Benedictine Life, Poetry

The destruction of apathy: how Emma Gonzalez mobilized the tools of poetry to empower the #NeverAgain movement

On March 26, 2018, at the ‘March for Our Lives’ demonstration in Washington D.C., one of the march’s organizers, Emma Gonzalez, took the stage to speak against the insane notion that nothing can be done to protect us and our children from gun violence. 

People were shaken out of apathy and the #NeverAgain movement, organized by Stoneman Douglas teens, gained momentum.  Miami New Times calls the #NeverAgain movement “unprecedented gun-control activism.”

Of course, there’s a whole lot more to the #NeverAgain movement than Emma Gonzalez’s speech. A month before the March For Our Lives, George and Amal Clooney, Oprah, and Steven Spielberg donated a combined total of 1.5 million dollars. So what did Emma Gonzalez’s speech do? It opened the throttle for the #NeverAgain organizers and participants to go flat-out toward their goal of policy change. They aim to make sure the Stoneman Douglas shooting will become the last mass shooting that citizens of the United States will ever experience.

Emma Gonzalez is a high school senior, but she’s already had four years of creative writing classes and she used the strategies of poetry to fashion her powerful speeches. Speaking about her “We Call B.S.” speech in an interview with Ellen DeGeneres, González said she felt her message would resonate through repetition. “I knew I would get my job done properly at that rally if I got people chanting something.”

Recently I wrote about Muriel Rukeyser’s belief that poetry is the one power we need to “call up, with all the strength of summon we have, our fullness,” which is to say our full humanity, our full goodness.

To overcome hate and violence we need new poetry, Rukeyser says, poetry that organically evolves into the forms and sounds that illuminate the emotional truth of contemporary experiences. More importantly, we need poems not just for critics and professional poets, but those that speak to a broader, general audience.

In Washington D.C., on March 26, 2018, Emma Gonzalez demonstrated a form of a new poetry that speaks to a broad, general audience. Using the devices of density, repetition, rhythm, and silence—all found in poetry’s toolbox—she broke through apathy and unlocked the power of authentic, honest grief and rage to spur a movement into action. 

Emma Gonzalez was at the podium for just over six minutes. A typical six-minute speech would use over 800 words. In the time she spoke, Gonzalez touched on the concepts of time and eternity, on gun violence and death, on what it means to not know and not understand the value of our lives, on how to understand that the loss of any life is tragic. And then she named all seventeen young people whose lives were ended by a madman with an semi-automatic rifle, legally modified to shoot like an automatic, on February 14. She accomplished this in 283 words, eleven more than Lincoln used in his Gettysburg address. To employ density in language is to make a few, powerful words eloquently express so much more than a rambling discourse could ever manage to say. 

She began with the words “Six minutes, and about 20 seconds,” the time it took for Nikolas Cruz to wound 15 and kill 17 people. In her brief speech, she repeated the word “six” 5 times. The phrase “no one” began four consecutive sentences, and in naming the 17 dead, she used the phrase “would never” 17 times, with the resounding finality of a graveside gunfire salute.  Repetition makes people hear what you’re saying. It also makes what is said more believable to people’s ears. It’s a tool of propaganda as well as of poetry. 

What makes poetry different from propaganda, in the opinion of poet and critic T.S. Eliot, is that propaganda seeks to manipulate our emotions so we will believe falsehoods, while poetry effects a kind of fusion between what we feel and what we know to be true, so that “the feelings become elevated, intensified and dignified,” in a way that makes “truth more fully real to us.”  

Emma Gonzalez’s speech elevated, intensified, and dignified the grief and rage every sensible and sensitive human ought to feel about the continuing massacre of young people in schools in the United States. In an interview with Tammy Leitner for MSNBC, Gonzalez said that she wants people to empathize rather than feel apathy. The interview makes it clear that she is aware of the necessity of overcoming apathy so that people feel strongly enough to act. Gonzalez has reminded us that the proper response to our grief and rage about gun violence is to do something, to work to make a change. 

While her use of language density and repetition were skilled, her use of rhythm and silence was masterful. To experience the effects of the poetry–the rhythm and the silence–you’ll have to listen to Emma Gonzalez’s speech here at Vox.

Writing for Mother Jones, Ari Berman calls hers “The Loudest Silence in the History of US Social Protest. Jerry Weissman in Forbes says that “in just one day, the speech ran up nearly half a million views on YouTube, was excerpted on all the news broadcasts, and made the front pages of all the major publications, all of them lauding her dramatic silence.” And Patrick Henry, writing for The StarTribune called Emma Gonzalez’s silence riveting, “a 10th of an hour that seemed an eternity…it made palpable the terror experienced by the victims and the survivors.”

Poet and Benedictine Oblate Charles Wm. Preble Charles Wm. Preble says silence is essential to poetry. “The contemplative and poetic stance is silence,” Preble said recently at The Local Blend while drinking coffee and discussing poetry with me. “Behold, says the poet! Behold is a word that startles like a magician. To behold is to be still, observe, be held.”

In Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today, Joan Chittister writes, “Silence is a frightening thing. Silences leaves us at the mercy of the noise within us. We hear the fears that need to be faced. We hear, then, the angers that need to be cooled. We hear the emptiness that needs to be filled. We hear the cries for humility and reconciliation and centeredness. We hear ambition and arrogance and attitudes of uncaring awash in the shallows of the soul. Silence demands answers. Silence invites us to depth. Silence heals what hoarding and running will not touch.” 

Through her words and in her terrifying and moving silence, Emma Gonzalez made us face our fears. She made us hear the blood of the dead calling for justice and peace. She also fulfilled a vision Muriel Rukeyser dreamed about in 1946, when she called for a new poetry with the power to liberate a society from systemic injustice and build a stronger democracy. Emma Gonzalez has mobilized the tools of poetry to empower a movement to stop the mass slaughter of innocent citizens by guns. Her speech and her silence demanded answers and solutions. Let’s all demand #NeverAgain.

This movement is politically charged and emotionally laden. Some people think Emma Gonzalez is more terrifying than the semi-automatic and automatic weapons the #NeverAgain movement wants banned. How do you feel about all of this?

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