Anatomy of a Political/Personal Poem

Politics, succinctly stated, is the negotiation of power among agents (humans, mostly, but one could argue along literary lines, humans versus nature, etc.). As a critical educator, I argue we cannot avoid being political; to claim you are not being political is being political—as expressed in Howard Zinn’s observation that you cannot be neutral on a moving train.

Below, I want to annotate a new poem of mine, as it represents the inescapable intersection of the political and the personal. As a writer, I occasionally bring my own writing into the classroom in order to be a witness to investigating a text.

My high school English students always felt very skeptical of English-teacher-as-text-authority holding forth about Writer X or Writer Y using this metaphor or symbol. Students often asked, How do you know Writer X did that on purpose?

So with my own work, I can truly reveal what is beneath a poem (the iceberg metaphor about art is useful here, but inadequate, I think, because I want something more organic such as a huge root system beneath a tree that continues to spread). I can help a student tease through my intent as well as how meaning may spring from those places where my conscious intent was lacking in the original writing.

On a companion blog, I have discussed this more broadly before, but my Poet Self is a different beast than my prose self. Poetry tends to come to me (often the first lines simply ask/demand to be written, feeling mostly not of my making but more that I have received them), and then I typically compose the full poem over several recursive hours of writing, reading, reading aloud, and re-shaping as I discover what the poem is intending to say.

What films I am watching, what books I am reading, what music I am listening to—these all become dialogues with my Poet Self, many times fueling the initial inspiration to write (and thus, many of my poems have quotes at the beginning, as below).

In an effort to avoid the cumbersome (and possibly slipping directly into the cumbersome), I am using bracketed notation, including the notations first, and then including the entire poem last—as I am not completely sure how best to format all this on a blog.

Anatomy of a Political/Personal Poem

[1] After talking to a friend who also loves The National, I have been listening to several of their albums over and over while driving to work. I love “Slipped” and noticed its use of season and that overlapped my spring motif for this piece. These lines also speak to the central two repeated lines about the inadequacy of making guarantees.

[2] One Monday, two hail storms pelted my university, the first during the morning while I sat in my office. That day was eerie in the changing weather patterns and this opening did just come to me, the first line and then I began to play with radar representations of storms, which established “screen” and “color” motifs for the poem.

[3] Pollock, O’Keefe, and cummings helped me think about representation of reality through art (what is True versus what is true/fact). The poem (as are many of my poems) is a not-so-subtle tribute to cummings in the lower-case versus uppercase as well as the use of & to suggest two/multiple things as one.

[4] Since #BaltimoreUprising has emerged as the shorthand for the current unrest in Baltimore, I have not been able to shake the power of “rising”—I think of The Dark Knight Rises, Phoenix/Jean Grey from the X-Men, and the enduring myths of rebirth.

[5] Although ending the first section, I came back to these lines over and over until I recognized the need to emphasize this poem is about calls to notice what we ignore, miss—on both personal and political levels. Nature demands we pay attention to our puniness, but humans fail again and again due to our arrogance. Humility comes from looking up and then really looking.

[6] Yes, literally I sat through two hail storms, and yes, literally, I am addressing my granddaughter. Throughout my poetry, I have examined the weight of not noticing until too late “the last time,” but with my granddaughter, I have become more aware of “first times.” The hyperlink is to my first poem about my granddaughter, written before she was born and even before we knew her gender. I use “sky” in poems about her as her name is Skylar.

[7] As I continued to shape and re-shape the poem—polish, prune, and always choosing the right (only?) word—I recognized that the piece demanded a “mother” motif—one I allowed to remain fairly hidden or mostly implied. In a blog post, I have examined more directly the Western/Christian use of Nature to mythologize human ideas about evil/good (specifically with snakes), and those ideas are suggested here.

[8] Storytelling, mythologizing—what story does weather radar tell? What about mainstream cable news? I am almost always thinking about Margaret Atwood’s examination of telling and retelling (notably in The Handmaid’s Tale). As I was coming to see the poem as “finished,” I realized the power of repeating these lines in both the context of my granddaughter (the personal) and the uprising in Baltimore (the political). I hope the “we” and “you” are both necessarily ambiguous and directly evocative of real people in real situations of passion and human frailty.

[9] Although this section, I feel, pulls together central motifs about “motherhood,” “Nature,” and storytelling/mythologizing, I must again confess this actually happened. People have been telling my daughter this “story” about snakes in springtime, and she paused sharing this with me one morning on her way out to work as I was there to provide care for my granddaughter. My daughter and I are worriers, anxious souls. We don’t need to hear such things. Here I also decided to use italics to offer some sense of discourse, some agents of actual telling. Again, as part of my visual self (cummings, comic books, films), I feel the poem sporadically zooming in and then pulling back—both the writer telling a story but also the camera capturing the story.

[10] The cable news section builds and then extends the motifs, but I struggled with how to blend this element with the personal sections that were much easier, natural to compose. I watched the Baltimore coverage as it happened, mostly flipping between CNN and MSNBC, using Twitter to guide me—experiencing how an event unfolding in real time is shaped by who and how the story if composed.

