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it’s not easy being news

By Stephen Burt

So I had all this material, or so I thought, saved up for my penultimate post—it was going to be about Marisa Crawford’s amazing, scary, sexy book The Haunted House, which I fell hard for last week, and also about the way teen life takes over adulthood, and about how the book came in several senses just too late for me, and about how I am really, on the inside, part of the time, a fictional teenaged girl. But that will have to wait, till Monday or Tuesday or else much longer, maybe for this book, which I’m proud to be in.

It will have to wait because I just got this tweet from NPRBooks, and it said that Monica Youn was this month’s poet who makes poetry out of the news. So that’s exciting, for me, in itself, because I’ve been reading and liking Monica Youn’s poetry since late 1994. And then there’s her poem. It’s a villanelle.

And I’ve been thinking about villanelles, and I like the way she uses the form. I don’t think she has written one before, although she’s no stranger to tight formal constraint: her second book, Ignatz, is full of tight formal constraints, although few of them are the kind of instantly recognizable “forms” you’ll find in an old handbook of versification: most of her formal constraints involve compression, allusion, attempts to tell two or three stories at once, at least one of those stories bitter and disillusioned, at least one of them not yet over (and so permitting a happy ending).

And so you could—I could—use Monica’s new villanelle as a way to think about what else the form can do: she ties together news stories from the week, trying to find lines that will refer to several, or else lines that will refer to the 24-hour endurance run of gathering and trying to understand what we call “news”: “The day is a net of 24 knots,” says one of her two refrains.

Or you could use it to ask: how are poems like the news? (You may be familiar with at least one wrong answer—and I like Williams more than you do, so no protests.) How are poems unlike the news? what is “the news”? What happens when poets write poems on deadline, for newspapers, in quick response to the news? It’s not a new question: some of the most popular, and some of the best, poets of the nineteenth century did it all the time. Tennyson did it. In a way, Elizabeth Bishop did it.

They did not do it all in the same way. Some poets (like Bishop) take things from the news that are not, themselves, “news” (Bishop used a misprint). Other poets react to the news by trying to do the work of news organizations, but better—that is, these poets, political by definition as well as by proclamation, try to get us to notice and react to matters of public importance that NPR (for example) doesn’t cover, or doesn’t cover enough. And still other poets have tried to put the feel of the day, the sense of passing public events, in the background of their long poems: one of the friendliest masterpieces of modern British and Irish poetry came about when its author adopted that goal.

But this poets-on-the-news project strikes me as good news even for poets and poems that don’t “do” reportage, that do not gravitate towards advocacy, that do not ordinarily try to incorporate plenty of current events, unprompted. Poems, good ones, can come about in response to anything; some happen fast, some take decades, and almost all make use of the unexpected. Can news headlines bring the unexpected? Why not? I have been to lots of parties and I have acted perfectly disgraceful, but I have never actually collapsed.

Which is to say: three cheers for Monica Youn (one for each line of each stanza, except the last stanza, in her villanelle) and two cheers for assignments of all sorts, especially ones that seem uncomfortable, or trivial, or just like odd fits for that poet: each such assignment can provide catalysts that an ungainly or unwieldy or perfect poem might crystallize around. More non-poetry journals should do what NPR does, and not only for national headlines: how about a monthly poet for Scientific American? or for Sports Illustrated? or for Vogue?

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, April 30th, 2012 by Stephen Burt.