Poetry and the News
The other week
New York State poet William Heyen wrote me that while reading
against the backdrop of the day’s continuing bad news, certain lines
resonated with added power. My thoughts turned towards the Middle
East, but he followed with this quote, “We love the sea, it/doesn’t
love us back.”
seemingly uneventful poem “Sea Chantey” describes the numbing effect
of the Northern California waters, but when I wrote it I’d been
thinking about those voyagers dropped from the hull of the Titanic
into an even icier sea. Like the oranges in Frank O’Hara’s famous
“Why I am Not a Painter”, those drowned ones never appear in the
poem—only I knew they drifted below its surface. Now, this long
while later, in the mind of at least one particularly receptive
reader, the closing lines seem to speak for a much larger tragedy.
tsunami coverage a line not my own began to sound in my memory, “The
storm with my name on it…”. I had first to remember what poem
contained those words and then—harder yet—locate the book. A certain
anxiety pressed me to the task. After much exasperated flinging
about of books and perusing of many shelves I had the inspiration to
investigate what might have fallen behind the bookcase. There I
found The Dig by Lynn Emanuel.
misremembered the line, and “One Summer
Hurricane Lynn Spawns Tornados as Far West as Ely” does not describe a tsunami—but, then, I didn’t need it to.
(The poem appears at the end of this essay.) It doesn’t ponder a disaster
anywhere near the scope of the tidal waves that wiped away a hundred
and fifty thousand in the space of several minutes, and still I was
right to be haunted by that fragment. For me, Lynn Emanuel’s poem
captures the massive adversarial power of nature, its looming
supremacy—even now, still, when we’ve done so much to harness,
organize or erect barricades against it.
catches at this terribility, not so much through its topic as
through the spring-loaded compression of its language. And look at
that closing—those plosive sounds and single-syllable words
following one on the other, how deeply they get at the thing’s force
and ragged speed.
city of grief rose up to face that black
boot that waited to kick us open like a clay pot.
city of grief rose up…” I invite readers to turn that zinger over
in their heads and see what shows up. To my mind, it invests the
collective psyche of these people and the spirit of the region with
qualities both tragic and dynamic. And—like many of the best
poems—it just raises hell with our unexamined, conventional view of
That said, so what? The fact that I located a poem that catches a
certain something—it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, that’s what
Humphrey Bogart would say, or—better yet—Rick Blaine in
Poem or no poem, the dead stay dead and their children remain
orphans. That’s what I say.
and the news are engaged in a makeshift, shambling sort of dance.
And in regards
to this, I’d like to present a few questions for consideration.
come up often enough, and the second of these is done to death.
Nevertheless, here they are again, back to back. Poetry, Pound
wrote, is “the news that stays news.” Later, as if to amend or
counter the statement by his longtime friend and sometimes rival,
William Carlos Williams picked up the subject in his discursive
poem, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower": "It is difficult/to get the
news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is
favors the first assertion or the second, it seems now more than
ever poetry and the news have a thing going on, and yet precedents
exist. The itinerant Celtic bards, highly trained and—in Medieval
times—the acknowledged masters of the language, carried not only
poetry but local and national news through the townships. In the
days before The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, before the printing
press, bards could travel through the unpoliced lands in relative
injured or waylaid the bearer of poetry and news would find himself
in trouble with the other villagers.
Today we poets
don’t report news; we react to it. Wow, do we react. Well, you might
say—and even I might say—how can we not?
William Heyen, himself a resident of New York State, close in every
way to many of those most directly affected, and also a poet who’s
long probed social and political questions, assembled the anthology
September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond.
The need for, the validity of, this collection can
join those other truths held to be self-evident.
Hamill countered the current administration and its neo-con
campaigns overseas with the ambitious undertaking,
He too has irrefutable qualifications, as poet, publisher of poetry
and an advocate of nonviolence. The collection gathers together some
fine, strong poems.
surrounding that book—in some quarters—generated excitement, electricity. Now—I lay no blame here—it
seems no matter how grievous the backstory and the triggering
circumstances, poets, especially those sorely under-recognized ones,
can’t help but be happy upon hearing their work will appear in a
widely publicized national publication such as this one. And people
who’ve felt helpless in the face of events are bound to feel happy
when they think their efforts might fold into larger ones, and these
might shift the course of history. Right?
wonder—and my wonderings are ill-defined and ill-humored. I’m
Director of The Los Angeles Poetry Festival so occasionally poets
give me resumes. One fellow pointed out that his poem appeared in
Poets Against the War.
Clearly he was happy about this publication credit.
