Shocking the students
One of the things I love about teaching political poetry is shocking my students. So often in my classes, my students haven't been hit with anything really controversial--they're thrown off kilter by Larkin's "This Be the Verse" simply because he drops two f-bombs in 12 lines. So just imagine what happened when we started talking about June Jordan's "Poem about My Rights" in class and they read these lines:
who in the hell set things up
and in France they say if the guy penetrates
but does not ejaculate then he did not rape me
and if after stabbing him if after screams if
after begging the bastard and if even after smashing
a hammer to his head even after that if he
and his buddies fuck me after that
then I consented and there was
no rape because finally you understand finally
they fucked me over because I was wrong I was
wrong again to be me being me where I was / wrong
to be who I am
If you're unfamiliar with the poem, I recommend it wholeheartedly. It's a long, beautiful, breathless, angry exclamation, a statement of defiance, a fist-pounding fuck you to the world as it stands, with the ending claim that "my resistance / my simple and daily and nightly self-determination / may very well cost you your life"
Their reaction at first was one of stunned silence. It's a longish poem by the class's standards--about 114 lines--and we rarely go for much over 30 lines, though I'm changing that in future classes. But as we dug in together, as we talked about everything from rape shield law to the "she was asking for it" defense to the history of colonial Africa to the politics of passing and the continuing advantage of white males in society to Jordan's final defiant claim, they became simultaneously animated and subdued--animated as they started to realize the claims poetry could make on the world about it, and subdued by how fucked up the world has been and how fucked up it still is. It's the kind of thing I love most about teaching.