“And The Words of the Prophets Are Written on the Subway Walls”

I am currently reading Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale by the late Frederick Buechner.  With all of my reading and my reading about books and authors, I’m not sure why I had never come across this man until he died and people I knew and respected talked of his impact on them.  After reading a review of this book, I chose it as the starting point and have already recognized that it will be just a start.  Not even twenty pages into the book I found a passage that I kept going back to.  This paragraph wherein he writes about prophets set my mind loose.  

Buechner wrote, “But in addition to particular truths, the prophets spoke truth, too, and that was when they were most truly prophetic.  They did not speak the good news because the good news had not broken yet, but they spoke news.  They put words to things until their teeth rattled, but beneath the words they put, or deep within their words, something rings out which is new because it is timeless, the silence rings out, the truth that is unutterable, that is mystery, that is the way things are, and the reason it rings out seems to be that the language the prophets use is essentially the language of poetry, which more than polemics or philosophy, logic or theology, is the language of truth (18).

As I read this passage and reread it, I had a song playing in my brain.  I could hear Simon and Garfunkel singing, “And the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls and whispered in the sounds of silence.”  As with many old songs I grew up with, I can sing the song without looking up lyrics, but I did look them up.  What I found was poetry from September of 1965 – 57 years ago – that seems to ring as true as when Paul Simon penned the lyrics.  It also speaks of prophets and where to seek the wisdom they offer.  In case you don’t remember the words, here they are (emphasis added by me on the words that echoed the same of the kind of truth Buechner’s words made me think about).

SOUNDS OF SILENCE

Hello darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again

Because a vision softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was sleeping

And the vision that was planted in my brain

Still remains

Within the sound of silence

In restless dreams, I walked alone

Narrow streets of cobblestone

‘Neath the halo of a street lamp

I turned my collar to the cold and damp

When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light

That split the night

And touched the sound of silence

And in the naked light, I saw

Ten thousand people, maybe more

People talking without speaking

People hearing without listening

People writing songs that voices never shared

And no one dared

Disturb the sound of silence

“Fools” said I, “You do not know

Silence like a cancer grows

Hear my words that I might teach you

Take my arms that I might reach you”

But my words, like silent raindrops fell

And echoed in the wells of silence

And the people bowed and prayed

To the neon god they made

And the sign flashed out its warning

In the words that it was forming

Then the sign said, 

“The words on the prophets are written 

on the subway walls

and tenement halls”

And whispered in the sound of silence.

Lyrics by Paul Simon

The prophets of old as recorded in the Bible whether in lengthy Old Testament books or short New Testament passages have some things in common with each other and with poets.  Each was inspired to convey words and visions to other people.  None were powerful people ruling over nations or states or communities or businesses.  None were the prominent religious leaders of their time or their home towns.  Most of them told the public things they didn’t really want to hear. They sent out warnings, they revealed truth, they critiqued society. And especially the comfortable, the rulers, the wealthy, those in charge were profoundly disturbed. People in those situations don’t want the boat rocked and don’t want to be made uncomfortable. They will cast aspersions on the prophets/the poets calling them liars, rabble-rousers, madmen. But as Luke recorded Jesus saying, “…I tell you the truth, no prophet is accepted in his own hometown.” (Luke 4:24 NLT)

So are there still prophets among us?  

Well I can tell you for certain that we have many more than the ten thousand people, maybe more, talking without speaking, hearing without listening, and writing songs that voices never shared.  In fact we have millions of people talking and writing and singing on social media, daring to disturb the sounds of silence.  But their words are echoing not in the sound of silence that is so hard to find today.  Instead their words are shouted into echo chambers where everyone thinks the same.  An oft quoted line from Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Walter Lippmann says, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”  And what passes for thinking and wisdom is often just smoke and mirrors.

As in times of old, many of our current “prophets” are people who are seeing things from a different perspective than the average person.  They aren’t repeating the old theories and ways.  They challenge ideas, policies, and behaviors.  They shed light on life as it truly is and was.  They wipe away myths and lies, shed light where the curtains have been pulled to hide failures and sins, and they speak truth to power as they bring the powerful to account.  Whether their words are God-breathed or not, they are inspired.  Also like those of ancient times, they are often rejected out of hand as trouble-makers and rebels. They are accused of disturbing the status quo, but isn’t that the whole idea?  And often, they are still the poets.  

