How Poems Make Things Happen
This is the second of a series of essays co-commissioned by the SRB and non/fictionLab that foreground experimental approaches to the question of value in the sphere of arts and literature.
It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.—William Carlos Williams ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower’
Can poetry make things happen? Can poetry bring about change? Does it hold that power? In the wake of the heaving 2020 chronicle of civil rights protests, a global pandemic and environmental disasters, what role can poetry play towards a recovering world? While we – poets, non-poets, regular and irregular poetry readers alike – often turn to poetry in the face of grief, trauma, depression or injustice, is this ‘turning to’ the poem merely borne of tradition, in that we call upon poetry for its ability to speak through inarticulable depths of feeling? Or, do we intuitively sense that part of poetry’s purpose is to provoke or invoke change?
As a poet myself, I would like to think that poetry can indeed move readers and communities, and that such movement may take the form of an action more complex than an emotional response (that it might urge or compel us to change our lives). But, as I sit down to write this essay, intending to explore some of what poetry can do, I quickly realise the difficulty of the task at hand. For, just as a poem itself refuses to be reduced to a simple meaning or definition, so too does poetry’s ‘doing’ resist a simple verification of intended purpose or achieved activity. W. H. Auden once wrote – in a poem dedicated to his late friend W. B. Yeats – that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. In his other writings, he not only suggested that poetry was ineffective as a means to bring about social or political change, but also that poetry should not be made to fulfil the purpose of political rhetoric, which should ‘secure unanimity in action’. Matthew Zapruder, too, suggests that poems are ‘undependable vehicle[s] for advocacy’ because they are ‘easily distracted … from the demonstration, the committee meeting, the courtroom, toward the lake or that intriguing, mysterious light over there’. Perhaps, though, these qualities (multiplicity, contradiction, irony, distractedness) are also a part of a poem’s power. Perhaps the action catalysed by a poem is of a different, though no less meaningful, order to the kinds that we are eager or impatient to witness in troubled times.
Rather than talking abstractly about poetry’s broad purpose, in this essay I look closely at several recent poems that have moved me in different ways, and reminded me of some of the great things that poetry can ‘do’ and provoke in its readers. Before I turn to these recent works, however, I want to share another socially- and politically-minded poem that has had a lasting impact on both my poetic and everyday consciousness. This poem has moved me in unexpected ways through its enfolding of feminist politics, historical reference and poetic language; its continued resonance and urgency in my mind’s ear signals an ongoing significance, despite its emergence out of a specific temporal context.
This poem, Adrienne Rich’s ‘Power’, is inseparable from the moment in which it was first shared with me. I was sitting in the university office of my poetry mentor, the wonderful poet and teacher Marion May Campbell, who was particularly encouraging of my burgeoning interest in feminist poetry. During this meeting she selected a book from her shelf for me to borrow, Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language. Before she handed it over, however, she paused and opened the book to the first poem; her body language told me that this was a poem she knew well – it was one of those moments where you could tell that a person had lived with, around and through poetry for a considerable time, and could call upon its powers at will. Marion sat up, as if electrified; she couldn’t refrain from reading the poem aloud, taking care to respect the various ‘silences’ held open by that poem:
Living in the earth-deposits of our history
Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate
Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil
She died a famous woman denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power
Holding out one hand (the one not holding the book), as if testifying to the wounds on Curie’s own hands, Marion read the final lines to me with a force that fixed those words in my memory. This movement, and the incantatory repetition of those final lines, invoked for me an idea of a modern-day, strong female figure whose physical and emotional sacrifices would not only benefit countless individuals (for example, in the development of cancer treatment, and in encouraging more women to enter the sciences), but also cement her legendary status in history.
Where much poetry that I had encountered to that point showed me interesting reflections of or meditations on the world, this was a moment that awakened me to poetry’s deeper value. First, in her performative utterance of the poem, Marion revealed to me the secular power of poetic language, evoked through Rich’s repetition of words (‘Today’, ‘Living’, ‘earth’, ‘denying/ her wounds’). Sandra L. Faulkner, paraphrasing Annie Finch, says that ‘repetition pulls us into a pre-literate body with child-like pleasure’ and Marion’s compulsion to read those final lines with such emphasis (and which I do now, too, with my own students) highlights that corporeal vitality of poetry; what Glyn Maxwell calls its ‘creaturely’ undercurrent, echoing ‘the heartbeat and the pulse, the footstep and the breath’. We are all, of course, affected by poems in different ways, but I could feel this particular poem working its way through my body and firmly into memory, recalling Muriel Rukeyser’s declaration that ‘A fine poem will seize your imagination intellectually… but the way is through emotion, through what we call feeling’.
