• Courtesy Louder Than a Bomb

The team finals of this year’s Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam competition were held Saturday evening in the Arie Crown Theater of McCormick Place. I hadn’t been inside the Arie Crown in close to 20 years, when I saw a ballet there. If then it was a fancy theatrical showcase, today it’s on the wrong side of the Metra tracks. The building’s vast and charmless, the carpet worn and patched, and screaming teenagers suit it perfectly. Almost every one of the 2,500 main-floor seats was taken, and the crowd made the kind of noise teens make in gyms at basketball games. The slammers and jammers they cheered on were competing in the heady task of raging against racism, sexism, and xenophobia. At least four poems addressed lynching, and another bluntly remembered a childhood of sexual abuse. The judges were generous to everybody who performed, but the highest marks went to the fiercest language and most incantatory cadences. A poet who wasn’t feeling angry and defiant had no place on the Arie Crown stage, and the defiance needed to come across loud and clear. Clear was less important than loud.

Everyone had a wonderful time. This might have been the most enthusiastic and celebratory audience I’ve ever been part of.

Afterward, my party of old poops discussed what we’d seen and heard. I’d been blown away by the energy in the hall as well as the talent, but I saw trouble ahead. The kids were dredging a deep but narrow stream. There’s more in the world to write poetry about than racial and sexual oppression, and I wondered if any other kind of poetry had a prayer of a chance of making it to the Arie Crown stage. Could a shy high school junior who found her soulmate in Emily Dickinson find the same haven in Louder Than a Bomb that her rowdy classmates did? And will kids one day start phoning it in, delivering potted outrage addressing accredited injustices?

No one has to worry about this just yet. But orthodoxy can crop up anywhere. Sometimes you don’t see it even after it’s consumed you.

A couple days earlier I went to the movies and watched Merchants of Doubt, which is a documentary about the powerful human need to think as our friends and neighbors think. The most interesting figure in the movie is probably Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina who adopted a number of positions unpopular in his neck of the woods and in 2010 was waxed by a Tea Party opponent in the primary.

Climate change was one of those positions, but Merchants of Doubt somewhat misrepresents Inglis by focusing on it alone. For instance, this Mother Jones article, published a few weeks after Inglis’s primary defeat, mentions climate change only in passing. The article begins with Inglis recalling a meeting he had with past donors who were sitting on their wallets.

“They were upset with me,” Inglis told reporter David Corn. “They are all Glenn Beck watchers. . . . They say, ‘Bob, what don’t you get? Barack Obama is a socialist, communist Marxist who wants to destroy the American economy so he can take over as dictator. Health care is part of that. And he wants to open up the Mexican border and turn [the US] into a Muslim nation.'” But Inglis wouldn’t even call Obama a socialist, even though the only excuse he had was that he knew it wasn’t true.

The high point of the movie for me was Inglis’s visit to a radio talk show to warn about climate change. It was clear that the mike guy grilling Inglis didn’t know the first thing about the science of climate change and didn’t think he needed to. What he knew was that Inglis’s views were unthinkable in this corner of the USA, that they repelled his radio audience, and that his duty to this audience was to put Inglis in his place. It was—to make a possibly unforgivable comparison—the same duty assumed by the teenage poets at the Arie Crown, that of slicing and dicing the enemy.

I despised the mike guy because he looked so content in his incurious ignorance, yet he probably thinks of himself as a journalist. By contrast, the poetry slammers were quick, engaged, and creative; the more they bend the future toward them the better. But I have the same advice for everybody: brood more. Whenever you aim to please, doubt your target.