April 2007 Discussion Guide

The Political and the Poetic

How does poetry fit into different political and social realities around the world? How do different poets think about how they make their art? In what ways can poetry console the grieving? This discussion guide offers suggestions for answering these questions and more. They are only suggestions. There is no right or wrong way to talk about a poem.  

The Political and the Poetic

Read the Poems

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read the poems aloud

Take turns reading one poem aloud.

  • After the first reading, ask each participant to name a word or phrase that stands out.
  • After the second reading, ask each participant to name an image that stands out.
  • After the third reading, ask each participant to react to the poem as a whole.

If you’ve passed out the issues ahead of time, ask each participant to choose a favorite (or most hated) poem to read aloud to the group. Introduce each poem by explaining the reasons for choosing it.

 

what are the poems about?

Almost every poem in this issue can be reduced to a prose statement; that is, you can say what each poem is about (though some are certainly more difficult in this regard than others). Coral Bracho’s poem “Firefly Under the Tongue” is particularly beguiling. Here, it is almost impossible to separate what is being said from how it’s being said. Is this a weakness or a strength? How do you respond to a poem like this? (Hint: read it aloud several times.) In his translator’s note, Forrest Gander points out that, after the first line, the I and the you of  “I love you” are “simply swallowed up into the event of the poem.” Does that mean that this isn’t a poem about love? If it is, does it involve two people? What kind of love is being described? Discuss the various sensual images (i.e. anything that describes sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell). How do these contribute to your overall impression of the poem? What feeling are you left with at the end?

Coral Bracho’s “Firefly Under the Tongue,” Arthur Rimbaud’s “Antique,” Yitzhaq Aladhab’s “Darkness’s Children,” Jin Eun-Young’s “Long Finger Poem,” and Antonio Machado’s “The Wind” all might be said to be, in one way or another, about the making of art.

Discuss these poems and read the accompanying translators’ notes in that context. What similar things are they saying about the making of art? What different things? Which are you more drawn to and why?

 

how do the poems mean?

Dante’s Paradiso—including the excerpt in this issue—is written in traditional Italian terza rima (the first and last lines of each three-line stanza rhyme, and the middle line rhymes with the first and last lines of the following stanza). Horace’s “Priapus” has been translated into loose blank verse—or unrhymed iambic pentameter, the meter of many of Shakespeare’s great speeches and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Abraham Sutzkever’s “1981” is written in four-line stanzas, in which the lines decrease in length toward the refrain: “this grass from Ponar”; also, lines one and two of each stanza end in a slant rhyme, as do lines three and four. On the other end of the spectrum from these tight formal structures are Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market,” which spools out slowly and dramatically, often isolating a single word on a line; or Arthur Rimbaud’s two fantastical, dream-like prose poems. Discuss why each poem might have demanded its particular form. What is being expressed formally apart from or in addition to the meaning of the words themselves?

Günter Eich’s “Dreams,” Ina Rousseau’s “Eden,” Regina Derieva’s “Days and the Transit System Grind Their Teeth,” Abraham Sutzkever’s “1981,” Giorgio Bassani’s “The Racial Laws,” and János Pilinszky’s “Harbach 1944” are all about difficult, if not desperate, political and social realities. Yet they approach their subjects in very different ways. Discuss the differences between these poems first of all—the types of language, narrative movements, characterizations, images, specificity of detail, tone. Then discuss why they are so different and what particular effects each is aiming at.

Think of the complex syntax and surreal imagery of Bracho’s “Firefly Under the Tongue” or Eich’s “Dreams.” Now consider the relatively simple statements and straightforward images of Ian MacDonald’s “Once” or Jin Eun-Young’s “Long Finger Poem.” Most of the other poets fall somewhere in between. Where would you place each one? Which poems, and which end of the spectrum, are you most drawn to? Why? Can you see the virtues in the other way of writing? The dangers?

 

who needs these poems?

Adonis’s “The New Noah” is an impassioned meditation on God’s abandonment of his people. Muyaka bin Haji’s “Of Disillusionment” speaks about indignities the speaker has suffered at the hands of his neighbors and others. The last canto of Dante’s Paradiso imagines the poet transcending human consciousness and entering the mind of God in heaven. How do you imagine the speakers of these poems as people? What tone do you think they wish to convey? Whom do you think the poet intended to read these poems? Discuss the words, phrases, and cadences that are used in these poems and how they work to speak to a particular reader.

In contrast to the relatively weighty poems above are those like Valzhyna Mort’s magical “New York,” or Nuala Ní  Dhomhnaill’s “The Mermaid in the Hospital,” which imagines a rather ribald mermaid waking up to discover that she has legs. What impression do you get of these speakers? Do you think that they see the world differently from those in the poems by Adonis, Bin Haji, and Dante? Is there an element of these lighter poems that addresses the same concerns as those in the more serious poems, albeit in different ways? Discuss the strategies that Mort and Ní Dhomhnaill use to engage the reader, and whether you find them more or less effective than Adonis, Bin Haji, and Dante.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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