A second aspect that piqued my interest was the poem’s linking of unconnected ideas – the upturning of an old medicine bottle and the biographical speculation on Madame Curie’s deterioration from radiation sickness. Of course, less experienced poets might combine such elements willy-nilly, without respecting the significance of how the gap between them might be bridged by a reader. Knowing Rich’s stature as a feminist poet of note, I had faith that this combination was intentional and meaningful (though I’ve since learned to be a little more cautious). Indeed, this combination opens an aporia that necessarily activates the reader’s imagination. We wonder why these aspects are linked within the space of the poem, why a present-day archaeological discovery might cast Rich (and us) back in time to consider Curie’s scientific sacrifices. A simple answer lies in the repetition of ‘Today’ – both the uncovering of the bottle and the persona’s reading about Curie occur on the same day. But this coincidence catalyses other reactions. With the suggestion that the bottle once held a ‘cure for fever or melancholy a tonic/ for living on this earth’ (two stressed syllables lend ‘this earth’ extra weight), I receive another clue to follow up – that Rich is contemplating a tonic for living with the troubles of today.
I include the date that ‘Power’ was written beneath the full text of the poem above, as Rich’s published poems frequently include those dates, a choice that signals to me that her poems are generated in part through friction with the world, its temporal circumstances. 1974 was a year that saw the continuation of the Cold War, the Watergate scandal and a global recession, but it was also within a period of intense feminist activity, during which the Equal Rights Amendment was passed and approved in the US Senate (1972), and the landmark legal decision of Roe v. Wade effectively legalised abortion in the United States (1973). Rich, of course, developed her poetic (and critical) voice in part out of this feminist movement and as a way to articulate and mobilise feminist rights. In this sense, a strong female role model from history, like Marie Curie, might offer some direction towards living a feminist life.
As a two-time Nobel-winning physicist and chemist, and pioneer in radioactivity research, Curie was not one to dwell in the circumstances which favoured men’s successes but rather, pursued her own path. This path, as Rich notes, was a difficult one. Physically taxing, her discovery of radium (with her husband Pierre) involved laboriously sifting through tonnes of pitchblende in a dilapidated, makeshift laboratory. Not only did Curie suffer the debilitating physical injuries of radiation sickness from these experiments and processes, but she also had to contend with a male-dominated and misogynistic scientific field, and repeated attempts to tarnish her character. I sense Rich’s sympathy for the physical and emotional struggles of Curie’s research, and her persistence, in the way that she employs repetition and also caesurae or ‘cracks’ within the lines. (Read the poem aloud, pausing slightly at these gaps, and you will see what I mean).
Just as the combination of present and past events in ‘Power’ opens a gap that we readers must bridge somehow, the poem also requires our attempt to reconcile the frictions caused by the chafing of ‘power’ and fame against abject ‘wounds’ and a troubling, painful demise. We are not certain, at the poem’s end, what the single ‘source’ of Curie’s wounds and power might be. A simple answer might be ‘radium’ – the cause of her sickness and her ticket to success and fame. Another might be ‘determination’. A more troubling answer might be ‘competitiveness within a patriarchal scientific culture’. I love that the poem resists simple solutions. We are also not certain if we are being offered a lesson for living, or a precaution. Our temporary and singular ‘resolution’ of the poem’s gaps and tensions exposes a fundamental function of poetry, which is stealthily to goad us into evaluating the role that language plays in representing the world, and how perspectives on that world are not singular nor reduceable to a transcendental truth. In this respect, Rich is not ‘denying’, but embracing the irreconcilable forces of the world’s complexity, its frictions and bridges and spaces. In embracing complexity, we might not only become better readers of poetry, but better feminists and better humans, more accommodating of choice and diversity.
‘Power’ not only made a profound impression on me as a young poetry reader, but it also continues to resonate every time I re-read it. While it moved me to undertake certain activities that I haven’t mentioned above (for example, I spent some time looking up historical details and also investigating Marie Curie), on a deeper level, the poem shifted something in my understanding of poetry’s ability not merely to reflect but also to affect one’s body, voice and mind. As if prompted by a question ‘What tonic do we need for living on this earth?’ (a timeless question, it seems) Rich suggests that ‘power’ lies in imaginative thinking; that, like Curie, who generated a world beyond the one she was born into, one in which she, a woman, could make a scientific impact, we might also be able to imagine ourselves into better futures. And so I sense that Rich is telling us that poetry itself will help us to flex those imaginative capabilities.
I open a book of poems by Jane Hirshfield, published earlier this year, to a page that I have marked with a dog-ear. The poem is called ‘Practice’:
I touch my toes.(reproduced with permission of the author)
When I was a child,
this was difficult.
Now I touch my toes daily.
In 2012, in Sanford, Florida,
someone nearby was touching her toes before bed.
Three weeks ago,
in the Philippines or Myanmar, someone was stretching.
Tomorrow, someone elsewhere will bend
first to one side, then the other.
I also do ten push-ups, morning and evening.
from the knees.
They resemble certain forms of religious bowing.
In place of one, two, four, seven,
I count the names of incomprehension: Sanford, Ferguson, Charleston.
Aleppo, Sarajevo, Nagasaki.
I never reach: Troy, Ur.
I have done this for years now.
Bystander. Listener. One of the lucky.
I do not seem to grow stronger.
I dog-eared this poem because, on first reading, I mistook it for a simple lyric, but its complexity snuck up on me. Through a collocation of modest body movements and place names, we plunge into an emotional chasm. ‘Practice’ begins with a single-line stanza, a description of an action, which connotes stretching and flexibility. The persona notes that she touches her toes daily, and the title of the poem helps us to infer that this movement and flexibility has been possible through ‘practice’. As we all know, such a practice needs to be repeated regularly – flexibility is easily lost through inactivity.
