Political poetry. As soon as you read those two words, an opinion flashes through your mind. You either think it works, or you think it's generally a bad idea.
My mission, in this post, is to change your mind either way.
I'm going to focus discussion on a magnificent poem by Rick Lupert, a wonderfully imaginative poet, who also happens to helm Poetry Super Highway. Rick is an incredible creative talent; I encourage you to check out his numerous books, his poetry blog, his daily web-comic, Cat and Banana, and everything else he does. But for now, we're going to focus on his poem "RBG" from the September 23rd, 2020 issue of Oddball Magazine.
Click the pic above to read the poem in full.
The poem's title clearly states Lupert's political intentions. He wants to place deceased Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, in the same place of memory as JFK or MLK. This is an understandable impulse, but what's amazing is how Lupert starts the poem:
In a year that has taught my stomach
how to take a punch
Bringing the body into a poem is always a good idea. Here, Lupert accomplishes three things at once: he gets your attention, he brings you into the poem bodily, and he sets up a confessional element. This isn't a poem about beauty or nature or falling in love.
Despite the open political theme, nothing truly divisive or even potentially controversial appears until the lines:
With evil across the street
you were the balance.
This is outright jingoism. Or is it?
I think we have to look very closely at the poem here. If we read these lines too literally, we miss Lupert's authentic originality. Instead of editorializing, what he's doing here is continuing the "gut-punch" reaction from the opening line. The speaker remains so dazed that, for an instant, spouting easy platitudes is all that seems possible -- that is, until we reach the crucial word "balance."
What the speaker seeks here is a sense of closure. And that closure is found through purpose. Read the closing line to see how Lupert expertly turns the poem around from despair and confusion to optimism and resolve. This is what you want to do in any poem, make a dramatic arc of emotion, but it's particularly effective in political poetry because it wards off dogmatism.
OK. A brilliant piece of work to be sure. But I promised to challenge your assumptions. If you think political poetry is a good idea, I'd like you to read the poem and consider the fact that it's impossible for some people to read the poem without seeing only gushing propaganda. Simply by taking up such a theme, you've alienated potential readers.
If you're of the mind that politics and poetry should remain separate, let me say: a poem like this proves that assumption false. The poem succeeds on any technical or aesthetic level you care to name. I've only scratched the surface here.
It's truly inspired work.
So, again, I ask: is politics a good fit for poetry? You tell me.
In a bit of unrelated news: I've put out a call for poetry submissions -- paying $1.00 per line. I'm buying all rights. Click the "submit" button below.
Thanks, btw, to D.D., E.B., D.P., and R.H. for your recent poems and comments!
Sylvia Plath's “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” stands out for its mystical allusion and its deep naturalistic imagery. Plath uses an encounter with nature as a point of departure for self-discovery. The rook in the poem functions as a portent of the process of self-examination and flight (individuation) that will take place throughout the later stages of Plath’s life and career. Plath brings her steely gaze of realism to this mystical encounter. Instead of yielding passionately to the animistic inspiration of the scene, she remains skeptical throughout, refusing to be moved by anything less than ultimate truth and revelation.
The poem begins with the lines: “One the stiff twig up there / Hunches a wet black rook”. This description is important because it fuses imagery of the natural world with archetypal imagery of the unconscious. The black rook is a symbol for the unconscious, just as its “wet” feathers show that it is freshly arrived from a point of inspiration. Perhaps the wetness of the rook even corresponds to Plath’s deep sea-childhood memories.
In any case, the poem opens with the vision of the wet, black bird above the poet's head in an obvious symbol of inspiration. What follows is the poet’s logical dissection of the experience in an attempt to strip away all psychological and emotional pretenses in order to find ultimate reality. The speaker states that she no longer looks for order or meaning in the natural landscape, but instead lets “spotted leaves fall as they fall / Without ceremony, or portent”. This is a direct refutation of the portentous tone of the scene and the poem's plot.
The most dramatic shift in the poem takes place when the speaker states: “I only know that a rook / Ordering its black feathers can so shine / As to seize my senses”. At this point, the speaker surrenders to the revelation and portent that was obvious to the reader all along.
