In America right now, people typically think of political poetry as poetry of resistance. Robert Archambeau has some interesting thoughts as to why contemporary poets often seem to align themselves with the left. But let’s not forget that patriotic poems, inaugural poems, poems on the American Dream– all of these are political poems. For examples of some powerful political poems, check out Emma Lazarus, Alicia Ostriker, and Leonard Cohen. Consider these quotes about political poetry as well:
“There is an ephemeral quality to a lot of political poetry—most of it dies with the events it responds to—but a political poem need not be a didactic poem. It can be a poem of testimony and memory.”
“No true political poetry can be written with propaganda as an aim, to persuade others “out there” of some atrocity or injustice (hence the failure, as poetry, of so much anti-Vietnam poetry of the sixties). As poetry, it can come only from the poet’s need to identify her relationship to atrocities and injustice, the sources of her pain, fear, and anger, the meaning of her resistance.”
So, I encourage you to write a political poem, based on some recent event that has affected you. It could be based on something in the news, or perhaps you are more upset about how others are reacting to the news. Examine your emotions about this event and try to use those when writing. Is there something you have witnessed that you want to share? Also, are there any techniques you can use to make the poem less ephemeral, and more universal? I want you to delve deep this week.
This week’s prompt has a special place in my heart because it is inspired by one of the co-founders of Poets House, Stanley Kunitz. I had the wonderful opportunity to see him briefly before he died. I saw him at an event in Manhattan in May 2005 celebrating his book on poetry and gardening, The Wild Braid. In the poem I would like to share with you, The Layers, I’d like to point out the lines “Live in the layers, not on the litter.” In the context of the poem, and in the context of your own life, how do you interpret this? What is living in the layers to you? What is the litter of your life and how do you plan to avoid it? Perhaps it will help to think of a physical object which has layers, like geological rock or lasagna. Can you make a metaphor out of something with layers in your poem? For readers of this blog in the NYC area, I hope you will join us at Poets House on Saturday, Jan 14, 2017.
Tuesday evening I attended a Dharma gathering at Shambhala NYC. It was pleasant to meditate in a group setting and listen to David Nichtern speak, especially since I haven’t attended Shambhala in a while. I got the opportunity to ask David Nichtern a question about meditation and creative pursuits (including writing) and had a great conversation with him about spontaneity and creativity. He signed a copy of his new book Awakening from the Daydream, and inside it he wrote a koan of sorts “Spontaneous means being properly prepared.” What a fascinating concept!
So how can we prepare ourselves to be ready for the muse, to be spontaneous in our writing? By practicing daily, or as often as we can. Natalie Goldberg describes an exercise in her book on creative writing, Writing Down the Bones, where you do a free write for a certain length of time on a regular basis, just writing the first thing that comes to mind, and keeping the pen moving on the page. My prompt for you this week is to try this exercise for at least 15 minutes. Maybe even try doing it once a day for week! Some of what you write may not be worth revision later, but sometimes you will generate seeds which you can develop further. The important thing is to turn off the judge or the editor during the free writing session, and just allow your thoughts to flow.
This time of year we commonly reflect on the past and think of the future. Let’s take a look at Tina Chang’s poem The Future is an Animal. In the poem, the speaker is both reflecting on the past (by mentioning the origin story of man) and also dreaming about the future. Can you do both in a poem, both reflection and prediction? Perhaps you want to start by creating an unusual metaphor for the future. Title your poem “The Future is ___.” Make sure to pick something concrete, like a boat or a spoon, and have fun with it!
We can often get inspiration from other writers, even sometimes by borrowing lines or phrases from others. There is actually a form of poem called a cento which is made up entirely of lines by other poets, it is a patchwork of sorts. Check out Simone Muench’s Wolf Cento for example. If you like, you can try creating a cento on your own, but today in workshop, I want you to merely borrow a title of a poem- take it from the title of another book or poem, and without consulting the original text, write your own version. If you choose, after you’ve written the poem, you can rename it to something more original, or leave it the way it is.
Think of a group of people with specialized knowledge, like cooks or chemists. Think of what advice they might give us about life, and how their knowledge might influence what they say. Write a poem in the voice of the people you have chosen, and allow their knowledge to extend past what you’d usually consider their domain to be. Title the poem What the ___ Know, filling in the blank with your group of people. For inspiration, read Robert Polito’s What the Dead Know.
While the left side of the brain is typically considered to be the language center, some scientific research claims that understanding simile and metaphor, the building blocks of poetry, is done primarily in the right side of the brain. Let’s use some randomly generated similes to write poems today, to challenge our right brains (see the simile generator). For further reading on poetry and the brain, read Julie Kane’s Poetry as Right-Hemispheric Language, and Poetry Magazine’s conversation between Ange Mlinko and Iain McGilchrist This is Your Brain on Poetry. Also read the fun poem An Exercise For Limbering Up the Right Brain, by David Henson.
How do you envision the future of our world? Whether you have children or not, I want you to write a letter to our children, to the future of the species. What wisdom do you have to share? For inspiration, read Good Bones by Maggie Smith.Pay attention to the techniques she uses, such as anaphora (repetition). Of particular interest is the metaphor of a realtor trying to “sell the world” to the children. Does this metaphor ring true to you? Can you come up with a metaphor of your own about what you want to communicate to our children?
Can you allow another voice other than the speaker’s to enter the poem and influence it? Study the poem of Emilia Phillips, Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s, with a quotation from Ovid, and the voice of another character named David. How do these quotations interact with what is happening in the poem? In your poem today, allow one quote of literature and one voice of another character to enter the poem and steer it in new directions.