Tuesday, March 12, 2013

How to Deliver Your Message, Part 5: Summon the Winds of Righteousness

There is another way to deliver a message that I haven’t discussed yet.
It’s not an easy topic to approach for me in this context because I’ve
taken great pains in this series of blogs to rail against wielding a
message like a blunt weapon. But the kind of writing I’m going to discuss
in this blog isn’t didactic, even though it makes its point fairly
directly. When done right, it’s one of the most effective forms of writing
I know.

This means of delivering a message is to focus on an injustice or a wrong
that the writer feels acutely. It doesn’t have to be an injustice or wrong
the author has experienced personally, but it has to be one that comes
from a writer’s very core. Rather than testify individually, the writer
becomes like a prosecutor, calling witnesses, introducing evidence,
creating a watertight case that the reader will then be asked to decide,
like a jury.

It’s not a simple way to write, because an unskilled or naïve writer can
easily fall from righteousness into self-righteousness. The writer has to
have some moral standing to argue this particular case, as certain
attorneys can only argue a case before the Supreme Court of the U.S.A. if
they fulfill certain requirements.

Two poets who use this strategy exceedingly well are Linda McCarriston and
June Jordan. Both have written incredibly eloquently about mothers. June
Jordan wrote about mothers in “Getting Down to Get Over,” among other
poems. “Getting Down to Get Over” is a hymn to African American women, not
just Jordan’s own mother. We feel the poet’s intimate connection with this
subject in these lines:

Consider the Queen

she fix the cufflinks
on his Sunday shirt
and fry some chicken
bake some cake
and tell the family
“Never mind about the bossman
don’ know how a human
bein spozed to act.…”

June Jordan isn’t mouthing platitudes about how racial and class
inequality are bad. She has known this woman, and she has measured the
weight of her suffering and her dignity. Even though this poem has a
message that is not subtle, it works because of the veracity of the
Jordan’s poem begins with an incantation, a recitation of many terms that
might be used to describe a Black woman, positive or derogatory. Here are
just a few lines of that sequence that takes up two full pages:

Baby Baby

Black Momma
Black bitch
Black pussy

The sound patterns of that incantation enable Jordan to lift her words to
the level of a spell. When Jordan invokes the figure of Black motherhood
at the poem’s close, the wizardry of the poem shakes us to the

help me
turn the face of history
to your face.

I’ve been using the metaphor of a court in discussing this method of
delivering a message partly because I want to close with Linda
McCarriston’s great poem, “To Judge Faolain, Dead Long Enough: A Summons.”
In this poem, the judge, who commands the forces of money, patriarchy,
and the law, sends the speaker’s mother back to the husband who brutalized
her. But the poet can summon other powers against those forces. Call them
the winds of righteousness. By describing the mother’s wounds and the
family’s terror, McCarriston conjures a moral tornado, magically stripping
away the judge’s power. The poet turns the tables and makes the judge the

His punishment matches his legal crime of ignoring the suffering of those
he’s entrusted to serve. As in Jordan’s “Getting Down to Get Over,” the
language has the diction and force of an incantation:

                                I call
your spirit home again, divesting you
of robe and bench…

The sentence that McCarriston proposes for the judge is no less than his
reincarnation as a powerless woman at the mercy of a sick and violent man,
so he may personally feel the abuse he ignored when he was in a position
of authority.

These two poets are skillful at calling on the force of righteousness to
make their points. They do this partly by the incredibly specific details
they use to describe moral wrong, and partly by the incantation of their
speech. This sort of voice is also familiar to those who follow U.S.
history. It’s the energy behind Soujourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman”
speech, and many of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most powerful public
utterances. It’s not a mode that a writer can call on every time, but for
particularly strong statements against injustice, I don’t think anything
is more effective.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4 
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;

No comments:

Post a Comment