The poem moves forward to imagine other subjects, in Florida, the Philippines, Myanmar, to be stretching, too. Yet we sense, given the mention of these specific city and country names, that this is not just a poem about exercising the body. These are all places where racist and/or ideologically motivated crimes have recently occurred: the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by neighbourhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman in Sanford in 2012; extrajudicial killings under Duterte’s regime in the Philippines; abuses against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Hirshfield does not need to mention the acts themselves – the place names have, thanks to news and social media, become somewhat synonymous with those violent acts. In fact, the acquittal of Zimmerman resulted in the first use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.
The persona speculates that others, elsewhere around the world, are bending and stretching like she is. She refers to the way that we count our push-ups, aiming for a goal, although she substitutes ‘the names of incomprehension’ for numbers. I already know, given the set-up of the poem, that these place names are thematically linked: ‘Sanford, Ferguson, Charleston, Aleppo, Sarajevo, Nagasaki’. Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson in 2014. The Charleston church mass shooting at an African American congregation was in 2015. Aleppo and Sarajevo shift our focus from US politics to global issues; both cities were sites of war crimes leading to mass death and displacement, in this decade and the 1990s respectively. Nagasaki takes us further back in time to the second of two nuclear bombings that killed tens of thousands of Japanese civilians in World War II.
The persona does not reach as far back as the legendary war crimes of ‘Troy. Ur.’; perhaps Hirshfield is saying that reaching those places would be an impossible feat for the exercising body. Perhaps she is saying that the world is in less urgent need of that kind of passive remembrance. She ends the poem as if calling herself to account as a ‘Bystander. Listener. One of the lucky.’ At the poem’s end, then, Hirshfield suggests that being a witness is not enough, will not make her strong.
I might go so far as to suggest that ‘Practice’ takes a first step towards the evolution of its persona from the roles of ‘bystander’ and ‘listener’ towards those of ‘participant’ and ‘speaker’, acting on feelings of guilt and privilege. Not only documenting a realisation of ‘weak’ activism, the poem’s energies draw us away from our solitary motions towards a consideration of collective currents, the ‘doing’ of good citizenry. As a reader, the poem leads me to consider how we all have our simple daily practices, such as touching our toes, brewing our morning coffee, or going for an evening walk; so, what might be possible if we had a daily practice of exercising our responsibility to the world? I think, for example, of the now common practice of Acknowledgement of Country here in Australia, which was relatively rare until a few years ago. As non-First Nations people commit to the regular acknowledgement at the beginning of public events and meetings on unceded lands, the collective consciousness has the potential to shift from ignorance and denial towards deeper understanding and possible reconciliatory futures.
Matthew Zapruder, drawing on the ideas of Wallace Stevens, notes that the ‘special role’ of poetry is that it can ‘help us live our lives, not by telling us what to think, or by comforting us’ but ‘by creating spaces where one individual imagination can activate another’. Hirshfield does not tell us what to think – she definitely doesn’t comfort us! – but the accretion of the poem’s modest lines, culminating in the succinct self-assessment of the penultimate line, makes us hyper-aware of the gaping divide between a private activity (of benefit only to the self) and a responsibility that we ought to have towards our fellow local, national and global humans. The poem also, less obviously, raises awareness of the privileges or disadvantages that one’s race might bring, the speaker implicitly acknowledging the advantages of her own position – a position with which I, too (as a white, middle-class woman), can identify. What happens, then, when one enters the space of a poem that presents a perspective that one does not – cannot – identify with?
The implication of Hirshfield’s poem, that we ought to exercise our responsibilities towards one another more regularly (in effect, refuting the self-focused engagements of a neoliberal society), seems especially urgent in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement began in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and has seen numerous protests globally; more recently, the asphyxiation of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis in May 2020 sparked more than 450 Black Lives Matter protests globally.
Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era, a collection of poetry and criticism edited by Tiffany Austin, Sequoia Maner, Emily Ruth Rutter and darlene anita scott (and a book that I highly recommend) was published at the end of 2019; the pieces within make for powerful reading in light of this year’s events. Critical essays look at the significant contributions made by poets (such as Claudia Rankine, Patricia Smith, Lucille Clifton, Tracy K. Smith and more) towards what Hendricks refers to as ‘the transformative cultural work of raising consciousness and defining a generational agenda’ through poetry. The poetry within the collection represents a range of deeply personal responses to the loss of black lives through police brutality or other kinds of racially motivated violence. These poems document, testify, protest, remember, gather together and demand accountability. The editors note how ‘loss is not singular … but it is a constituent part of the lived experience of black Americans’ and that elegy ‘has proven to be a vital vehicle for countering white media representations that either ignore black pain or individualize it, eclipsing systemic forms of oppression in the process’. In this sense, as a collection of contemporary ‘elegies’, these poems not only deliver lamentation for the dead (as in the traditional definition of the term) but also draw attention to the collective and ongoing suffering of an entire people.
