Poets Respond to Gun Violence: How Poetry can Influence Policy

By Blake Plante (PO ’18)

“Every year the leaves bury memory of these juvenile graves – the crackling umbers and rusts muting to umbrage what otherwise should be rage.”

Kyle Dargan’s poem “Natural Causes” is a response to the rate of juvenile homicide in Virginia. In the poem, youth purchase firearms from a farmer who “keeps his gaze down so as to remember nothing of [their] face[s].” Seasons pass indistinguishably as “boys… trade fire with boys”; and the farmer’s customers, most lasting for only one-time sales, “rarely return older.” Dargan’s poem argues that low accountability of gun retailers and easy accessibility of firearms leads to the untimely deaths of these youth.

On an issue as salient as gun control in America, opinions differ along many lines. But in some places, consensus exists. In one of the most glaring instances, more than 84% of Americans support background checks for all gun purchases. So why do only nine states require universal background checks? Why is it that among those states, background checks often are not enforced? Dargan joins many others in Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence, to communicate with others the intricate nuances of suffering caused by gun violence.

On February 5th 2018, editor of the anthology Brian Clements and several contributors and activists, spoke and performed many of the poems. Here, Senator Chris Murphy – one of the most vocal senators on gun control – said that, “we are stuck…” and tonight can show us “how we can unstick the issue.” As federal funding of research into gun violence has been stymied for the past twenty years, few comprehensive studies exist. Senator Murphy pointed to poetry as a way of overcoming this stasis, for where statistics may fail, poetry may succeed – perhaps not in changing people’s minds – but in mobilizing minds. Though consensus on background checks is near-unanimous among the American public, the NRA’s booming voice points state and federal legislature in the other direction. The thing to do then, Murphy advocates, is to get vocal – incensed – angry – inspired.

In a digital era biased toward a reduction of complexity – as Douglass Rushkoff argues in Program or be Programmed – where “we can retrieve any piece of data on our own terms… at the risk of losing its context”, both sides to an argument “can cherry-pick the facts that suit them, enraging their constituents and polarizing everybody.” Colum McCann, who wrote the introduction to Bullets into Bells, asserts that “what poetry can do is untangle some of the ‘facts’ and reveal the human tissue underneath.”  Like Claudia Rankine in Citizen, McCann is pointing to poetry’s ability to blend boundaries, shifting the way that people look at the issue so that it is no longer depersonalized.

For most people in America, gun violence is another thing we hear about over and over again on the news. Expressions of the human roar and the mother’s cry and the boy’s confusion as he grapples with the shooting of his friend – these human faces and human feelings need to be felt so that bullets don’t quell what otherwise should be active rage. Poetry has been afforded less study than other forms within the law and literature field. This may be because poetry is perceived as the more personal and emotive literary form, whereas quintessential legal texts are commonly associated with the depersonalized and rational voice of law. But where depersonalization overrides the human undercurrent that flows along law’s streams, poetry may be a way to epistemologically empower the public to reconstitute unjust realities.

“Poetry is not a luxury,” wrote Audre Lorde 33 years ago. “It is a vital necessity of our existence.” Poetry, as the “revelation or distillation of experience,” is how we name the nameless. “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.” McCann writes, “take these words. Weigh them up. Listen. Pause a while. Help reality touch justice.” Perhaps poetry can help us do just that with concern to gun control.

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