But the war
was still going on.
waves had only just pulled back from the remains of Sri Lanka,
Sumatra, the Philippines and other coastlines when poets began
receiving news of an online poetry anthology, which will soon become
a print anthology, commemorating the victims of the tsunami. And why
not; don’t these editors have as much right to gather poems and
publish as William Heyen and Sam Hamill? And didn’t the tsunami
kill far more than the hijackers did? And didn’t it, over minutes,
render more destruction than the worst day of the war? The worst
two days? And aren’t the calamities that devastate peoples other
than Americans just as tragic and worthy of poets’ attentions?
Yes, yes, yes
Still I’m able
to imagine other questions, ones I can’t answer.
critic Theodor Adorno is alleged to have proclaimed “No poetry after
Auschwitz,” but that’s a nifty abbreviation. The exact quote—from
Cultural Criticism and Society in the year 1949—is this: “To
write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”
and defenders of poetry launch into an argument with Adorno, who’s
no longer around to answer back, they should know that in his 1966
essay “Negative Dialectics” he somewhat tempered his views on this.
Still it’s odd
to think that if the sort of publishing enterprises and cultural
temperaments now in place had been thus in the 40s the allied troops
would no sooner have burst open the camp gates when poets here would
start to receive invitations to submit their best work for the Dachau-
or Auschwitz-themed anthology.
makes my stomach roll over.
Of course the
hypothetical project wouldn’t really be described as crudely as I’ve
imagined it just now. And, in any case, such an anthology couldn’t
be accused of exploiting the horrors, because exploitation suggests
someone’s benefiting, and poetry affords little money and no fame.
Most editors and publishers of poetry lose money, and I’ve noticed
the more poetry one writes the less known one becomes. So, I’m not
really being fair.
certain is that after our embrace of the newsworthy poem, and the
poem that heals or strikes out against opposing forces, the
pro-active poem, and after the advent of desktop publishing, nothing
ever again could happen that would—even for a moment—seem too
terrible for poetry.
At one point in the current
Denver Quarterly, Cal Bedient muses upon the sociopolitical
expectations sometimes leveled on poets; he wonders, "([…]and what are the hundreds of
thousands of prose writers failing to do that poetry’s help should
be urgently required?)"
writers would answer—I paraphrase—“Hey, we’re doing the best we can,
O.K.? We’re producing novels, short fiction, non-fiction, creative
non-fiction, analyses and investigative reports, and some of these
works—in ways subtle or direct—aspire to educate and enlighten,
hasten a change, or instigate reform.”
but I’m pleased by Cal Bedient’s needling question nevertheless. I
like it best out of context, removed from the thesis-speak
qualifications and bifurcations swirling around it. I like its curt,
A while back
Los Angeles area poet Sherman Pearl responded to my fretting, “But
people can only do what they’re able, what they do best. What else
can poets contribute except poetry?”
I have no
answer to that one. Does anyone?
In 1991 I saw
my L.A. avenue burn. Actually, I monitored most of the fires’
northward progress on TV, but when I smelled smoke and glimpsed the
flames from my window I decided it was time to pack up and get out
A year passed
before I found a way into a poem that—not
some of what I’d witnessed. It caught at my furious mix of emotions.
By then I’d long ago missed an opportunity to appear in a notable
poetry anthology gathering together responses to the Rodney King
riots. By then my finished poem, so far as literary magazines were
concerned, amounted to old news.
Somewhere in the future a line or two from that one might register
in a readers’ memory—not necessarily by virtue of any literal
connection, a fire, a riot, an uprising. This reader will not be
seeking consolation, not exactly. I’m quite sure—the more I think
about it—that this particular future reader will be feeling a bit
put off by humans and the mess they make of things. However, no
anthology of poems about being put off by people because of the mess
they’ve made of things will be in print just then. After a search
she, he, will turn up my poem.
Of course this
will change nothing. The dead stay dead and their children remain
My reader will experience that sensation one gets when some words,
two or three phrases, slip into a world we know to be true, naming
it exactly—like a couple of quarters that slide through the slot of
a vending machine and this time don’t get stuck halfway, and a soda
It’s an agreeable moment.
ONE SUMMER HURRICANE LYNN SPAWNS TORNADOS AS FAR WEST AS ELY
The storm with my name dragged one
heavy foot over the roads of the county.
It was a bulge in a black raincoat, pointed
and hard as the spike in a railroad tie;
it dipped like a dowser’s rod and screamed
like the express at the bend at Elko.
It made the night feverish and the sky
burn with the cold blue fire of a motel sign.
Oh that small hell of mine nipped at the town,
turned the roads to mud, lingered at the horizon,
a long clog, a sump. All sigh and lamentation,
the whole city of grief rose up to face that black
boot that waited to kick us open like a clay pot.
Lynn Emanuel's books include Hotel Fiesta, The Dig (both from University
of Illinois Press), Then, Suddenly (University of Pittsburgh). The poem
above appears in The Dig. Her poems have been selected for Best
American Poetry 1994, 1995 and 1998. She directs the Writing Program at the
University of Pittsburgh.