Poetry and Power

Which Poem Can Give You Language, Defend Your Rights, Or Make it Christmas?


The work of California’s new poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, powerfully evokes the landscape and language of places he’s known well: the San Joaquin Valley, San Diego, San Francisco’s Mission District. A New York Times critic said the power of Herrera’s poems lies in the way he has fashioned “a new hybrid art, part oral, part written, part English, part something else: an art grounded in ethnic identity, fueled by collective pride, yet irreducibly individual too.” In advance of Herrera’s visit to Zócalo, we asked poets to share with us what they think is the most powerful poem, and explain why it works.

“The Schooner Flight” by Derek Walcott

This poem came to me in 1979 as I was trying to form my own poetry as an MFA student at UC Irvine, but you might say its sound, ethos, and defiant pungency came to me much earlier.

When I was 14 and a summer student in the Watts Writers’ Workshop, I got taken on a bus with other kids, all black except me, by our teacher Quincy Troupe, to the Mark Taper Forum, the “little theater” in the Los Angeles Music Center complex, very new in those days and very upscale to us kids from the Inner City. The trip was so we could see a play, Dream on Monkey Mountain, Derek Walcott’s homage to his home island of St. Lucia and its people. A shower of silver glitter danced down, catching the stage lights as the show began, and a voiceover came on, a huge baritone, that spoke with the accent and rhythms of Caribbean English, the tones of an island speech, the grammar of a glorious creole that I somehow understood. Its music was like my own island speech–the pidgin creole of Hawai`i, a chop-suey kind of English invented so that cane workers from Portugal, Puerto Rico, Japan, China, the Philippines, and Korea could speak with each other and their English, Scot, and American field bosses.

The voice I heard was Geoffrey Holder’s, the Jamaican actor who later starred in a James Bond film, who was then known for his 7-Up commercial. When we kids heard it, we shot whispers around at each other, announcing “Hey! It’s the Un-Cola man!” His voice washed over us like a tropical shower moving in from the sea to sands on the shore, and I heard it as a Lamentations for my own childhood in Hawai`i. So, when I picked up Walcott’s The Star-Apple Kingdom and opened to the pages of “The Schooner Flight,” I’d already possessed the voice of it and wept as I read, recognizing my own islands, my own people somehow enfolded in the Caribbean inflections of this great poem.

What makes it powerful isn’t only my personal connection to it, but its statements, its style, its mastery of English poetry, and its turning of English poetic tradition to the poet’s own world, an ocean apart from England and its former colony.

The poem is the first of 11 sections blending narrative and lyric passages, an extended dramatic monologue spoken by Shabine, a poor sailor who identifies himself as “just a red nigger who love the sea ….” He has a wife and children, but has just spent the night with his lover, Maria Concepcion, a kind of sorceress we find out later, and is about to embark on a sailing trip around the Caribbean. Grief, pride, confusion, and love for family and his home island overcome him as he takes a taxi to his dock, and he looks back upon his town and declares his love for it as well as the sea.

… and I look in the rearview and see a man
exactly like me, and the man was weeping
for the homes, the streets, that whole fucking island.

Shabine is a poet and a man of passion, unafraid to declare his loyalties and admit his betrayals. But his pride swells as he thinks about them, sweeping the tiny details of his departure up and joining them to a fierce declaration regarding an identity that, up until I read this poem, I’d felt too complicated to address, too marginalized to imagine joining it to anything as central as a national identity, that precious sense of a common people, even unrecognized as common, inhabiting a beloved landscape:

I know these islands from Monos to Nassau,
A rusty head sailor with sea-green eyes
That they nickname Shabine, the patois for
Any red nigger, and I, Shabine, saw
when these slums of empire was paradise.
I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,
I had a sound colonial education,
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
And either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.

Walcott gave authority to what’s come to be tagged as “hybridity,” of identity as a complex mosaic of peoples, contradictory histories and loyalties, and he said it in a poetic version of his regional speech. It had not only the images of the Caribbean but the music of it, its phrasing, peculiar locutions, and inner nobility. Moreover, it was written in lines very close to traditional English iambics, and it rhymed.

Finally, the poem’s structure incorporated numerous elements adapted from traditional English poetic genres–the itinerary, the prospect ode, narrative verse, and the plain ode.

Yet what’s most stirring about it, exceeding even its liberating insights and statements about post-colonial identity and mixed heritages, is how drenched in the worship of beauty and feeling it is. No less than Keats writing an ode upon a Grecian urn, Walcott praises the sea, his schooner upon it, and the page upon which he writes his homage:

You ever look up from some lonely beach
and see a far schooner? Well, when I write
this poem, each phrase go be soaked in salt;
I go draw and knot every line as tight
as ropes in this rigging; in simple speech
my common language go be the wind,
my pages the sails of the schooner Flight.

Garrett Hongo’s most recent book is Coral Road (Knopf, 2011). He teaches poetry at the University of Oregon and lives in Eugene, Oregon.


“Poem about My Rights” by June Jordan

This poem first appeared in her collection Passion published by Beacon Press in 1980.

I remember when June Jordan wrote this poem. She sent me a copy that I edited. It was written after Jordan was attacked in her home on Long Island. “Poem about My Rights” is one of the best examples of how the personal embraces the political. Jordan’s poem raised my consciousness as a man. She presents a clear and logical account of how women are forced to live a life of restriction and limitation simply because of their gender. What is so memorable about this work is how it moves from victimization to the reinterpretation of history. “Poem about My Rights” is a poem of resistance. Within her poem Jordan examines (and questions) the definition of rape.

She links the “politics of rape” to world events and to political and economic exploitation. When she wrote this poem apartheid still existed in South Africa. At the center of the “Poem about My Rights” is the concept of what is right and what is wrong. People are raped from the moment they are defined as being wrong. Jordan rejects this condition in a very personal way. She rejects her father’s treatment of her–a father who wanted a boy and not a girl. Here we find the “first rape” of identity.