‘What becomes of the lyric “I” if poems are not so much reflecting as enacting?’ asks Tracy K. Smith, words which resonate when I read Angela Jackson-Brown’s ‘I Must Not Breathe’, a 22-line poem in which the phrase ‘I must not breathe’ is repeated nine times. Like a chant or invocation, the poem characterises a headspace and a physical condition in which one is severely inhibited to react or move in any way because law enforcement threatens grave punishment for merely breathing. While most readers are likely to experience a moment of rapid pulse when being stopped by police, the extremity of the speaker’s fear underlines the racialised aspect of the hypothetical scenario. This poem was written after the death of Eric Garner in 2014 who was, like George Floyd, a victim of policy brutality. Garner’s dying words were ‘I can’t breathe’; here, the poet draws attention to the fact that not all human beings ‘breathe’ equally; the poem concludes with ‘if I run/ I must be prepared to die. I must be prepared to die.’ As a white reader, I cannot respond to the poem with an ‘I understand’; and yet, the poem draws readers into its bodily consciousness, putting the breaths – and lack of breath – into our mouths, opening a space for us to imagine that threat and anxiety. Returning to Zapruder and Stevens, this poem does not tell us what to think, but instead provokes a way of feeling.
I am not suggesting that ‘I Must Not Breathe’ (or other poems that address similar issues) simply ‘drops’ a white reader into a simulation of black lived experience; rather, the use of irregular repetition within the poem generates a tension and discomfort that some readers may identify with (e.g. ‘yes, I too have been racially profiled’) while others, myself included, are made alert to bodied relations and inequalities. Poems such as this one do not necessarily have to ‘make space’ for readers beyond their own experience. Nevertheless, I offer the above as my own responses.
Where Jackson-Brown’s poem embodies the panic and breathlessness involved in a particular scenario, darlene anita scott’s ‘A Series of Survivals’, also published in Revisiting the Elegy, uses the lengthy form of a crown of sonnets to convey an impression of what it might feel like to ‘hold a difficult pose for a lifetime’. A crown of sonnets is a series of linked sonnets, whereby the final line of one poem becomes the first line of the next poem. A ‘heroic’ crown contains 15 poems – the final sonnet features the first lines of the preceding 14 sonnets, in order of appearance. As this sequence contains 15 sonnets, we expect that this will be a heroic crown.
‘A Series of Survivals’ places bodies front and centre, beginning with a body bearing the marks of loss: ‘These: widow, widower, orphan, alive./ Titles on your back crust to scab./ A convening of cells, protest to scar’. What follows read like cycles of daily movement and thought, turning over in the mind the ways in which black people survive and do not survive – the crown-of-sonnets format augments the cyclical gesture and heightens a twinned sense of fatigue and resignation. ‘There are many ways to thin a body, disappear it without/ the puff, smoke, or circumstance of its singular & immediate end’, writes scott; for all those bodies that succumb to a violent end, many more are defeated through systemic devaluation.
Several of the sonnets in the sequence convey urgent, bodily desire, with lovers touching and holding one another in ‘clumsy tender imagery’, almost as an antidote to watching the news and reading obituaries: ‘To feel & be felt surely will unmake the night of your skin & his’. Yet the sequence also features numerous pronouns – you, he, I, we – so that we are unsure about who is being addressed, or if there is a guiding, singular persona or perspective; it seems as if scott is deliberately toying with the lyric ‘I’, perhaps, as she writes, ‘trying to convince a state of being that triumphs fear’.
The fourteenth sonnet, which I quote in full below, presents a notable rupture in the ‘crown’ pattern in that the first line does not repeat the final line of the preceding poem. Breaking the rules, this ‘crisis’ is signalled within that first line. The preceding poem tells us that ‘everything is connected from/ beginnings of earth; all of us emerging from/ same energy & air; as wish or shame’. We are of the same matter, these lines suggest; how, then, have we become so divided? In stating ‘you are a new body & without yours so am I’, I sense that scott is showing how bodies are relational matter, and that loss, then, reconstitutes those left behind.
The below poem brings us into a hypothetical yoga class, where we might attempt sankatasana, the ‘difficult pose’ – at the ‘crisis’ or breaking point, this may be the poet’s gesture to bring us back into an awareness of our entangled, embodied relations.
The Chinese symbol for crisis is a combination
of two words: danger & opportunity. Turns out,
this is a Western mistranslation. But let’s take
Sanskrit. The word for crisis is sankata—difficulty;
contracted, narrow. In yoga, we hold onto sankatasana—
difficult pose—for its ability to heal the body’s defense—
inflammation, its zeal to protect warm & painful in the joints.
Ask the practitioner to be aware of the pose’s danger(reproduced with permission of the author)
if handled without proper care as well as its ability
to at ease the army in full formation in their joints:
1. Maintain balance while focused on a fixed point.
2. Gaze at the point; keep the body straight.
3. Stay in the pose for at least thirty seconds.
What does it do to a body to hold the pose, for say, a lifetime?