[11] My poem titles tend to include a main and then parenthetical title. Typically, as I start a poem I have only the main title and then a parenthetical reveals itself. “Baltimore is burning” was that organic element here, simple and alliterative as well as disturbing.

[12] These two lines echo and reinforce the first two lines with the “screen” and “color” motifs. The use of “yellow” and “black” also carry layers of connotation. The “yellow” of literal fire on the TV screen but “yellow” carries both “cowardice” and “caution” while “black” captures the literal night as well as race. “Blossom” also is central to the concepts of spring (as seasonal and as political renewal) while adding some tension to images that are positive and negative, sometimes simultaneously (flowers and fires can blossom).

[13] The hardest and slowest developing lines of the poem are these four. I struggled against slipping into mere commentary (losing the poetic), but I also wrestled with my urge to confront “minstrel show” and “black face” as part of the unmasking of racist mainstream media coverage while striking an objective pose of presenting both sides. The allusion to Fox News remains, but I never fully formed the thought of MSNBC being “Minstrel Show NBC.” The puppeteering and make-up (masking) felt necessary, but not satisfying until I placed this section as parenthetical, a bit of mechanical cloaking to reinforce the masking motif.

[14] The Baltimore refrains originally were all “is” sentences, but despite the importance of “Baltimore is burning,” I moved toward “Baltimore [verb]” and played with quite a number of combinations of verbs. “Witnesses” is a very subtle allusion to James Baldwin, and more directly, “explodes” (as I hyperlink) is an allusion to Langston Hughes’ “Harlem.” The natural and human-made storms are blended by the last section, framing the poem with storm, hail, and wind.

[15] I return to italics to suggest someone is speaking to some audience, but here the ambiguity is much more significant and purposefully broad. I like the rhythm of the “if” statements, and one of the best edits of the poem, I think, was being drawn to one of my favorite R.E.M. songs, “The Flowers of Guatemala,” a beautiful and powerful political song about Central America/U.S. politics. I lift almost directly “The flowers cover everything,” and share the song’s focus on paying attention to the masked, invisible: “There’s something here I find hard to ignore.”

[16] Completing the news image earlier of “minstrel show,” I return to the soot of the Baltimore fires turning everyone black, in black face, as a plea to “If everyone looked the same, would we do better?” The repetition of “recognize” also links back to the parenthetical commentary on the news media and reinforces the tension between paying attention and masking.

[17] Especially in poems, but essays as well, I seek always to frame so I had to return to “Baltimore is rising” even though I had elected to use the “Baltimore [verb]” constructions to open the last section. I was stuck for a while with “Baltimore is Phoenix,” which seemed both to work and falter. Here is where my revision strategy of reading aloud over and over was key. “Baltimore is burning/ Phoenix rising” sounded right aloud. Alluding to Harlem, directly addressing Baltimore, and Phoenix as a city name felt suggestive as well.

[18] I liked these lines as a bit of sincere resignation of grandparent/parent to child when I first wrote them (never edited, and felt right immediately). In the context of Baltimore and the ambiguity of that last section about “we” and “you,” I think, the lines work well to pull most of the key motifs and themes together, specifically the idea of “story telling” as both seeking and blurring Truth/truth.

first spring (Baltimore is burning)

“It’ll be summer in Dallas/ Before you realize/ That I’ll never be/ Anything you ever want me to be”
“Slipped,” The National [1]

thunderstorms blossom on the radar
green yellow red maroon [2]

like animated flower bouquets created by
Jackson Pollock Georgia O’Keefe & e.e. cummings [3]

because springtime is rising again [4]

hail taps my office window
rattled by wind gusts in shared rhythm

this season demands i pay attention
this building storm lifts my eyes [5]

/

precious child of my child
this is your first spring [6]

your first angry sky
your first thunder&lightning

we will hold&comfort you
but only you can understand Mother Nature [7]

we can tell you stories in soothing tones
but we cannot guarantee anything [8]

except our hearts are filled with you
etched forever into the bones of us

/

this is the story they are telling my daughter

snakes can smell when you are nursing
slithering into your house for the milk

snakes will strangle nursing babies
sleeping&dreaming in their cribs alone

my child who is a mother tells me this
her eyes&voice beg of me a mother’s plea

what is a mother to do what is a mother to do
if even Nature conspires against her baby [9]

/

the news tells me this story in the last days of April [10]

Baltimore is burning [11]
thugs rioting&looting

flames blossom on the TV screen
yellow black yellow black [12]

(if you look close enough you can recognize
the strings&make-up but not the puppeteers

performing this 21st-century minstrel show
masquerading as fair&balanced reality TV) [13]

/

Baltimore cries
Baltimore witnesses

like the first thunderstorm of spring
tossing hail&wind against your window

Baltimore shouts
Baltimore explodes [14]

if the fires are large enough
if the fires burn long enough

if the soot covers over everything [15]
painting every single face black

will you listen will you look
will you recognize will you act [16]

Baltimore is burning
Phoenix rising [17]

we can tell you stories in soothing tones
but we cannot guarantee anything [18]

—P.L. Thomas

3 comments

  1. Pingback: Reblogged: The Becoming Radical: Beware Grade-Level Reading and the Cult of Proficiency | Literacy Teaching and Teacher Education

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