"Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." - Reinhold Niebuhr
In thinking about the impact of art on society, and in my case the impact of literature, I look back to the poetry of Walt Whitman, who in 1855 self-published Leaves of Grass. Whitman’s determination and willful inclusivity put him ahead of his time. Adapting to the changing pressures of the world around him, Whitman took the subject of the Civil War to render with convincing appeal the volatility of his nature and time. He resisted existing poetics conventions and used candid language to more accurately represent the world around him; he showed the beauty and ugliness of the men and women in America on equal terms. The subject of his poetry was of the ordinary—the working class, drug addicts, prostitutes, the rich and the poor. The tradition of Whitman’s “barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world” continued to echo through most of the Twentieth century. It was subsequent generations of poets who sustained this idea (e.g., Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Lyrics of Lowly Life, Carl Sandburg’s Chicago, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Gwendolyn Brooks’ The Bean Eaters). Poetry for and about everyday Americans was born with Whitman and for most of the Twentieth century it became the standard. Readers like to see themselves in the stories they hear; they like the familiar. In many ways the stories found in literature help readers understand what is artful, beautiful, or good. As a poet the world around me informs the content of what I write. Often, as with any art, social and political movements influence its content and creation. Many social and political revolutions have been born through art because it has the power to make us question what is right and wrong. Take for instance the work of performance artists Karen Finley and Tim Miller, two of the NEA Four whose artwork led them to be denied an NEA grant because of the content of their artwork; the content of their work led lawmakers, artists, and art lovers to question what they considered to be art. Where do we draw the line between pornography and art? What is art?