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Ready for Their Close-Up Archive

Poetry and the News

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By Suzanne Lummis

I.

The other week New York State poet William Heyen wrote me that while reading In Danger 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.”

Oh that calamity.

The tiny, 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.

During the 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.

I’d slightly 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.

“One Summer…” 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.

…the whole city of grief rose up to face that black
          boot that waited to kick us open like a clay pot.

“The whole 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 things.

That said…  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 Casablanca. Poem or no poem, the dead stay dead and their children remain orphans. That’s what I say.

Still, poetry 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.

 

II.

Two quotes 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 found there".

Whether one 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 safety. Whoever 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?

After 9/11, 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.

Next, Sam Hamill countered the current administration and its neo-con campaigns overseas with the ambitious undertaking, Poets Against the War. He too has irrefutable qualifications, as poet, publisher of poetry and an advocate of nonviolence. The collection gathers together some fine, strong poems.

Anticipation 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?

Still, I 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.

 

III.

The tidal 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 and yes. Still.

Still I’m able to imagine other questions, ones I can’t answer.

The cultural 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.” 

Before poets 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.

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.

The thought 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.

Am I? 

All that’s 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.

That’s good. Right?

 

IV.

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?)"

The prose 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.”

Fair enough, 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, sulky resistance.

 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? 

 

V.

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 of Dodge.

A year passed before I found a way into a poem that—not captured exactly—but caught at 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.

That’s O.K. 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. Ah ha!

Of course this will change nothing. The dead stay dead and their children remain orphans.

Still. 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 comes out.

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


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.

 


Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach