INLANDIA LITERARY JOURNEYS: Persuasion and pitfalls in political poems

o5n5zl-b88689179z.120160414135006000gt9g06if.10This is the year it could happen. Maybe you’re stuck in a stop-and-go rubberneck on the 91 freeway, the radio a dull drone through your morning migraine as the partisan station of your choice recaps the political news of the day.

Maybe it’s already happened. Maybe you’ve already begun thinking of words that rhyme with candidate names.

Wherever it happens, you might have the sudden urge to write a political poem sometime during the next eight months. To help you get ready, I’ve prepared this simple guide to help you handle the situation with aplomb.

First of all: Don’t panic. Pull to the side of the road somewhere safe, or wait for the nearest exit, then find an empty parking lot or an exceptionally long drive-through line. Poems sometimes write themselves, but they can’t write themselves while you’re driving. Only poem in park.

Don’t feel guilty. A poem is just a special way to talk about special things. We all have an innate desire to say the un-sayable, to articulate all that lies just beyond the reach of articulation. Poetry can happen to anyone, anywhere, so remember: It’s not your fault.

Find a recording device. Use your smartphone, if you have one, to record your poem as a voice memo, text it to a friend, email it to yourself, or tap it out using a standard writing application.

If not, many of the world’s greatest poems have been written on ancient, crusty glovebox napkins. It’s true. If all else fails, there’s still memorization, a pneumonic device, which historically has been the point of poetry more often than not. Whatever tool you use, just don’t lose it.

Now that you have your poem saved, the real trouble begins. Sure, you’ve written something “felt in the blood and felt along the heart,” as Wordsworth put it, but what next? Does your political poem have any cultural value? Should you share it with close friends, or perhaps even the public?

On this question, poets themselves have long been split. In “A Defense of Poetry,” Percy Shelley famously wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and others have been trying to pat themselves on the back equally firmly ever since.

William Carlos Williams says, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Your political poem could be a matter of life and death! More recently, Meena Alexander writes that, “We have poetry/ So we do not die of history,” a statement I particularly love.

Not everyone agrees, though. In a 1965 lecture to students at Berkeley, Jack Spicer said, “I don’t know of any political poems which have worked,” and suggested instead of writing poems that they write letters to their congressmen. Both would be equally effective, he reasoned.

I once asked National Book Award winner Troy Jollimore why he finds political poems difficult to write, and he worried about preaching to the converted: “The people who know those are good values are already on my side; the people that don’t think they’re good values aren’t going to be convinced by my siding up with good values.”

He has a point, too. A poem isn’t an argument. A poem’s purpose isn’t to persuade — persuasion is for op-eds and campaign ads.

So keeping that in mind, re-read your political poem. Is it cheerleading, or is it trail-blazing? Does it reach deeper into the abyss to haul up some new creature?

Just last week, an Orange County poet named David Miller wrote in a political poem, an elegy for the personified American Dream: “I ran when I heard you crying/ like a phone, no one told me how alone you are.” Now that’s what Shelley meant when he said that poetry “purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.”

Be honest, does your political poem really purge the film of familiarity, or is it just more mosquito guts on the windshield? If it’s the former, then by all means share it widely! This is the year for purging.


Wrightwood author Timothy Green is editor of Rattle magazine

Blink of an eye / ideas and people connect / in haiku by Timothy Green

Frogpond

In Japan, the brief poetry form is all about socializing. Why not here, too ?

When my grandmother’s hearing had grown too poor for the telephone, we started exchanging letters. Once a month—on the same day as the Edison bill—I’d receive a handwritten letter, pressed firmly with a retired schoolteacher’s perfect cursive, yellowed paper cut neatly from the same ancient notebook. Family gossip, news of my father, the weather back east, details of her various ailments.

She’d close every letter with a haiku. It was both a hobby of hers, and a nod to my odd profession. Her last was probably her best:

snow-covered sundial

waiting

to tell time again

I imagined her as the sundial, snowed in by age, her bed long-since moved to the living room so she wouldn’t have to negotiate the stairs, waiting patiently for whatever spring might come in whatever existence might come next.

When I had a moment, I’d tap out a hasty reply, glancing out at the palm trees on Ventura Boulevard from my office window, and close with a responding haiku.

it’s December too

in California

the crickets shout!

There was a joy to the haiku that I’ve only recently come to understand. Easy to write but impossible to master, they never grow old. You can write them in the car stuck in traffic, or plop them easily at the end of a newspaper article. Haiku are so simple they can be simultaneously silly and profound, and that contrast has kept them fresh for centuries.

Most often my grandmother’s haiku would offer a shift in mood, adding levity or perspective or clarity to the information that the letter had shared.

lost my other shoe—

now even the right

isn’t left

Almost a decade later, I still remember many of them fondly, and they always embody my grandmother’s quietly sarcastic personality.

More recently, I interviewed Richard Gilbert, a haiku scholar at Kumamoto University in Japan. He described with great enthusiasm the beloved space haiku holds within Japanese culture. With a total population of 130 million, it’s estimated that 12 million attend a regular haiku group. Witty celebrities compose haiku-like senryu live on TV.

