Poetry & Protest

I have a new lesson up this week: William Stafford’s “At the Bomb Testing Site.” Just from reading the title, you can see that this poem points to protest, to pacifism.

But the poem is mysterious. It doens’t argue an outright position but shows us a tense lizard, gripping the ground. Our view pans out to a curving road, a vast continent, an “indifferent” sky. I’ve read this poem many times, and I still don’t quite know “what it means.” Clearly bombs are not “good.” This is not a case of “for” or against,” an opinion piece enumerating one side or the other. I’m not saying there’s not a place for that — there is! — but it’s not necessarily poetry’s place.

Poetry doesn’t divide into two sides. It’s not netural or indifferent, but it doesn’t put forth a soundbite message like propaganda. Poetry sees a multitude of sides and explores them, like holding up a prism and watching the everchanging colors and light reflect off a room, then another room, and another. Poetry looks for truth, which is sometimes complex and multifaceted, sometimes utterly simple.

I learned long ago that minds aren’t changed through theory, through abstract discussion of an issue. People shift and see things anew when they experience. You can debate for or against an environmental issue, but when you live by a forest cleared for a crop, the land going dry and mudslides down the mountainthat trees once held firm, or you live by a river where a company upstream dumps chemicals, you know the issue — and it becomes more than an issue.

Poetry and fiction create images, scenes, situations where we experience instead of only intellectualize. Poets aren’t saying, “Think this!” but “Look at this?” As a poet myself, I know that what inspires my poems is not so much wanting to say something but to look at something. That doesn’t mean I’m not bursting with anger at injustice; it means I really want to understand it, to show it. I desperately want to see, want people to see. For the reader and the writer poems are about experiencing and absorbing a little more of life than we’d experienced before; or seeing from another point of view; or examining something we’ve experienced a thousand times before and never really seen, now somehow fresh and different there on the page.

Or, poems ask questions. A great example is Langston Hughes’s “Harlem,” where the entire poem is made up of questions, beginning with, “What happens to a dream deferred?” The questions open a space for experience, for people — white society — to really consider: What is the pain, the cost of living in a society where people can’t pursue their dreams, a society which proclaims the pursuit of dreams? But it’s not indifferent or nice or banal. It’s last question is: Or does it explode? You can feel the anger, the frustration, the tragedy, the protest. The poem’s power is in its questioning and in every visceral image in which I feel just for a moment what “Harlem” feels.

In “At the Bomb Testing Site,” we see human action through this little anxious lizard, waiting for something to happen — unbeknownst to the lizard — a literal huge, destructive bomb to drop. We feel this potential loss of the smallest life, feel a disturbing anxiety about the potential we humans have for destruction, and see the vast time of the Earth, of stone, in which we ourselves are so small. We become small like the lizard.

The poem isn’t a protest poem in that it gives us a catchy take-away like a slogan. It asks us to see for a moment from this small little life, see that we are small little lives, asks us to step outside of what we “believe” or what we might be yelling at a rally and sit for a minute at this place of almost-destruction, to live for a minute in feeling that awful potential and also our own smallness. “Ready for change,” like the lizard, I can feel the potential of this societal decision — either change toward destruction or change toward — peace? Toward making different decisions as a society? And so much more it’s hard to articulate.

That’s the beauy of this poem — that I can’t quite say it, and I don’t have to. I live the scene each time I read it, and it somehow changes me, now that I’ve experienced it. When I teach poetry, I try to remember this, and I try to model not “This is the answer!” but “What do you see right now? … And now? How else could we see it?” I love teaching this poem especially to English learners because it’s such a great example of how you can access the same challenging questions about life even through the simplest vocabulary. If you know enough words to grasp the image of the scene, then you’re in the pool of experience, swimming around these deep questions about humanity that can’t be so easily articulated — in any language — or fully known or solved.


Thanks for reading! Again, here’s the full lesson.

And here’s a creative writing prompt based on “At The Bomb Testing Site.”

Visit ELLiterature to see more of my little project here.

And feel free to send me a message if you’d like to discuss how I can help in your literature or English learning journey!


The power of fiction is to create empathy. It lifts you away from your chair and stuffs you gently down into someone else’s point of view. It differs drastically from a newspaper, which imparts information while allowing you to remain rooted in your own perspective. A newspaper could tell you that one hundred people, say, in an airplane, or in Israel, or Iraq, have died today. And you can think to yourself, “How very sad,” then turn the page and see how the Wildcats fared. But a novel could take just one of those hundred lives and show you exactly how it felt to be that person rising from bed in the morning, watching the desert light on the tile of her doorway and on the curve of her daughter’s cheek. You would taste the person’s breakfast, and love her family, and sort through her worries as your own, and know that a death in that household will be the end of the only life someone will ever have. As important as yours. As important as mine.

Barbara Kingsolver, from High Tide in Tucson