State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.
The poem presents itself “as if” it were a questionnaire, a bureaucrat’s dream of order, each of its four stanzas framing for us a set of questions in a pattern, a form, that is familiar.
Berry’s questions, however, are not a request for information from a specific audience for a specific audience. The poem captures how language can be used to divide us from one another; and how easy it is to deny the humanity and the rights of others. By the time we reach the fourth stanza, the questions amount to a difficult interrogation: are you willing to value things over children? We are meant to doubt the degree of consciousness with which we respond to the world.
To understand the brutality that drives the questions framed in Berry’s poem, we need a sense of irony–the ability to see the distance between what is and what should be; that and a willingness to interrogate the values built into the frame of the questionnaire, the assumptions and the rationalizations at play.
Imagine, if you can, a white supremacist at the helm of a powerful government putting in place a policy that blocks Latinos from claiming asylum, an established legal concept, insisting that these refugees of US foreign policy are murderers, rapists, and thieves. If that same white supremacist then generated political slogans and told out-right lies in order to mold and mobilize public opinion–those slogans and lies would amount to agitprop.
The term, short for the Russian agitatsiya propaganda and associated with Marxism, is a powerful tool whether in Communist or Corporate Capitalist hands because it keeps an already fearful public in a state of near panic. And when we are fearful, we are less willing to see and question the frame of any given policy.
Berry’s poem is decidedly not agitprop. How to tell? The bare, naked quality of the language is something Orwell would point to immediately. Remember that for Orwell euphemism is dangerous because it is meant to keep us from thinking clearly.
For Orwell, vicious arguments are made palatable, normative by euphemism, which creates an enormous schism between act and representation; between filling out a questionnaire and killing children–whatever the degree of melanin in their skin.
“Questionnaire” pushes us to think about the role of the writer, poet and storyteller, in the present moment, as well as the difference between art and agitprop.
Writers, whether of poetry or prose, ask difficult questions, tell stories that demand a conscious response to the way in which issues and ideas are framed.
What difficult question does your work ask?
What difficult question does your favorite writer ask?