Haiku itself descends from a party game, so it should be no surprise that they’re fun to write. At the kukai, as it was called, friends would gather around a bottle of saké, taking turns composing lines on a chosen topic. Class boundaries and social conventions dissolved as participants adopted pen names, many of them humorous. Bashō was named after the banana tree outside of his hut.

Listening to Gilbert tell it, haiku as a social act sounds like so much fun that I can’t help wishing we made it a part of our culture in the West. An outlet for playfulness and creativity and face-to-face interaction, haiku embody much of what we seem to be lacking in the age of smartphones and Facebook.

So let’s start now. Why not cap off your annual holiday letter with a summary haiku? Turn a family dinner into your own kukai, composing short poems about the season.

Before you start, it’s important to know what haiku are and what they aren’t. No other form of poetry is so misunderstood. Haiku are not three-line poems of five, then seven, then five syllables. Counting syllables doesn’t make any sense in Japanese, which is divided into units of time and not sound. You can think of traditional haiku as three lines that are short, then long, then short in duration, but even that generality isn’t an important rule in modern haiku.

The heart of a haiku is really the kireji, the cutting word, which is almost a form of punctuation that divides the poem in two. In English we might use a dash or colon—this division separates the first image from the last, creating a comparison that can be evocative or uncanny. The best example is Bashō’s famous frog:

old pond—

frog jumps in

the sound of water

That dash is the kireji, and it signifies a complete cut in time and space. The haiku presents one image, an old pond, and then another isolated image, the frog jumping into the sound of water. How the two images relate to each other is left up to the reader—and it’s that interactive, connective leap that stirs our thoughts and emotions. This is one of the many things Bashō meant when he said, haiku jiyu, or “Haiku is for freedom.”

Much more goes into classical haiku, but this is all you need to know to write decent modern haiku in English. Don’t count syllables, just count images or ideas: There should be two.

watching football

my keyboard

almost silent


To learn more about the history of haiku, you can find my interview with Richard Gilbert in issue #47 of Rattle, or read his translations of contemporary Japanese haiku poets at his website.

Young Poets Have Lessons for Us All by Timothy Green

For our children, summer means trips to the beach, barbeques, and long stretches of glorious boredom. School is out, the days are long, and the possibilities endless. For this poetry editor, summer vacation also serves as a break from publishing adults, focusing instead on children, as I work to compile the annual Rattle Young Poets Anthology. With the help of their parents and teachers, thousands of children age 15 and younger share work with us each year. Listening to their voices is as soothing as ice cream on a hot day.

When most people think of “children’s poetry,” they think of poems written by adults for kids—they think of Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss. They don’t think of children themselves as poets, and it’s very difficult to find any anthologies of poems written in the other direction, by children for adults. That’s unfortunate, because, as I’ve quickly learned, children are absolutely brilliant wordsmiths.

This shouldn’t be so surprising. The early years of language development are magical. No other time in life is full of such wonder, such imagination, and such playfulness. Young poets don’t write out of habit; they haven’t yet learned how to be cliché. They write with a natural spontaneity that adults have to work hard to achieve. “The cents of a penny/ is less than your love,” writes Zoey Sheffield, age 6. Lines like these seem as effortless as they are abundant.

There’s more to young poets’ work than just the strange and beautiful ways that they construct language, though. Children are writing about most of the things that adults do, with a depth of understanding and attentiveness that deserves more respect than it’s usually given. Eight-year-olds are responding to climate change. Eleven-year-olds are trying to processes the graphic terrorism of ISIS. Four-year-olds are thinking about their parents’ struggles with anxiety and depression.

Until I started reading these poems, I never realized how rich and complex the interior lives of children really are. Consider this short poem by Briar Sprungin, age 8, and the level of emotion it captures:

The Woman

I was racing down the stairs,

a woman of white caught my eye.

She had two braids down to her toes.

She was mumbling something.

I asked if I could help her

but she didn’t say a word.

Then she whispered in my ear,

“Survive,” and disappeared.

It turns out that children are also great teachers of poetry, of what poetry is, and what it can be. In compiling these anthologies, we ask the young poets why they love poetry, and their answers provide some of the best insights I’ve found.

“I think of poetry as an art to transfer our thoughts about the world or imagination that lives around us onto paper,” writes New Zealand’s E. Wen Wong, then age 11, “[O]ur minds are search engines constantly producing ideas to make an impact on the world, whether it is big or small.”

Madeline McEwen, also age 11, says that poetry “gives us beauty even when the world seems ugly.”

Meanwhile, 7-year-old Cody Dane likes “making new rhymes,” and has the profound realization that “you can learn more when you’re rhyming.” His contribution to the 2015 anthology is this three-word poem that would make any concrete minimalist proud, exploring the way perception becomes awareness (through rhyme):

My Cat

Fur Purr Her

In a conversation with Rattle many years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winner Sharon Olds remarked that “There isn’t a bad poet in the 1st grade.” The most amazing thing that I’ve learned in editing this anthology is just how true that statement is. The thousands of poems that we receive for the anthology every year are but a tiny fraction of what is produced. Everywhere in the world, from the Inland Empire to Africa to Singapore, children are writing moving and memorable poetry—doodling with words for classes or for fun, but making so much more than refrigerator art.

These are small but powerful voices—we only have to listen and learn.