But Plath's phrasing of the realization uses the words “ordering” and “senses.” These are indications that, for her, there is a correspondence between order and meaning, and this order and meaning can be actualized through the senses. The poet’s early guarded approach toward the revelatory experience is the means by which the senses can actualize the order and meaning that exists in nature. Only by insisting on the most honest and direct perception of nature, free of delusion or wish-fulfillment, can the deeper (hidden) harmony and meaning of nature be experienced. The meaning of nature is not readily divulged to just any observer; the observer must be made “pure" enough to receive the “rare, random descent” of revelation.
The poem obviously describes a mystical experience, but it does so in a way that is best read as initiatory. The poet now knows that there is a meaning and order to nature that can be grasped through the senses, so it is now the poet’s task to perceive all things as honestly as nature.
In the poems that form her first two published collections, Plath continues the journey that was initiated in “Black Rook in Rainy Weather.” The next stage of her development is very complicated and prolonged with poems scattered throughout that document her progress. Throughout this stage of her poetic development, Plath brings the same unrelenting eye of honesty to her own inner-nature that she previously brought to bear on nature itself. It is as though her first encounters with nature as a child, then as a poet, initiated her into a process of self-realization.
However, in order for the process to be real to her satisfaction, Plath felt compelled to strip away all artifice or pretense from her art and her life.
Jessica Kim's "Whalien 52" may seem like a strange selection for the year's first poem spotlight. After-all, the poem's from the May 2021 issue of Oxidant|Engine, a pub that's currently on hiatus. You've probably never heard of Oxidant|Engine or Jessica Kim and that's a shame. Click on the pic above to take a look around the journal and also to read the full text of Kim's gem.
The first thing to note is how Kim angles right for the heart from the poem's opening lines:
It’s strange how the beach in winter
makes her even lonelier.
Never underestimate the power of tying powerful conflicts to archetypes. In this case, loneliness and the sea provide what can only be called an elemental setting, meaning this is as human and primary as poetry gets. So how does Kim twist newness out of such a massive mythic footprint? Well, she promises something unexpected with a single word: "lonelier."
We're all lonely, but we're all also very curious to know if our loneliness marks the extremity of the experience. Or can it get worse?
Let's do something really crazy now and jump immediately to the last line of the poem:
a signal that does not reach her.
Clearly, Kim has touched a deeper loneliness. She wants us to touch it, too. Not out of spite or malice. Not out of poetic opportunity. She wants us to feel the loneliness of the world. She wants us to see that our personal loneliness is connected to the whole globe, the seas, and everything that swims in them.
These lines show us the purpose of loneliness:
She wails into the curvature
of her backbone, sculpted with abandoned
girlhood. On the other side of the earth,
even the blind whales can see her.
However we are broken, it is nature that heals us. When we feel that certain loneliness that no friend, no family member, and no social media can fill, it's a call from that world we've left behind. Our childhood world when animals, stars, tress, and planets swam with possibility through our imaginations. When we not only wanted to run barefoot over mud, sand, and grass, we did it, and usually with someone we loved (or wanted to love) chasing us or running away.
This is masterful poem not only because it sees so deeply, but because in order to see so deeply, Kim had to feel this for us; she had to drown in what we mostly try to avoid. The poem is evidence that the whale-song, that signal of earth and childhood joy she speaks of in the poem, reached her fully intact.
I, for one, would like to thank her for sharing the music with us.
Let me start off by saying that, "The Poem of the World," by Scudder Parker more than lives up to its title. A very tall order, indeed.
I was skeptical until I read the first three lines:
like a doe’s hoof tapping ice
till she can drink.
I spend a lot of time in nature; this is an authentic and beautiful image. It also works poetically. Once you feel and experience the opening, you quickly realize you're in for a true lyric poem, rooted in nature, that builds tercet after tercet toward revelation.
But this poem's not only about theme. Of course, the epiphanic climax is suitably mystical and more than uplifting enough to fulfill titular expectations. But what's remarkable about this poem beyond its archetypal theme is the "melody" of its composition. Even more precisely, the music of its metaphors.
