THE POWER OF POETRY

POWER OF POETRY #73: JOSEPH RATHGEBER

The power of poetry resides in the possibility of disempowering.

Poetry has the power to un-make. Rather than follow the credo of fascist-poet Ezra Pound and attempt to “make it new,” just un-make it. Poetry, like everything, is scaffolded on structures of power. Prizes awarded by panels of judges. Residencies granted to applications with glittering letters of recommendation. Organizations of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit variety. Presses with institutional, university backing. The gifts of philanthropists. There’s a veritable foundation of poetry, sturdy and steeped in firm soil, which may seem impenetrable to even the strongest shovel stab.

But wily poets and their poems retain the opportunity—the power, you see—to dismantle these structures. They possess the power to refuse payment of entry fees. They have the power to not submit. They have the power to disobey submission guidelines, to submit fifty poems screenshotted in the form of a JPEG file. To post their poetry to social media accounts beforehand and forevermore. They have the power to un-make the rules, to disregard the rules.

Poetry, on the level of language, is always un-making, too. So poking holes in these structures should be something like second nature. Poets excise words, omit and elide them. They break lines. Might as well break pane-glass windows.

The power of poetry arises from the communities we make, the comrades we publish, the materials we steal and assemble into chapbooks on kitchen tables. The power of poetry is in the fires we set in the streets and in each other. Each poem a caltrop, leaving the streets speckled with so much potential for sabotage.


Joseph Rathgeber is an author and poet from New Jersey. His novel is Mixedbloods (Fomite, 2019). His story collection is The Abridged Autobiography of Yousef R. and Other Stories (ELJ Publications, 2014). His work of hybrid poetry is MJ (Another New Calligraphy, 2015). He is the recipient of a 2014 New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship (Poetry) and a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship (Prose).

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