I quote this penultimate poem in full as it marks a divergence from Hirshfield’s ‘Practice’. Where Hirshfield’s speaker holds herself to account, urges one to act on one’s guilt and privilege to counter racial oppression and violence, the persona/e within scott’s poems, by virtue of their racialised bodies, are inextricably bound to that oppression, and appear to be calling for relief: ‘After enough blows/ a lot of people become debilitated’. This particular sonnet imparts visual balance (two 7-line stanzas reflecting similar line lengths) and an image of balance (through reference to the yoga pose), yet there is a sense of stress and pressure that reveals itself as we read through the poem. Where the first stanza considers terminology and philosophy behind ‘sankatasana – /difficult pose’, the second provides practical instructions for holding that pose, which can heal inflammation (‘to at ease the army in full formation in their joints’) or else inflict further pain if poorly managed. In positioning readers so as to understand the difficult pose, scott uses metaphor to encourage empathy, the final line conjuring an impression of protracted tension.
I mentioned above that we might expect this sequence to be a ‘heroic crown’ of sonnets, whereby the final sonnet features the first lines of the preceding 14 sonnets in order. Yet scott disrupts this traditional format – the final poem features an assortment of lines from the preceding poems, but these are not necessarily the first lines of those poems, nor do they appear in order. A small act of defiance, disobedience or protest, scott unhinges this ordered template, and I read it not only as an emotional breaking point (collapsing from a long-held ‘difficult pose’) but as a potentially constructive gesture. Releasing the poem from constraints and hierarchies may be scott’s metaphorical dismantling of the stressors placed on certain bodies. scott’s evocative and moving sequence helps me to consider the relation between real bodies and the body of the poem – how a poem both inherits the past (that is, the sonnet/heroic crown format and the signification embedded within its formal history) and is a progressive, flexible medium capable of meeting new times, voices, bodies. As Amiri Baraka once said, ‘Poetry is an expression of Human Society, an aspect of its living description’.
Emilie Collyer’s recent poem ‘Clot’ addresses another kind of embodied tension; the poem also refers to Black Lives Matter protests, although on Australian soil. In Collyer’s poem, the persona takes a trip to the oncologist to get ‘an ache in the calf’ checked for ‘risk of clots from/ Tamoxifen’, a treatment for breast cancer. The persona wears a mask (a sign of ‘COVID times’), and while breathing slowly in the waiting room, she ‘feel[s] for the reception// staff who have to/ wear them all day’. Is this a reference to the BLM slogan, ‘I can’t breathe’? For the persona watches the Black Lives Matter protest in Sydney on news in the waiting room; the protest foregrounds the name of David Dungay Jr, a young Indigenous man who was killed in police custody in Sydney in 2015 (like Floyd, his last words were ‘I can’t breathe’). On screen, the white organiser of the protest ‘acknowledges that his body/his skin will protect him’, a safety not guaranteed to any First Nations people who are arrested.
Collyer’s poem refocuses on the potential blood clot – ‘blood in the wrong shape/ and place can kill’, but ‘I am lucky today’, she says, there is ‘no evidence’ of a clot in her leg, but ‘something else is/ causing the ache.’ We cannot divorce the idea of this clot from the death of Dungay Jr., whom Collyer names within the poem. While ‘expert eyes scour/ for threats beneath the skin’ of the persona’s body, the poet implicitly questions how it must feel for those whose skin itself is treated like a threat, like a clot that needs to be thinned. The poem notes ‘the weight// of a corpus/ that needs healing’, but the persona’s own discomfort is conveyed through the poem’s form, a series of short-lined couplets, enjambed so that conjunctions or pronouns often fall uncomfortably at the end of a line.
When I read this poem, I am caught (funnily enough) on the word ‘clot’; a clot might be a bad thing, but perhaps it can also be a good thing, like a protest that disrupts the street traffic of Sydney, something that demands attention and care, which calls for the healing of a collective body. Where Collyer writes that ‘blood in the wrong shape’ can kill, she makes me think that blood in the right shape (heart? compassion?) might heal.
Collyer’s poem was composed for the ‘Poet Laureates of Melbourne 2020’ series. The time-stamp – 8 August, 2020 – indicates that her poem was written within the space of the preceding week, as per the instructions of this City of Literature initiative. The project was devised in response to the isolating circumstances of lockdown in Melbourne, Australia and in the state of Victoria more generally; each Thursday, a poet from the undisclosed list has been called upon to write a poem ‘responding to the zeitgeist or current events of that week’ and to deliver the finished poem a week later for publication on the following Saturday. A poem has been published since the first Saturday in May and the series will conclude at the end of 2020. Given this constraint, I am impressed at Collyer’s drawing together of the personal and the public, private circumstances and national news, through the metaphor of the ‘clot’ (indeed, the clot becomes a timely feature in itself for its association with COVID-19). Anne Carson discusses this quality of poetry, as a bringing together of unconnected elements, when she says that, when a poet writes a poem,
The things you think of to link are not in your control. It’s just who you are, bumping into the world. But how you link them is what shows the nature of your mind. Individuality resides in the way links are made.
Others have written similarly about this special quality of the poet and poem. T. S. Eliot said that ‘The poet’s mind … is constantly amalgamating disparate experience’ and ‘forming new wholes’ (qtd. in Parini). Jay Parini refers to the ‘important work of the poem’ which is ‘to unify otherwise fragmented experience’. And Susan Howe says that ‘Connections between unconnected things are the unreal reality of Poetry’. Collyer’s poem offers to the reader a sense of immediacy through its timely response to the circumstances of the week’s ‘now’ moment (this timed constraint of the ‘Poet Laureates’ challenge); the poem can also be seen as a way for the poet to confront a physical and emotional discomfort, an ‘ache’ that is both felt by the speaker, but also intimated as a broader, societal pain. Without equating her own physical pain with the suffering of others, the poem opens a space for the poet, and the reader, to confront the limitations of language adequate to respond to immense suffering.
Other poets within the Poet Laureates of Melbourne series exhibit Carson’s idea of ‘bumping into the world’ and creating links, with the heightened sense of immediacy generated by the timed constraint. Many poems enfold the personal with inescapable news of the week, as in Broede Carmody’s ‘Merri Creek’ (10 October, 2020): ‘I try to talk about something other than/ case numbers, wildfires or the man in the white/ house with COVID-19.’ Or in Cate Kennedy’s ‘THE SMALLEST LETTERS YOU CAN READ’ (12 September, 2020), in which the persona takes her daughter for an eye exam, a routine check-up that expands beyond metaphor to reckon with her child’s – all children’s – future on this earth: ‘This is a pressure test/ of numbers, glaciers, fires, fury… listen as we tell them that for their own good/ they must stare into this new pitiless sun’.
In other poems, connections to the world’s circumstances are more vague, as in Jennifer Nguyen’s untitled poem (3 October, 2020). Nguyen’s persona conveys a sense of being stuck, of not knowing how to move forward: ‘Every day, both despair and hope sit on my shoulders and/ make me dance,/ news cycle by news cycle.’ Nguyen’s poem conveys the struggles of someone suffering fatigue, depression and anxiety from a long period of disruptions/distractions (‘More than any other year this was the year of starting things and not finishing them’) and instability, as beautifully expressed in the following image:
like a terrible train ride, one where after working long hours on my feet,
I then stood the whole way
and had nothing
to hold onto and steady myself.
Published in the context of the Laureate exercise, the impact of the persona’s struggle is heightened by the irony of the fact that trains and all forms of public transport during COVID-19 lockdown have been much less populated. When the persona says ‘I say I am yearning for a place I’ve never been’, I wonder if the poem’s final lines offer an undoing of all she has known, as if, alighting from that long and difficult train ride, she might step into the fantasy meadow, or a ‘deep purple wave’. The poem does not resolve the feelings or imagery that it offers up, which is part of its beautiful power for me as a reader. In other words, the lack of an anchor point sets me loose on an emotional wave that captures what many of us, I am certain, have been feeling throughout 2020.
Traditionally, a poet laureate is an acclaimed poet appointed by an institution, for a fixed term, to compose poems for special national events and occasions. With more than 30 poets appointed to be ‘laureate’ for one week each, the Poet Laureates of Melbourne – and yes, technically it should be ‘Poets Laureate’ – project has opened up an opportunity to ‘democratise’ the record; a range of voices, rather than one voice, document this unprecedented year of isolation and lockdown (Victoria suffered the worst of it) through the space of the poem. While many of the poets might not normally produce poems under such a pressured time constraint, and the works published in the series might appear differently given more time for editing and redrafting, these poems nevertheless capture a series of immediate responses to the pressures of living through this year of the pandemic.
One might read the series as a documentation of the mood of 2020 across a community, a representation of bodies moving through space in new ways (avoiding proximity to others, wearing masks, scrubbing hands, staying indoors), struggling through the same repetitive stresses, being isolated from friends and family, experiencing loss, anxiety and worry. This makes me think again of Zapruder and Stevens, about poetry enabling one to resist the ‘pressure of the real,’ that ‘incessant drumming in of information, of news, of terrible events and realities’, that this resistance is not about avoiding the real, but to preserve the space of imagination, which he argues is ‘essential to our humanity’. We do not rely on poems to be vessels for factual documentation of a taxing year – that wouldn’t help us at all! Furthermore, these poems are not providing an escape from deep feelings of distress, loneliness, grief. Rather, we might think of these poems as a kind of ‘pressure release’ for the emotional underside that has accompanied the ‘incessant drumming’ of 2020.
For the final part of this essay, I turn to a new poem by Noemie Huttner-Koros, ‘Anthropocene poetics part 1’, first published in the 2020 Australian Poetry Anthology, and which is quoted in full below. The poem appears to reflect and respond to a surfeit of the world’s current circumstances with fresh and vibrant language and in a sort of ‘anything goes’ approach. And yet, a few reads exposes a more nuanced tactic.
Anthropocene poetics part 1(reproduced with permission of the author)
My dog dies.
(Actually not my dog, but my friend’s dog.)
I’m an unreliable narrator (already).
Maggie Nelson says that she hates fiction, or most fiction, or bad fiction:
fiction that purports to have no agenda,
but has already decided the structures anyway,
there’s no way out,
the outcome decided,
delusions trapped inside no discourse.
i don’t want to write bad fiction but –
I don’t purport any truth,
any kind of truth-telling,
there are no cold hard facts here –
just disruptions of space-time-mattering.
i want to find a way to write,
through this blocked tongue as our world of loss calls for radically reworked forms of attention.
