(Do Not) Beat Poets

Lynne Nugent

Sometimes I imagine the Iowa Review, publisher of literary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, as inhabiting the opposite side of the publishing spectrum from, say, a newspaper: not so much Great Men or Great Events—what Virginia Woolf summarized as the kind of history that proclaims, "In the year 1842 Lord John Russell brought in the Second Reform Bill"—as a more lowercase version of history: personal, idiosyncratic, filtered through the consciousness of a single writer who, in the moment of writing, seems not so much engaged with world events as contemplating them from a distance.

That's why it is somewhat startling to see our "headlines" intersecting with those in the newspapers. Amid the many reports of police brutality at Occupy protests in the last few months, one stood out to us in particular: the violence against three poets whose words have appeared in our pages: Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, and Geoffrey G. O'Brien. Robert Hass writes in the New York Times about what transpired at the Occupy Berkeley protest on November 9. He describes the professor-poets remonstrating with police in an attempt to protect student protesters from their blows. Brenda Hillman was "shoved" in the chest. Robert Hass, former poet laureate of the United States, was "whacked" with a billy club. Geoffrey G. O'Brien was also hit with a truncheon and sustained a broken rib.

It was a stark reminder to me of, among other unpleasant realities, the need to not assume such distance between our poets' words and the events of the world. Often beautiful, often erudite, their words still seek to engage with the world and alter its brutal outcomes, whether published in the pages of a magazine or spoken in public.

"My wife [Brenda Hillman] was speaking to the young deputies about the importance of nonviolence and explaining why they should be at home reading to their children," Hass writes. A lovely poem, there.

In tribute to these poets and their colleagues and students, we present Geoffrey G. O'Brien's poem "Street Cry" from our Fall 2010 issue. Reading it again, I contemplated his words in a new light: "a dream in which the rich are friendly / up to a point"; "the day game / that rains down on short notice"; "values day puts a boot through"; and especially "the institution's / gates, where we gather to be held / back, what happens afterward is / night, relatedness of much too little."


photo credit: floppyphotos.wordpress.com