For example, Parker compares "the rust of purple on this fall’s / forsythia leaves" to a "small voice /
every year, unheard." This bit of synesthesia is but an opening gambit in what is a poem bursting with figurative flights such as a "beach of pebbles that suddenly /starts singing" or "the subtraction / of birds, taking summer with them," -- all stunning and quite exact.
Of course, a deeply metaphorical nature poem that builds tercet by tercet toward epiphany also needs beautiful diction, or at the very least, a high degree of melopoeia. Let's taste the penultimate stanza:
The poem of the world wants me to wake
in my own body; it is astonished I might let
these supple bones grow brittle.
Say it aloud and realize as you read, that this closing stanza is probably the least sonorous of the nine. That's right, I used the word "sonorous" and I'll continue to do so if it pleases me.
I need your opinion on the closing line. Is is satisfying? Go to The Lascaux Review by clicking the pic above and read the poem in full. Then give me your opinion.
I'm angry about, "Girl, Hotel Mirror," by Laurie Bolger, a poem posted back in September at The London Magazine. Read it in full by clicking the pic above. It's inventive. It's funny. It's sad. And it's a bull's-eye dart right into the heart of our narcissistic, digital age.
Add to that, Bolger ushers in a dark, psychedelic tone that lifts to ironic crescendo at the poem's close. So, the poem is musically minded, to say the least.
And this is where I start to get angry, because with a piece like this, Bolger's making it a lot tougher on the rest of us who write poems. The poem not only features the crescendo I mentioned, which is constructed almost entirely out of increasingly inventive (and disturbing) surrealistic images; it also features a cast of characters that could (and probably should) round out a provocative one-act play. It has dialogue, dialect, slang, motion, conflict, class struggle, and well, virtually everything but pratfalls.
And pratfalls are strongly implied.
I count thirty-one total lines. I've seen novelists do much less in 500 pages.
Fine, Daniel, but what about the poetry? Well, how's this for an opening?
In a hotel mirror, a woman
is snogging her own face.
The image of a woman kissing her own face is quite funny, but the word "snogging" makes it much more funny. That word does something else, by the way, it sets the speaker of the poem on a superior plane. The quasi-sanctimonious tone persists for most of the poem. When it dissolves, it does so into the previously mentioned crescendo of surrealism, so Bolger washes her speaker right down the drain with everything else.
Yet the poem remains. A stunning work of art. There's much more to applaud in terms of pure poetry here, like the enjambment on lines 30-31 that rolls through an onomatopoeic alliteration, then sputters out just as the rational sense of the poem simultaneously dissipates.
Have we just watched a maestro smash a violin? Or a rock-star smashing up a guitar? That is exactly what I think we're seeing here. Bolger's smashing up the whole "selfie" culture by not failing at the poem. It's a hit while everything it's about fails. The music survives, not the medium.
So, I guess I should be a little less angry, but stay a bit envious and let that inspire me.
When we read a good poem, we fall. You might say we fall deeper into ourselves, deeper into each other, deeper into language, deeper into consciousness.
You might even say deeper in love. With poetry. With creativity. With possibility.
"Lines Written at Dog’s Head Falls, Johnson, Vermont" by K.A. Hays is one of those poems that will make you tumble. In fact, that's what it's about. Check out the full poem at Agni Online by clicking the picture above.
While I usually spotlight one or more technical aspects of a featured poem; in this case, I'm going to focus on theme. Hays plays a bit of game with her theme in this poem. It's a fun game and a thought-provoking one.
It starts from the opening line:
On a stone by the river what pools in boulders
If you wrote the line out like this: "On a stone by the river, what pools in boulders...." it might almost sound like the opening of a thriller or horror story. Instead, this line sets the stage for a confrontation -- or more exactly -- an encounter with nature.
The speaker of the poem gazes into the water at pebbles swirled around "a stick bug" -- an image that rapidly gives way to a succession of deeper images of nature-in-motion. The speaker describes "beings" in the water that "hang suspended / head to spine to tail that twists & flicks..."
We, along with he speaker, see a microcosm of nature played out in a glance. But there's also epiphany. In the midst of the cycles of life and death, two profound thoughts shine like flares:
as the planet heats
And the closing line:
what were you early what will you become?