(i didn’t write that.)
it’s from a book called Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet.
we should all read it together sometime.
maybe in my garden, i just redid the back section with my mum last week.
everywhere we looked there were more plants to pot,
more weeds to pull out,
more stones to arrange, but-
see my love,
can’t you see how distracted I am?
can attention be reworked?
can words rebuild trust?
or cities cracked and broken from the remains of human debris?
“Remains of human debris.”
That’s that literary device where you say the same thing in two different ways. It’s overexplained,
(Doesn’t mean it’s bad.)
Maybe catastrophising a little.
Maybe that’s language?
Maybe’s that’s the trap?
Maybe my hands are big enough though? For all of this?
I can hold yours in them, or a stone, or the hundreds of lemons falling into my backyard.
The poem begins with a simple line, an independent clause, that introduces a common theme in poetry (loss); we might expect an elegy for this deceased dog, yet the poet swiftly undermines these expectations by revealing that it is her friend’s dog. At first, we could take in this first line as a co-opting of someone else’s grief (is the poet slyly commenting on the appropriation of grief in other contexts? Or, perhaps she draws attention to our assumptions about proximity to and legitimacy of grief). I read on, and Huttner-Koros introduces the idea of unreliable information, of dare I say it, ‘fake news’ – perhaps the opening lines, then, are less about grief, and more about communication of information and the intentions behind the way someone chooses to deliver that information.
In referring to Maggie Nelson’s hatred of fiction, or rather, bad fiction (I take the poet’s word for it, then Google it to confirm she’s not fabricating this also – the words do indeed draw on a passage in The Argonauts), the poet expresses a desire to see writing that ‘discourses’ with the reader, providing a way out of binary thinking and set structures. In stating ‘there are no cold hard facts here –/just disruptions of space-time-mattering’, the poem asks what kind of truth or facts we might be hanging out for. In a world where we are excessively bombarded with alarming facts (true ones, fake ones…) about the state of the planet, where is the space that allows us to dwell in the inarticulable moments that we experience in their wake, and that speaks to the uncertainty and the emotion of those moments as felt facts?
I love the voice in this poem, which conveys at once a sense of humility (‘i didn’t write that’), curiosity (‘can attention be reworked?/ can words rebuild trust?’) and uncertainty (‘Maybe… maybe… maybe’). The ‘not knowing’ is consistent throughout the poem – it justifies the valuing of others’ voices and ideas, which are folded into the poem, turning to those voices as a way to learn more about the world and its troubles, but it also emphasises the poem’s persistent questioning, which opens dialogue with the reader, too. Further, the speaker does not merely address one reader, but a collective and plural readership, so that, when she suggests that ‘we should all read [Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet] together sometime’, while also addressing ‘my love’, the poem is both inclusive and affectionate towards the multiple. The poem pulls us close, generates intimacy, in its invitation to reader/s to sit together in/with the troubled spaces that we have created.
Louise Rosenblatt says that a poem ‘must be thought of as an event in time. It is not an object or an ideal entity. It is an occurrence, a coming-together, a compenetration, of a reader and a text’. In this sense, I read Huttner-Koros’ poem as an appropriate response to the 2020 zeitgeist—not only does it address topical themes (living/writing in the Anthropocene) but the poem also addresses and enacts a ‘distractedness’ that speaks to a current frame of mind contemplating uncertain futures. This enactment is played out not only through regular shifts in focus—dog, fiction, gardening, writing—but also on a smaller scale in inconsistencies with line length and grammar—the irregular uses of i and I, for instance. Incidentally, Huttner-Koros has written a counterpart poem, ‘Anthropocene poetics part 2’, which amps up the sense of distractedness, while continuing to address how signs/language might be repurposed and redressed to unite, rather than divide, us, and to honour the connections between all living beings. With both poems, the poet implicitly expresses an understanding of the way that a poem can, to quote Jay Parini, ‘unify otherwise fragmented experience’ and represent ‘a language adequate to our experience’. Along these lines, the poems’ sprawling distractedness reflects a contemporary mind grappling with the world’s excess and abundance of problems. Importantly, however, these poems acknowledge that poetry is not a space for concrete resolutions.
At the end of ‘Anthropocene poetics part 1’, similar to Hirshfield’s poem, it is as if the poet asks (of herself? of us?) what activity we might undertake in order to direct or refocus our attention towards purposeful goals, and, as an artist, about the role of language in that process. How have the formalities of literature, for instance, curbed our ability to trust the work of language? How might we write through distractedness – or the ‘blocked tongue’ – towards new modes of attentiveness to the world? How might our hands work responsibly, not only as tools for writing, but as tools for comfort, for tending to the earth, for holding its fragments? ‘Maybe my hands are big enough though? For all of this?// I can hold yours in them, or a stone, or the hundreds of lemons falling into my backyard.’
