Saturday, June 29, 2019

Poetry and Current Events

Long ago, before I wrote poetry in a serious way, my favorite, much loved undergraduate English professors declared that there had never been good poetry that wrote about current events.  She talked about how aesthetically bad all the anti-Vietnam war poetry was.

She taught British Literature, and she was much more likely to spend time with Wordsworth and Coleridge than any poet still alive.  It would be much later that I would discover that one could write compelling poetry about current events, poetry that was both powerful and aesthetically admirable.

Rattle has a feature called Poets Respond, which it describes this way:  "At least every Sunday we publish one poem online that has been written about a current event that took place the previous week. This is an effort to show how poets react and interact to the world in real time, and to enter into the broader public discourse."  I've often thought that it would be a cool practice to write one poem a week and submit it, but I often don't do that.

Imagine my surprise yesterday when I wrote not one, but two poems that dealt with the crisis at the border.  I began in the pre-sunrise hours of the morning as I watched the sliver of moon rise in the east.  I came up with ideas, but nothing solidified.  Off I went to spin class.

As I spun, I thought about various vacation photos posted by friends about their family trips to the beach.  I thought about the photo this week of the father and child washed up on the shore of the Rio Grande.  I thought about the pictures from camp that grandparents had posted, and I thought of the unaccompanied minor children who are at very different camps courtesy of the U.S. government.

During the morning, I took a break from work, and I wrote out some lines.  I wrote these lines: "Children pick lice from each others' hair / and cry for parents who are not there." I thought, I wonder if I could write a sonnet.

I took out a different sheet of paper and played with rhymes.  Usually my sonnet writing falls apart as I try to get the rhyme structure to work.  But yesterday, the fact that heat and tweet rhyme led to a breakthrough: three stanzas, each one exploring a branch of the government and its approach to immigration.

I was pleased with both poems, so I submitted them both to Rattle.  What a day!  One "failed" poem, 2 poems written and submitted.

As always, I wonder if the poems will work once the specific events have faded from the news.  For that reason, although I may have a poem that blooms because of a specific event, I do try to make most of what I write more universal.

But I also think that a poetry of witness about current events is important--especially during this age, when current events seem to have a much deeper historic import than at other times.

Update:  On Sunday, I decided to write a post that includes the sonnet.  Go here to read it.

1 comment:

Sackerson said...

Is all poetry about Vietnam aesthetically unsuccessful? I don't know much but I do like the UK poet Adrian Mitchell's Vietnam poem, To Whom it May Concern.

Talk of such things always reminds me of the American composer Frederic Rzewski who, when asked if music could change the world for the better replied that he doubted it but saw no reason not to compose it as if it could.