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Caution: Poetry at Work!

Welcome to Caution: Poetry at Work! Weekly web entries offer a poem, some thoughts about poetry and the work it does in the world, and invitations to work with poetry yourself. Each month explores a new theme and expands our discussion of the images, sounds, challenges, gifts, and transformative power of poetry.

A word about us: Mara Faulkner, OSB, is professor emerita of English, and Karen Erickson is professor of French and academic dean at the College of Saint Benedict / Saint John's University. On a whim, nearly thirty years ago, we created an informal writing group. Our monthly meetings have sustained and challenged us, as we urged one another to submit poems and to create chapbooks. We hope you find in this webpage some of the delights and insights -- into the world and into our lives -- that poetry has brought to us.

A word about our title, or How Poetry Can Change the World:
James Baldwin wrote:

You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can't, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. ...The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way...people look at reality, then you can change it.

To grasp the revolutionary power of poetry all we have to do is read the somber rollcall of poets exiled, imprisoned, or killed by dictators and totalitarian governments. One of many is the Russian poet Osip Mendalstam whom Joseph Stalin exiled to a Siberian labor camp for poems so filled with life and ecstasy that they threatened Stalin's determined efforts to control thought, expression, and the life of the spirit. More recent examples are landays, poems composed by Afghan women. A landay is an ancient two-line form of oral folk poetry that even today is usually passed on by word of mouth, woman to woman, anonymously or under a pseudonym. Why? Because Afghan women are forbidden to write poetry, especially on such bold subjects as love, sex, war, and separation. (You can read some of these dangerous poems in an article by Eliza Griswold, Poetry, June, 2013.) If dictators around the world are afraid of poets—and they always are—then there must be a subversive power in those spidery black words that can change us, one person, one millimeter at a time. As Juan Felipe Herrarra, the United States poet laureate, says, poetry is far from passive; it is action and a call to action.

Poets aren't exiled or killed in the United States, partly because of our commitment to free expression of ideas and beliefs. There may also be a less positive reason, having to do with notions about what poetry is and does. If we think of poetry as an impenetrable thicket of words hiding an obscure meaning you can't get at without a machete, it won't seem dangerous or world-changing. It will be simply irrelevant to most people's lives. Even knowing that we write poetry, many people have said to us over the years, "I don't get poetry," as they mentally wash their hands of the whole puzzling business. Our website, "Caution: Poetry at Work," is certainly meant for people who already read and appreciate poetry and who may write some themselves. But we also want to invite people who have felt shut out of poetry's alien and exotic world to take a fresh look—and try their hand at this dangerous, beautiful work that's so important to the life of the world. We look forward to the year ahead!