Okay, don’t leave me now just because I’m talking poets and poetry.  I know there are people who constantly say they don’t like poetry, they don’t understand it.  But much of the poetry being written today is clear as can be.  Slam poetry is a current trend where some of the most talented poets of our time perform their poems. You don’t need to read them. Just listen.  I’ve done a shallow dive to find poets who are among the ones who need to be heard.  I’ll share some poems and some videos.  Check them out.  Listen to their messages.  Many may make you uncomfortable, but that is what prophets and artists do.  Hear or read the words of these artists who tackle life’s complexities and horrors.

First up, let me share the work of a slam poetry champion as well as the season 15 winner of America’s Got Talent.  Brandon Leake teaches, works with youth in his hometown, and took the world by storm.  I’m sharing his second performance from AGT, but his audition and the judges’ reactions are worth searching out on YouTube as are his other performances.

The voices of today’s poets are varied in their ages and their backgrounds.  Barbara Kingsolver and rupi kaur are two poets who have shed a light on the lives of women and the impact violence brings to their lives.

 

A slam poet, Katie Makkai, speaks of another real aspect of growing up female that forms who women are in this video of her 2002 National Poetry Slam competition performance.

And out of the mouths of babes, here is a video of Olivia Vella who recited a powerful poem about insecurities for her seventh grade writing class.  She has more courage than most of the people I know!

Multiple award winning poet and Virginia Tech professor Nikki Giovanni has been known to poetry readers since first being published in 1968.  The bio she wrote for her website says, “My dream was not to publish or to even be a writer: my dream was to discover something no one else had thought of. I guess that’s why I’m a poet. We put things together in ways no one else does.”  Here she brings a perspective to an issue that has been at the forefront of American society recently.

Many poets have written of the pain people create for each other.  They allow readers to feel along with another human, experience through well-chosen words arranged for impact, artfully displayed on a page, or through their dramatic delivery.  Please read, listen, and ponder the rest of the poetry I’m sharing with you today. Let their words sink in as they talk about voting, prejudice, racial profiling, bullies, an immigrant experience.  In a couple cases I am quoting only excerpts in the interest of time; however, I am including a list of the books I used at the end.

And finally, an impactful poem from Emtithal Mahmoud, a Sudanese-American poet who won the Individual World Poetry Slam Championship in 2015 and is the UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador.


All of the included videos are obviously from YouTube. I encourage you to go there and seek out more poems by Brandon Leake, Emtithal Mahmoud, and the others. Add to that list the poetry of Taylor Mali. Type into the search bar “poetry slam” and watch the wealth of videos that come up from a wide ranging group of talented poets.

The books that I have taken poems or quotes from are listed below with others I wanted to use, but things got long enough without going on:

  • Acevedo, Elizabeth. Beastgirl. Portland, OR: Yeses Books, 2017.
  • Berry, Wendell. This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2013.
  • Buechner, Frederick. Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. New York: Harper One, 1977.
  • Giovanni, Nikki. A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter. New York: Harper Collins, 2017.
  • Kaur, Rupi. Milk and Honey. Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
  • Kingsolver, Barbara. Another America: Otra America. Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 1992.
  • Leake, Brandon. B-Sides: Life’s Scraps Can Still Be Beautiful. Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018.
  • Leake, Brandon. Unraveling: Poems. Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2022.
  • Mahmoud, Emtithal. Sisters’ Entrance. Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2018.
  • Mali, Taylor. Bouquet of Red Flags. Austin, TX: Write Bloody Publishing, 2014
  • Mali, Taylor. What Learning Leaves. Newtown, CT: Hanover Press, 2002.
  • Mora, Pat. Agua Santa: Holy Water. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1995.
  • Nye, Naomi Shihab. Honeybee. New York: Greenwillow, 2008.
  • Nye, Naomi Shihab. What Have You Lost? New York: Greenwillow, 1999.
  • Shaw, Luci. The Generosity. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2020.
  • Su, Adrienne. Peach State. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021.

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