I really like poetry, but it’s something that I have a hard time speaking about sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, I can gloss a sonnet pretty well, but once you get to the more recent, modern developments it’s much, much harder for me. On my reading list, I have works by 15 poets. In this space I’m going to take a time out to think about what the poetry on my list does that the prose does/can not do.
Also, as an aside, if you do not know the blog “Eat This Poem,” it is delightful. For example, you can pair Frank O’Hara’s ‘Why I am Not a Painter” with white bean and sardine salad (which I don’t want to eat) or William Carlos Williams’s “This is just to say” with Ina Garten’s plum tart (which I do).
American Literary Identity
In terms of creating an American literary aesthetic, all roads on my list seem to go back to Walt Whitman, who isn’t on my list because he’s too early. Anyway, aside from that, many of the poets who are on the list have a fascination with mass culture. e.e. cummings, who I just love, draws on burlesque, circuses, and other elements of popular culture in his work. He also, however, critiques elements of popular culture, I think most clearly (at least in my selections) American masculinity. For example, in “Next to of Course God America” he satirizes nationalist discourses, mushing together strings of patriotic phrases in a poem that, ultimatley, doesn’t really say anything. And that’s the point, I think.
Frank O’Hara also engages with popular culture in his poems, drawing on images of popular art and movies of the 1950s. In “Poem” for example, he writes about reading a headline, “LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED” while bustling through the snow and rain to get to a party. I love “Why I Am Not a Painter” for the way it incorporates images of popular art it the 1950s through him stopping in to visit his painter friend Mike Goldberg, who has incorporated SARDINES into a painting and contrasts that to him writing twelve poems without mentioning the word orange. As others have suggested, this contrast actually serves as an argument about how much painting and poetry have in common, dealing with abstracts and images, the feelings that come from something rather than the thing itself, such as “There should be / so much more, not of orange, of /words, of how terrible orange is / and life.”
(Frank O’Hara was killed when he was hit by a dune buggy. This has always fascinated me and, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but given his glib sense of humor, I would love to know what poem he would have written about that.)
Although he is not an Imagist himself, “Why I Am Not a Painter” reminds me of the imagists. William Carlos Williams is the only true imagist on my list. To me, William Carlos Williams is both amazing and totally baffling. Some of my favorite poems are his, and yet, I find it hard to talk about what he’s doing. (I really enjoyed teaching him though. Seeing what my students decided depends on that red wheelbarrow.) William Carlos Williams, through his use of everyday images, tried to capture American culture at its most common level. That is, to capture the lives of the people. In this way, his work is pretty democratic, which put him at literary odds with other High Modernists, such as T.S. Eliot. He also came up with something called the “variable foot” which was supposed to mirror the rhythm of America, but which he never clearly defined. So, when I think of a poem like The Red Wheelbarrow” from Spring and All I can see a relationship between Americana and the disorientation of Modernism:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
On one hand, this image is so wholly Americana. But, on the other, what depends on the wheelbarrow? What is the poem trying to do? It doesn’t look or sound like what was considered good poetry. It’s just a concrete image of a wheelbarrow and some chickens. By making the reader think so hard about that image as poetry, I think Williams draws attention to the poetry of the everyday, which clearly fits into his manifesto on imagination and the democratic bent of his poetry.
What makes the poetry on my list distinctly American is not only the way these poets tried to capture American culture, but also the way that the poets took up pressing American issues:
My post on education from last night didn’t get into everything I wanted to talk about because I was about to pass out on my desk. But there are also some great poems about education that express sometimes conflicting feelings about going to school. Langston Hughes opens “Theme for English B,”
The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it’s that simple?