Each of the above poems offers a distinct response to current cultural, health and environmental crises, including the Black Lives Matter movement, the COVID-19 pandemic and the calamities of the Anthropocene. In these moments of crisis, where we have all felt in different ways the limitations of language to express or articulate our feelings and responses, it is interesting to look at some of the ways in which poets have used the space of a poem to move into and through these difficult, fraught times. It is probably wishful thinking to believe that poetry can stop racism, end wars, or influence a politician to take urgent climate action. And yet, I do believe that poems are adept at uniquely responding to the zeitgeist or the news of the day, and at provoking certain kinds of activity.
David Orr says that ‘[o]ne of the problems with political poetry… is that like all speech, it exists at the mercy of time, history, and other people’, by which I think he means to question such poetry’s continued efficacy beyond the moment of its writing. He goes on to write, however, that poems can be ‘unpredictable’, and that the ‘realities’ they generate may continue to be ‘engaged in battle’ in other times or contexts. While we might attempt to hobble a poem to its time, the irresolvable gaps and tensions that a poem puts forward means that we can still, as readers in the present, engage with that headspace, responding to those tensions with different or renewed urgencies. We might, then, consider such poems to be an alternative form of historical documentation, a record that documents feeling rather than fact. Perhaps this is what George Oppen meant when he revised Shelley’s famous dictum (‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’) to state that poets are the ‘legislators /of the unacknowledged /world’. I like to think that poems provide a shadow counterpart to the world of information and political rhetoric, a space that not only appreciates the significant relationship between embodied feeling and historical circumstance, but which also allows us to forego certainties in favour of possibilities.
Special thanks to Rose Michael and Christopher Cody for their reading and suggestions on drafts of this essay.
Powerful and Moving is a collaboration between the SRB and non/fictionLab. We’ve joined forces to commission new essays by writers and academics interested in experimental approaches to the question of value in the sphere of arts and literature.
Writers and literary organisations have become adept at talking about the value of their work in the terms dictated by funding agencies: outputs, impacts, reach. We’ve had to learn how to apply the tools of cultural measurement to our own work and practice at a time when the arts and literature is being devalued by governments. Arts funding is in decline, literature has a low profile in broader arts policy discussions, and writers have been ignored in the various COVID-19 emergency packages. What are we worth? How do we value our own work? What is valuable about literature?
In the coming months you’ll read a series of essays that address these questions by RMIT writer-researchers and leading writers from Australia and our region. Most of the essays have been commissioned in pairs, and we’ll be presenting live in-conversation events to supplement the program in 2021.
W.H. Auden, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, Poets.org.
Amiri Baraka, ‘Social Change & Poetic Tradition’, Chicago Review, 43.4 (Fall 1997), 109-113.
Broede Carmody, ‘Merri Creek’, Poet Laureates of Melbourne, Melbourne City of Literature, 10 October 2020.
Anne Carson, ‘The Art of Poetry No. 88’, interviewed by Will Aitken, The Paris Review, 171 (Fall 2004).
Emilie Collyer, ‘Clot’, Poet Laureates of Melbourne, Melbourne City of Literature, 8 August 2020.
Sandra L. Faulkner, Poetic Inquiry: Craft, Method and Practice. 2nd ed. (New York and Abingdon: Routledge, 2020).
Jane Hirshfield, ‘Practice’ in Ledger (Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2020), 42.
Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson (North Atlantic Books: Berkley, 1985).
Noemie Huttner-Koros, ‘Anthropocene poetics part 1’, Australian Poetry Anthology 8, (Melbourne: Australian Poetry 2020), 46-47.
Noemie Huttner-Koros, ‘Anthropocene Poetics Part 2’, 2020 Venie Prize Winner, Holmgren Design, 2020.
Angela Jackson-Brown, ‘I Must Not Breathe’ in Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era, edited by Tiffany Austin, Sequoia Maner, Emily Ruth Rutter and darlene anita scott, (New York: Routledge, 2019), 31.
Cate Kennedy, ‘THE SMALLEST LETTERS YOU CAN READ’, Poet Laureates of Melbourne, Melbourne City of Literature, 12 September 2020.
Glyn Maxwell, On Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012)
Jennifer Nguyen, ‘When I am asked to visualise a meadow’, Poet Laureates of Melbourne, Melbourne City of Literature, 3 October 2020.
George Oppen, ‘If It All Went Up In Smoke’, Ironwood, 5.1 (9) (Spring 1977), 98-105.
David Orr, ‘The Politics of Poetry’, Poetry, (July/August 2008), 409-418.
Jay Parini, Why Poetry Matters, (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2008).
Adrienne Rich, The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977, Reissue edition, (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1993).
Louise M. Rosenblatt, ‘The Poem as Event,’ College English, 26.2 (1964), 123-128.
Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry, (Ashfield: Paris Press, 1996).
Tiffany Austin, Sequoia Maner, Emily Ruth Rutter and darlene anita scott (eds.), Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era, (New York: Routledge, 2019).
darlene anita scott, ‘A Series of Survivals’ in Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era, edited by Tiffany Austin, Sequoia Maner, Emily Ruth Rutter and darlene anita scott, (New York: Routledge, 2019).
Tracy K. Smith, ‘Political Poetry Is Hot Again. The Poet Laureate Explores Why, and How,’ The New York Times Book Review, 10 December 2018.
William Carlos Williams, ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower [excerpt]’, Poets.org.
Matthew Zapruder, Why Poetry? (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017).