Where the Person and Political Intersect in Poetry

I’m fascinated by the notion of “political poetry,” of writing verse about social and political issues that withstands the test of time and does not become dated. It’s no easy task, and it’s a challenge that I’ve dealt with in my body of work. Recently, Poets’ Quarterly published my essay, “Going Inside the Cave: Where the Personal and Political Intersect in Contemporary Narrative American Poetry,” on this very topic. I looked at the work of four contemporary poets, Toi Derricotte and Terrance Hayes, specifically their address of personal history and racial issues, and Sharon Olds and Gary Soto, specifically their use of confessional poetry as a means to address issues of gender and identity.

I’d be interested in any comments and thoughts readers may have about the essay. I also encourage you to follow Poets’ Quarterly on Facebook and Twitter because the editors do a wonderful job of posting articles about the current state of contemporary poetry.

On Father’s Day

Normally, no matter the classes I teach each semester, I always do a poetry unit. Often, I break the poems up either by time period or by theme, and when I do it by theme, I always include a section on parents/sons and parents/daughters. I tend to change the poems up every year and have included work by Natasha Tretheway, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Toi Derricotte, Theodore Roethke, among others. But no matter how I change the unit, I always include “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden, one of the poet’s most famous works, and also one of my favorite American poems.

Like me, a product of an economically depressed, blue-collar coal mining town, my students always relate to the poem. No matter the semester or the type of students, I always get a positive reaction to the poem. The students can relate to the father’s labor, the way he starts the fire,  warms the home, polishes the son’s shoes, and yet, expects no thank yous. The poem is beautiful and tender, rich in its language in just 14 short lines. In a lot of ways, it makes me think of and remember my father, dead 10 years come February. He too labored hard but did not expect praise, even though he picked me up from school daily and like my mother, spent years working to carve out a good life for his kids.

I encourage you on this Father’s Day to click the link to the poem and enjoy it. Here’s another link, one to a short audio podcast from The Poetry Foundation on “Those Winter Sundays.” It includes a recording of Hayden reading the poem, some background on him, and analysis by another favorite poet of mine, Terrance Hayes.

Finally, I’ll end this blog post with a link to one of my poems, “Waiting Room,”. Enjoy, and Happy Father’s Day!

Poetry and Politics: The Struggle to Be Heard

I came across a CNN interview with one of my favorite poets, Terrance Hayes,  a National Book Award winner for his latest collection, Lighthead.

Though some of the questions asked may have been a little soft, I do find the interview interesting and unique in the sense that Hayes draws some connections between poetry and politics, meaning that poets, like politicians, deal with the issue of being heard, of shaping a message, even if the message is not necessarily about the war in Iraq or Hurricane Katrina.  Both groups focus on manipulating language to be heard, to reach an audience.

Hayes was also asked if there are any contemporary politicians whose speeches were poetic, and the answer he gave was Abe Lincoln. He was pressed further and asked if any of Obama’s speeches could be considered poetic. Hayes answered by saying there was a greater shapliness to the language and speeches Obama gave leading up to the presidency, and less so now. But now that Obama is gearing up for re-election, do you think he will recapture some of that magic, some of the “shapliness to the language” and control his message better? He’ll have to if he wants to reside in the White House for another four years, especially as he deals with the situation in Libya, the economic recovery, and further looming budget battles with the GOP. He’s going to have to craft language that leads to action, that makes voters trust him to run the country for four more years.

Anyways, Hayes makes a lot of other great points in this short interview, and reads a poem from Lighthead regarding the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Check out the full interview below.