In Their Own Words
Remarks on Civic Poetry and Taking the Train of Singularity South from Midtown
Love and language create community. During a term as poet laureate in Gloucester, MA, my commitment to community and civic poetry, a poetry of place and witness, grew stronger; Taking the Train of Singularity South from Midtown, a new collection out this January, reflects that commitment. There is little self-reference or confession in the book—or only when I couldn't help it. Set in Gloucester and New York and Paris, in Panama and Newtown, the poems draw from the same public well.
By civic poetry, I mean poems written for the public on community topics. I mean poetry accessible to an attentive, general audience. And since it is often meant to be read in public, I mean poetry that relies on sound and familiar forms: rhyming tricks, assonance, consonance, regular rhythms, refrains, various fixed forms, the workhorse sonnet.... And of course, civic poetry, like all poetry, is insightful and fresh, never talks down.
Poetry's exalted language, a key to forging community in all ages, is often generated by events: Auden's "September 1, 1939," at the start of World War II, or the legion of poems written and still being written on the Sandy Hook and Pulse night club atrocities. More commonly, it is occasional, a part of dedications, openings, church services, wedding toasts. A specific venue for bespoke poetry includes, importantly though less often, presidential inaugurations. In no other setting is poetry so needed, this strident season perhaps more than any other, to bind and elevate our glorious, raucous republic.
The poetry of Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco at the Obama ceremonies added perspective and solemnity to those events. Sadly, these were only the fourth and fifth poets to read at presidential inaugurations. The first was Robert Frost (Kennedy), then Maya Angelou (Clinton), and Miller Williams (Clinton). A sixth poet, Jimmy Carter's fellow Georgian James Dickey, read at a gala the evening of the inauguration.
If civic poetry is desirable, why is it not common? A part of all ceremony? All inaugurations?
Three reasons, two of them the fault of poets. First, much modern poetry is vague and indigestible—even by other poets. Mark Edmundson was correct when he wrote in Harper's Magazine, that too much modern poetry is "oblique, equivocal, painfully self-questioning…"
Second, many poets look down on civic poetry, thinking it reductionist, meaning strictly and solely social justice poetry, stubbornly exclusive of confession and self-reverence. (No doubt I meant self-reference.) But that is not the overview, the force for inclusiveness, that I think of as civic poetry, a grand tradition that has ranged from Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes to Carl Sandburg and John Berryman - who confessed, by the way, to believing in democracy as a kid and as an adult. I am talking of poetry that informs and celebrates, embraces, in Muriel Rukyser's words, "the history of possibility."
The third reason for the lack of civic poetry is that the public, aware of the first two, does not read or demand it.
Besides accessibility and fresh form, there is one other necessary ingredient in civic poetry: hope. Not innocent, immature hope, nothing naive. It may be a battered hope, even diminished, but is not cowed or faint, remains brassy, unabashed. Civic poetry makes no apologies for believing in our stressed American experiment. As Miller Williams said, on January 20, 1997, in "Of History and Hope,"
We mean to be the people we meant to be
to keep on going where we meant to go.
Hope can indeed sound naïve in strident times, when hate threatens to outstrip our ability, even our desire, to build community. But that is precisely when bonding is most needed. We hunger for love and the language of union, peace, an end to cynicism. And, in the words of Maya Angelou in "On the Pulse of Morning," delivered January 20, 1993:
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew,
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the teacher.
This is the kind of poetry that gets through to and creates community. It is inclusive. It is necessary. James Dickey, on January 20, 1977, in "Strength of Fields," closed:
Wild hope can always spring
from tended strength. Everything is in that.
That and nothing but kindness. More kindness, dear Lord
of the renewing green. That is where it all has to start:
with the simplest things. More kindness will do nothing less
than save every sleeping one
and night-walking one
My life belongs to the world, I will do what I can.
* * *
The 1 Broadway—Seventh Avenue Local, colored red on station signs, operates as a local service at all times between Van Cortlandt Park – 242nd Street in Riverdale, Bronx, and South Ferry in Lower Manhattan. The stanzas, or cantos, of my books title book, are named for subway stops along part of that route. On that train, and on many others in New York and other cities, I have watched riders and their interactions, seen language create and reflect community—vital, organic, abiding. A community of the mixed-race, mixed-culture, mixed-magic e pluribus people "We mean to be…"
Here is 42nd St:
As the funnel of everyone in Times Square
cascades down the station stairs,
pace and urgent purpose damming
briefly at turnstiles before cleaving
into streams for an 8th or 7th Avenue
train, an A Train, the Two,
and while quick, diverged currents, hot
and breathless, pick platforms, stop
to listen for slivering steel drums
in the wait for translation to work or home,
here, at the side of a narrow island
forty feet under ground,
with a wind-rush and rattle that drive
away agile, enterprising mice,
Ett Tag, Bir Tren,
Mmoja Treni, Een Trein,
Premier Train, Jeden Trenovat,
the red One Train halts
and the motley, mustered public steps
forward, hushed and obscure, hips
shifting at doors in slide-by
witness, separate bodies white
and yellow, brown, black and tan,
pocked or whiskery, whiskeyed, wan,
green, gray, big or bone-house,
the meek, mouthy, angry, lost -
a tourist who trails maps and binoculars
jamming last onto the crowded car.
App-trance and defensive doze,
deft conventions of eye and elbow
mind the tribes. A breath brushes
your strapping hand. The platform passes.