camera image

What is a Professor of Poetry? How can poetry be professed?

~W.H. Auden


Amazing Grace: Art for Goodness Sake


Can art change people? Can art evolve minds, transform culture, uproot damaging paradigms? Can art affect even the insidious and pervasive modern day slave trade? My answer—yes.




In 1773, John Newton wrote the poem “Faith's Review and Expectation," which we now know as the gospel hymn called “Amazing Grace.” When he wrote the poem Newton was a repentant, former slave-ship captain, and a late-in-life curate of a church in Olney, England. He eventually worked as an abolitionist with former student William Wilberforce who led the Parliamentarian campaign to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire.


Newton could not have known that out of the hundreds of poem/hymns he wrote in Olney, “Amazing Grace” would gain such amazing traction: that it’d become one of the anthems of the American Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. Civil Rights activist Rev. C.T. Vivian noted in a recent Huffington Post interview that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. particularly loved songstress Mahalia Jackson’s rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Jackson once said that she used the song during Civil Rights marches "to give magical protection—a charm to ward off danger, an incantation to the angels of heaven to descend... I was not sure the magic worked outside the church walls... in the open air of Mississippi. But I wasn't taking any chances.




Newton would certainly be humbled to know that the few dozen words transmitted through him had this kind of impact during a crucial time in world history—and I say “transmitted” because it is clear from his widely sold tract "Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade" that he saw himself as an instrument: “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders." The point then for artists is—what sort of air is blowing through us? Is it fragrant, sustaining, or potent? Is it frivolous, forgettable, or rootless? As a poet, I’m always asking: what notions am I allowing to play out through my work? How will my work resonate with people?




In the 2006 movie Amazing Grace starring Ioan Gruffudd, Albert Finney, and Youssou N'Dour, Wilberforce, Newton, and their compatriots are shown learning patience in their fight against slavery. We also see Newton guiding Wilberforce to use his gifts as a public speaker in parliament instead of on the pulpit, insisting that Wilberforce see himself as an instrument of goodness in need of the right audience. “Grace” in this movie is not only the opportunity that Newton has to repent and make good on the wrongs he wrought (“I once was blind but now I see,” says the haunted and literally blind Newton at one point, “Didn't I write that once?”); but, “grace” also means the opportunity to use one’s God-given talents in the service of goodness. Wilberforce chose to lend his voice and verve to politics and the rest, as they say, is history.


With the media, President Obama, American faith-based communities and other citizens, giving vital attention to human trafficking survivors and the need for laws to protect them—it’s only a matter of time before artists take up the charge en masse against slavery. And, if a single poem (or song, artwork, movie, sculpture, etcetera) can spark reformation, can help shepherd change and justice along the path to completion—what could a flood of artistic works do? What could a flood of work on 21st century slavery do?




For my part, I’m working on a book of poems addressing objectification and sex-trafficking. Sometimes my work on this feels seriously small. Seriously presumptuous. But then I remember “Amazing Grace.” I remember:I am an instrument of divine will through which great things can be accomplished.


Thro' many dangers, toils, and snares,

I have already come;

'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,

And grace will lead me home.