Finally, Jordan’s poem offers us a clear and moral vision. She speaks for one, yet many. I was amazed at her skillful use of repetition and word play. The sound of her poetry was always a call to action. We just need to be reminded of how to respond. Even today we cannot take our rights for granted.

“Poem about My Rights” is a poem for all of us.

E. Ethelbert Miller is the editor of Poet Lore and the board chair of The Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a progressive think tank located in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is a second memoir–The 5th Inning.


A Poem That Believes Every Day Is Christmas

I think of poetry as political, and I say this knowing what a very unfashionable and problematic thing this is to say. But I think a good poem is always trying to change the world. The French poet Rimbaud–who was so influential in terms of enlarging or charging the project of poetry–once said he would only be happy when it was Christmas on earth, all day every day.

On the surface this is simply crazy talk. How could it be Christmas always? But I know what he means. (And I should add I am speaking of Christmas purely metaphorically here, a kind of shorthand for “a day of perfect happiness.”) There is something childlike but also transcendent about his statement. Rimbaud means he won’t be happy until happiness–pure freedom or justice–is a possibility for everyone on earth. Everyone.

You think about that, and there’s the rub. How can that be? Yet how can that not be?

I think a great poem is one that believes this passionately, but also recognizes the opposite is true (and/or the contingencies that make the opposite true). I also think a great poem honors actual experience. I have been haunted for years by what John Keats said in one of his letters–that life is “a vale of soul making.” Keats goes on to ask how an identity, or simple being, is to become an actual soul, except by the specific experiences it (or she or he) has in the world. I find this both terrible and affirmative, which is how I guess I feel about what powerful poetry can do.

I long for a poetry that is ethical, but also–and even more strongly perhaps–for a poetry that does not lie, that is open to every vagary of experience or imagination. For me, this means there is no perfect or right poem, but the most powerful poem is the one that is the best fellow traveler–that gets closest to and under the skin of what is most acutely felt in the moment. A great poem is one that helps you live better in the present–that says “Wake up!” or “Pay Attention!” that reflects the perhaps unanswerable yet urgent yearning for a kind of “Christmas” on earth and every day.

Sheila Black is the author of House of Bone and Love/Iraq (both CW Press) and Continental Drift with painter Michele Marcoux (Patriothall, Edinburgh, UK). She co-edited with Jennifer Bartlett and Michael Northen Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (Cinco Puntos Press). A third collection, Wen Kroy, is forthcoming from Dream Horse Press. She is a recipient of the 2012 Witter Bynner Fellowship in Poetry, chosen by Philip Levine.


Too Hard to Name One, So Here Are Several

I love poetry dearly. But I am not the sort of person who believes there is such an animal as a single “most powerful poem.” This is purely an individual and personal reaction to the question. Indeed, one of the reasons poetry means so much to me–is so close to my heart–is that history is so full of powerful poems, in so many languages, more being written all the time, and I feel I need all I can get: the love fragments of Sappho, James Tate’s hilarious/melancholy trippy Midwestern surrealism, Terrance Hayes’ graceful postmodern gymnastics, Lucia Perillo’s heady poems mourning the failures of the mortal body, Anna Akmahtova’s elegant gloom, Charles Simic’s dreamy dark Eastern European magic, Matthea Harvey’s loopy brilliance, Wislawa Szymborska’s witty, brainy yet accessible lyrics, Shakespeare, haiku, Whitman’s big-striding soul sermons, ancient Chinese poems, Tracy K. Smith’s visionary interplanetary meditations, Tom Clark’s elegies for America, poems by Afghani women I read recently in The New York Times Magazine in a form called a “landai,” and on and on and on. When thinking of the poems that really get to me, help me live, I can’t place one above another, my mind and heart simply won’t do it.

Amy Gerstler’s most recent book of poems is Dearest Creature (Penguin). She teaches in the MPW program at USC and at the Bennington Writing Seminars at Bennington College.


The Poem of the Moment

Sitting down to answer the question what is the most powerful poem and why does it work, I realize the answer is not one, but many.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” arrived in my email-box from a friend who doesn’t normally read or write poems. But in the days following 9/11, someone sent it to her and she forwarded it on. This is a poem I could choose as “most powerful” but won’t because it’s 2012, and I no longer need this poem as so many did nearly 11 years ago.

Or the poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, the first poem I fell in love with as an undergrad, when I realized I was going to write poems for the rest of my life. A few years later, I would name my cat Eliot. Today I’m 43, and this is not a poem I need anymore to remind me how much I love language and images.

“In the Waiting Room” by Elizabeth Bishop is a poem I’m almost sure I read while in a waiting room, though I know that’s just my imagination entering the poem. Just as Bishop, in the poem, gets lost in an issue of National Geographic at a dentist’s office, I learned with this poem that with art and poetry we can lose ourselves.

“The Queen” by Pablo Neruda is a poem that my husband found, typed, and printed out for me one Valentine’s Day and left on my desk. That day, poetry came looking for me, and it doesn’t do this often. That’s something very powerful indeed.

So I guess my answer to what is the most powerful poem has to be none and all of them. It’s the poem you or I need now, the poem that we read as if our lives depended on it because, honestly, maybe they do.

Kelli Russell Agodon is the author of Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room (White Pine Press, 2010), winner of the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Prize in Poetry ,and a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. Visit her at www.agodon.com or on her blog, Book of Kells at: www.ofkells.blogspot.com.

*Top photo courtesy of marichica88. Photo of Garrett Hongo by Franco Salmoiraghi. Photo of E. Ethelbert Miller by Farrah Hassen.