I Write Half
— W.R. Gilmour (Twitter: @Poetreay, IG: @Wrgilmourwriter, FB: W.R.Gilmour-Writer)
“A Poet Is Not a Jukebox” — So What Does That Make Me?
This week, I’d like to emulate one of my favorite black poets. In the 1960’s and 70’s, Dudley Randall was the leading exponent of the black poetry movement in America, and a promoter, publisher, and influence for other black poets and academics, such as Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, and Eldridge Knight. After years of working to promote and support black poets and the civil rights movement, in 1981 he published the poem, A Poet Is Not a Jukebox. If you have never read it, I highly recommend it. (Read it here.) It contains one of my favorite poetic lines: “…A poet is not a jukebox for someone to shove a quarter in his ear and get the tune they want to hear…”
In the poem, Randall says that he had been reading a poem about love to one of his friends, but his friend responds that she had rather he write about civil rights issues and a recent riot in Miami. Randall confesses his ignorance of the Miami riot, but also expresses his resistance to being told what to write. He compares it to “some Commissar of Culture in Russia” commanding a poet to write government propaganda, while the poet is “watching his mother die of cancer, / Or is bleeding from an unhappy love affair, / Or is bursting with happiness and wants to sing of wine, roses, and nightingales.” Randall predicts that a century later, it will be these personal poems that the Russian people will read, and sing, and love, rather than the dictated party line.
“A poet writes about what he feels, what agitates his heart and sets his pen in motion,” Randall writes, “Not what some apparatchik dictates, to promote his own career or theories. / Yeah, maybe I’ll write about Miami, as I wrote about Birmingham, / But it’ll be because I want to write about Miami, not because somebody says I ought to.” A poet is not a collection of ready-made slogans and opinions, or a jukebox of protest songs that anyone can play on demand.
If Not A Jukebox, Is A Poet An I-Pod?
As they did in Dudley Randall’s time, the social issues we face today create a deeply divisive and emotionally charged environment. We all share a common humanity, and equal value and worth, and yet, as a white, heterosexual, Christian, middle-class, married man, I feel ill-equipped to join in the conversation when the issues and pains experienced by marginalized groups are under discussion. My “gristmill” of personal experience for writing about current issues is significantly different, so I feel unqualified to speak on subjects where I lack the standing to do so.
In Randall’s poem, he defends writing about love, because of its personal and social benefits. “What’s wrong with love, beauty, joy and peace?” He asks. If there was more love, maybe history (and the present) would be different.
Maybe that can be my part of the conversation — not to be a “jukebox” of someone else’s choice of “tunes”, but rather an “iPod” with an ever-expanding library of my own accumulated education and experiences. As I listen and learn and strive to understand, my playlist of supportive and truthspeaking content will grow. I can focus on hope, charity, and love, and sing songs of support and compassion as well as those of justice and fairness. As opportunities arise for me to speak words of wisdom that come from my own genuine voice, I will thereby be better prepared to act on them.
A Poet Is An iPod (After Dudley Randall)
A poet is an iPod, so don’t tell me what to write.
I sent my friend a poem about Hope, and she texted back,
“That’s fine for you, with your fragile privilege and all,
But why don’t you write about what happened in Minneapolis?”
I didn’t write about Minneapolis because I didn’t know how to write about Minneapolis.
I’ve been busy teaching inmates, and trying to lose weight,
and writing poems and blog posts,
And I’ve been avoiding television and the online echo chambers.
So, it wasn’t an absence of compassion that caused me not to write about Minneapolis,
But simple confusion and cowardice.
Telling a poet with privilege what he ought to write
Is like some podcast pundit telling a poet
That he should write about a new poll that proves the election’s already decided,
Or the outrageous gaffes of politicians, digging themselves deeper with every tweet,
Or the unprecedented weather we’re having because of mail order companies
whose profits exceeded 400 percent (it was later discovered to be a taxation error).
Maybe the pressured poet is watching his daughter die of COVID,
Or is trying to be anti-racist, but afraid he does it wrong,
Or is somehow optimistic and yearns to sing of family, faith, and fireflies.
I’ll bet that in a hundred years the poems people will read, sing and love
Will be the poems about his daughter’s death, his racial empathy, or his
family, faith, and fireflies,
Not a million memes about polls, politicians, and polar ice caps.
A poet writes about what he feels, what agitates his heart and sets his pen in motion,
Not what every random apparatchik dictates, to support their own agendas and conspiracy theories.
Yeah, maybe I’ll write about Minneapolis, as I wrote about Hawn’s Mill.
In fact, I want to write about Minneapolis; but not because somebody
says I ought to.
Yeah, I write about hope. What’s wrong with hope?
If we were more hopeful, we’d have higher expectations for ourselves
and more mercy for others;
less fear and more faith.
When people hope, they see with clearer sight, open their hearts
to possibility and change,
Grow, set boundaries, and put off fear and doubt.
They speak softly, listen humbly, and hear the souls of others speak
as clearly as their own.
With hope, we are both: just and forgiving, and friends with all the world.
What’s wrong with hope, charity, and peace?
If the two Germanies had not felt hope, the Berlin Wall might still be standing.
If hope had filled the hearts of 19 men with peace, the towers might not have fallen.
If my student could have seen some hope from his cell window
his two young sons would not be fatherless,
so don’t tell me it’s trivial and a cop-out to write about hope and not about
A poet is not a jukebox,
A poet is an iPod.
I repeat, a poet is an iPod for someone to share the earbuds in his ears
and get the songs they need to hear,
And scroll through the playlists of truths he has learned, of who we really are,
And to sing along on repeat at full volume.
A poet is an iPod.
A poet is an iPod.
A poet is an iPod.
So don’t tell me what to write.
Read WR’s Poetry Blog from the beginning!
W.R. Gilmour (Reay) published a poem with Parousia Magazine, called the Centurion! Read it now!
Read WR’s “How to be a Truthspeaker” blog!