can be made between seemingly disparate happenings in the world of writing and art; between a person’s creative work and that person’s life and ideas; between our authors and readers; between the conversations happening in our magazine and the conversations happening outside it; between apparently contradictory ideas; between one art form and another; between different pieces that we’ve published; between the ugly and the beautiful; between writers and other writers.

And so: Sit back in the web and make yourself comfortable. Or make yourself uncomfortable. Or both. Welcome, in other words, to the between space.

Final Monkey

2014 Hairston 08In addition to being the blog editor for AGNI, David Ebenbach is the author of five books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved (2015), winner of the Patricia Bibby Prize. Find out more at