The poem continues to explain who he is, a twenty-two year old African American man in college, the only black person in the class. He questions how he can know what is true at twenty-two:
It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
He also pushes on the connections between truth and race, wondering “So will my page be colored that I write? / Being me, it will not be white.” Ultimately, this poem is the most optimistic about education of those on my list as it ends my reflecting on the reciprocal nature of education, as he and the white teacher will learn from each other’s truths:
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
In “Persimmons” Li-Young Lee narrates a moment in which he was forced to stand in a corner for not knowing the difference between persimmon and precision. The poem then goes on to explore the emotional attachment and memories associated with words like persimmons, fight, fright, wren, and yarn. Lee writes, “How to choose/ persimmons. This is precision” giving gorgeously detailed scenes of persimmons in his life, from rich images of choosing ripe persimmons to sexual encounters. Then, back to the classroom, his teacher offers the class a persimmon:
Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to classand cut it upso everyone could tastea Chinese apple. Knowingit wasn’t ripe or sweet, I didn’t eatbut watched the other faces.
Histories of Trauma
Several of the poets on my list also use poetry to depict moments or histories of violence and trauma. In fact, other works in the prose section do this too trough the use of experimental prose, such as the monologue sections of Beloved, particularly Beloved’s monologue and the following section in which the voices of Denver, Sethe, and Beloved intermingle.
Both Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks write about the diasporic experience of African Americans caused by the slave trade. For example, in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” Langston Hughes describes the connection of his body to the Euphrates, Congo, Nile, and the Mississippi, tracing his lineage to “rivers ancient as the world and older than the / flow of human blood in human veins.” It’s a pretty melancholy poem that I think works well in conversation with Brooks’s “to the Diaspora”. In that poem, Brooks speaks to the experience of seeking a sense of culture or belonging in Africa, only to find that what the person was looking for was inside themselves: “When you set out for Afrika/ you did no know you were going. / Because / you did not know you were Afrika.” John Callahan explains, “Implicit is the complexity of her awakening–the fact that she has journeyed from appearances to essences in relation to Africa, and that she, too, goes to Africa only to find that what she seeks was and is within.”
Brooks also writes about experiences of racism and poverty in poems like “the white troops had their orders but the Negros looked like men” and “The Bean Eaters.” The most striking poem of hers on my list, though, is “The Last Quatrain of The Ballad of Emmett Till”. The poem is a companion to “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters In Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” and in its fragmentation seeks to show how the murder of Emmett Till “violates all narrative conventions and expectations, possessing as it does a kind of surreal quality that moves toward ambiguity rather than understanding.”
In Camp Notes and Other Poems, Mitsuye Yamada writes about the experience of living in a Japanese interment camp through “slice of life” poems that focus on experiences in the mess halls, the barracks, bedtime stories, and microaggressions, like being asked, when you were born in America, “where you’re from.” Unlike something like No-No Boy, which focuses on the aftermath of the camps, Yamada’s poetry foregrounds the emotional and sensory experience of the camps in specific, “ordinary” moments.
Finally, two Latino poets on my list write about the way racism seeps into everyday life. In “Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, an Intelligent, Well-Read Person Could Believe in the War Between Races” writes about the way that the wounds of racism embed themselves deeply and about the way that she has to live with reminders that “this is not my land,” a statement particularly weighty given the history of the U.S./Mexico border. She concludes: “I do not believe in the war between races / but in this country /there is war.”
In one of my favorite poems, “Puerto Rican Obituary,” Pedro Pietri writes about the way the struggle to become middle-class despite prejudices and an economic system that works against them kills the souls of Puerto Ricans in New York City. He’s especially critical of consumerism and assimilation and the way trying to get ahead in that system puts the people out of touch with each other and their own beauty. It’s a spoken word poem and the rhythm is one of the best parts. You can listen here. I want to end with its ending, because given how sad and difficult many poems on the list are, his vision at the end is really beautiful and moving and I can’t believe he pulls off a line like “Aqui Que Paso Power is what’s happening” so well.
will right now be doing their own thing
where beautiful people sing
and dance and work together
where the wind is a stranger
to miserable weather conditions
where you do not need a dictionary
to communicate with your people
Aqui Se Habla Espanol all the time
Aqui you salute your flag first
Aqui there are no dial soap commercials
Aqui everybody smells good
Aqui tv dinners do not have a future
Aqui the men and women admire desire
and never get tired of each other
Aqui Que Paso Power is what’s happening
Aqui to be called negrito
means to be called LOVE