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a wreath, a bugle, a monument: the written word

By Camille Dungy

I’m moved by Lihn Dinh’s most recent post. Thank you for commemorating this tragedy, and by marking it with such beautiful poems.

Just this evening I heard myself repeating the phrase, “The power of the written word.  The power of the written word.”

I’d said it in reference to Jack Trice, a black football player for Iowa State whose death on the field of play in 1923 might have been just a tragic side note in history had he not written a letter to himself the day before his final, fatal game.

In the letter, Trice talked about how important his appearance on the field would be, telling himself that as the first black player to play in his division, he needed to play harder and better and tougher and smarter than anyone else.  Which helps explain why he continued to play after he’d broken his collarbone.  Which helps explain why, with a broken collarbone, he executed a play that would be dangerous even for an uninjured athlete.

Here I am talking about sports, not poetry.  Here I am talking about history, not poetry.  But I think it all comes back to writing.  We remember this story because Trice wrote a letter to himself.  We remember this story because of the power of the written word.

To borrow, and slightly alter, Lihn Dihn’s phrase, “An awareness of terror does not negate poetry but deepens it.”  And I’m not talking about terror now in the jingoistic rhetorical sense we hear in the media all too much these days.  I’m talking about the fears and uncertainties and damages people risk their lives in the face of every day.  I agree that the presence of these realities deepen the power of poetry, but disagree that we don’t see these terrors addressed in American poetry today.

I’m not at my desk at home or I would transcribe some examples, but I think of Lucille Clifton’s “September’s Song”, a 7-part poem written in the wake of 9-11; of Natasha Trethewey’s “Liturgy,” written in the wake of Katrina; of much of Ilya Kaminsky’s work, Doug Kearney, Brian Turner, and to go back not too far, Audre Lorde and June Jordan…my list could go on.

I am not saying any of this to dismiss the stunning poems sited in the post below, or to belittle the international scope of the poems that are shared therein.  I’m hoping, instead, to honor the memory of so many of the world’s irrevocable dead by remembering that we have poets in all corners. That we have poets who appreciate their power and who use this power well.  That we are not, yet, bereft of the amazing power, the wreath, and the bugle, the standard, and the monument, that is poetry, that is the written word.


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, April 15th, 2010 by Camille Dungy.