The Quadroon Girl

Remember back a few posts ago when the Parlando Project performed a question posed by poet Vijay Seshadri? He asked what poetry, or any art, can say about children in cages. There are many answers to that for poets. One obvious one: to say in your work that it is wrong and that you oppose it. One can argue that shouldn’t be avoided. Even if denunciation is simple and obvious, it could still be appropriate. Others will find simple denunciation worse than not sufficient, that it may only be signaling your self-removal from it.

Some will say, poetry or art is beside the point in such cases, to the barricades! or the voting booth! The former is easier to say than a poem, though harder to do successfully—so hard, that the consequences of power, due should the revolution succeed, can most always be avoided. The later seems so prosaic and lacking in artistic verve and purity that we shrug it off as too easy or uninspiring.

Seshadri ends up suggesting that poetry and art can express reality and some moral order vibrating in the universe in a compelling way, that this is the sharp edge of its weapon or scalpel. A good point. That’s what art does, it’s a way to transfer experience, including the experience of this. But his question about dealing with great and obvious evils in a poem is still difficult to answer successfully. It’s easier to write a successful poem, a small sound-machine made out of words, against menial human faults: ignorance, self-importance, narrow thinking, the ordinary follies.

Perhaps it’s those small faults, ones we all share, that accumulate, and lead to great evil.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, that once hugely popular and now deeply unfashionable poet, seems to have tried but once to use his poetry to address great evil: a pamphlet of poems addressing slavery. His effort was not long-remembered, and it has not saved him from his fate to be cast off as a poet of undistinguished, conventional and sentimental verse, the very sort of thing that the Modernist movement needed to supersede.

Mpls Longfellow Statue 6!!

This eroded statue of Longfellow stands, missing its hands, in a little visited corner of an otherwise busy Minneapolis park, somehow saying something about how Longfellow is viewed today.

I’ve already performed one of those Longfellow poems on slavery: “The Witnesses.”  I could have performed “The Quadroon Girl”  instead, but I didn’t think I could. This is a level of evil so deep, compounding even the evil of slavery, that it is, paradoxically, a sort of sacred space. I didn’t think I was ready or worthy to go there.

I’m not going to further explicate “The Quadroon Girl”  here. Despite the shakiness of my singing, it’s better to listen to it, to follow the story as it unfolds. I’ve performed it exactly twice, and I don’t know if I could perform it again. The player is below.

Poetry vs. Children in Cages

The Paris Review  recently selected four guest editors, poets who will be asked to help select and present poems during a project in the upcoming year. To introduce their project and these editor/poets, they asked the poets for remarks on “Where is poetry now?” Each of the poets had interesting things to say, but I was struck particularly by part of what Vijay Seshadri said.

Seshadri is a contemporary poet of some accomplishments, awards and note, but I had not noted those things, nor could I recall any of his work before reading his remarks. That alone could be remarkable under the subject of “Where is poetry now?”—but let us ascribe that to my own focus and hit and miss reading habits. Seshadri addressed the question I’ve brought up here a number of times: how can or should poetry address political and social questions?

Vijay Seshadri

Words Vijay Seshadri did not say: “And so students, poetry lets you experience Other Peoples’ Stories intimately…but now the part you came for, my acclaimed one-man performance of the first season of ‘Stranger Things.”


Seshadri tells of a recent poetry workshop he taught. He describes his students as “young, sensitive, and deeply empathetic.” Looking to current events in the United States, he asked them “to consider the children in cages,” implying that he would like them to address that with their workshop poems, but he found that they could not do so in the work they presented, at least during the week-long workshop. Another writer could have used this observation as a springboard to that hardy perennial topic: “What’s wrong with the younger generation?” or its broader targeted version: “What’s wrong with our culture or society?” Seshadri didn’t.

What did he say instead about why this might be difficult for artists, and what they might do about that difficulty? This is what I present in today’s audio piece, using words of his that I extracted from his remarks. I use as an epigraph a line from one of Seshadri’s poems, and the title I use here, “Poetry vs. Children in Cages,”  is my own concoction, but I hope I am being fair to his thoughts.

These are important questions. I know many of the readers here are poets or other artists. You may not agree with Seshadri’s thoughts on this, but you are still charged to think about this. Perhaps, like Seshadri’s students, you won’t have an answer in a week’s time, but that’s not a reason to stop thinking and trying to find a way to address our world.

To hear my attempt to convey Vijay Seshadri’s thought, use the player below. Musically this time,  I’m back to using something like a traditional rock band instrumentation: electric guitars, bass, and drums, but I also made an attempt to use a virtual instrument rendition of a sarangi, which is a Indian sub-continent version of a bowed fiddle with resonating sympathetic strings, conceptionally similar to the Norwegian hardanger. Even in it’s VI guise, I found I had to be careful of those resonances.