Clearly, the vision has caused the speaker to sense a connection with nature, with the cycle of life and death, and also to feel the sinister threat of climate change and nature's fall...
But is this poem really about nature's fall?
Or personal rebirth?
Do this. Read the poem straight through. Then read it backwards, straight through left to right, but moving up line by line.
It's the cycle of life (and mystery) that never ends. So the true theme of the poem isn't nature's fall; it's our connection to the rhythms of the universe that cycle always, it seems, toward ambiguous but somehow necessary growth.
Recently, I asked you to tell me which of these was better:
The crow drank its fill
from the snow’s melted puddle,
sprayed rainbows flying away.
The crow drank its fill
from a puddle of snow,
sprayed rainbows flying.
The response was heavily in favor of version 2.
A.S. suggested that the poem could be made into a "formal" haiku like this:
The crow drank its fill
from a clear puddle of snow,
sprayed rainbows in flight.
I like that. No-one suggested a title, so I'll give it one of my own. Here's the final version:
The crow drank its fill
from a clear puddle of snow,
sprayed rainbows in flight.
Can you think of further improvements?
I want to point out two things in today's post. The first is Connemara Wadsworth's excellent poem: "Cows in the Apples" from Lily Poetry Review, which you can read by clicking the pic above.
The second is why this poem is so excellent. Of course, as usual, space prevents me from doing more than grazing the highlights. This time, I'm not even going to try to do that. Instead, I want to focus on one aspect of the poem: adjectives.
Typically, adjectives ruin a poem. Or threaten to. In this case, like an experienced lion-tamer, Wadsworth makes perennial poem-killers like: "perfumed," "angry," "sweet," and "wet" jump through flaming hoops of originality. How does she do this?
First, she hazards an original conceit: breakaway, rebel cows. Second, she drops a surprise adjective: "obedient" in the first line and then proceeds to work against this strong word for the rest of the poem.
Wadsworth also bundles each of the potentially banal adjectives with another poetic device. For "perfumed," she uses an alliterative connection to a strong verb "plant." For "angry," she couples the word with the unexpected "bees" which is, of course, a bit of anthropomorphizing.
Finally, with "sweet" and "wet," she chooses to slant rhyme them in the closing line -- a line so well executed it should be quoted, along with its accompanying stanza:
before they swagger
down the road, happy
drunks licking bits
of sweet apple off wet lips.
In general, the rule of murdering your adjectives is a good one. If, however, you can do tricks like this, then you are free to color with even the shortest of crayons.
David M. Pitchford is an exceptional poet. He's written thousands of poems in varied forms on myriad themes, almost always with inventiveness and aplomb. If you click the picture above you'll go to his "Thousand Poem Challenge" blog, no longer current, but full of gems.
Scrolling down the abandoned blog, one of the first brilliancies you'll find is: "Kentucky February Snowfall."
Let's look at the opening stanza:
deep blue rhythm of arctic winter grasps
in chill fingers southern haven belies
comforts, jails them in frosted winter world
when to end? when to end? for warmth they pray
though to whom none can certain say, they pray
and curse and burn more fuel, wood, gas, coal
smoke and steam escaping impotent to heat
the world and its arctic sky snowing slow.
Note that the entire stanza accelerates like a ball rolling down a steep hill, becoming more and more urgent, even verging on despair with the repeated "when to end? when to end?" and then coming to a perfect close on the word "slow."
This is like gunning a Lamborghini to the edge of a death-cliff, then turning it around on a dime, no -- kissing it around -- to a stop, where it shines in moonlight.
After this deft volta, Pitchford describes the first inklings of spring -- early signs of winter's death. These are stirrings in the mind and soul, mysteriously timed to and forever joined with the seasons, nature, and the earth. The second stanza is smooth and lyrical, slow and triumphant, leading to affirmation.
The repetition of the word "vernal" in the second (final) stanza is perhaps an oversight or, more likely, an echo of the repetition-device in the first stanza, modulated to reflect the inevitability of rebirth and spring.
Last notes: Pitchford's logopoeia here is flawless. Particularly in the first stanza.
And the poem's closing word is perfectly chosen, don't you agree?