This morning [4.9.10] I moderated a panel called “Writing In(to) the Age of Obama.” The purpose of the panel was two-fold: to talk about the experience of participating in a blog-turned-book project I co-edited with Arielle Greenberg and to speak about occasional poetry and political poetry. It also afforded me the opportunity to further investigate this question that has lately obsessed me: what can poetry do?

I started my intro by talking about the inception of the blog project, particularly about the nearly hysterical pitch of excitement I felt after the election and leading up to Obama’s inauguration, a feeling that things were changing and that as poets and as citizens we should do something. Here’s an excerpt of what I said next:

“The blog attracted that which some poets deride and other poets value highly: a general audience. People cared about the poems because they were good, because they were timely, relevant, current, because they were about something. I remember, as a grad student at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop , a professor of mine that I admire read us  'Young Sycamore,' a beautiful poem by William Carlos Williams that begins

    I must tell you
    this young tree
    whose round and firm trunk
    between the wetpavement and the gutter
    (where water
    is trickling) rises

    into the air

Much was made of the missing word in the first stanza—“about.” Williams does not say I must tell you “about” the tree, and I was taught that poems should not be about things. Poems should be things;  aboutness is an impure propensity for a poet.

It’s true that I do not usually sit down to write about something, but more and more I want poems to be about something—something important and meaningful—and I want poetry not just to be something or be about something but to do something. I’m not even sure what I mean by this, but I know that I’m rethinking the snide grad school attitude against occasional poetry—poetry written for a specific occasion like a birthday or wedding or death or birth. I’m rethinking the cringe that accompanied the idea of poems that were intentionally and overtly political or that actively seek a general audience. It seems clear to me now that the devaluation of these kinds of poems has racist, sexist, classist, heterosexist, and elitist overtones.

We are often taught that to be serious poets we should not to write poems about the births of our children or because we want to bear witness or for a specific community even when these are often the very desires that brought us to poetry in the first place and the times when poetry actually feels useful and important.

I’ve asked the poets to take up this subject in whichever way appeals them. I’m hoping that they will speak about the experience of writing occasional poetry, what makes a poem political, whether or not all poetry is political, how poetry has changed or should change since Obama’s election, the role of activism in poetry—and if we don’t get to all of this, I hope that some of you will take up these subjects in your own writing.”

I’d like to summarize what the other panelists—Matt Rohrer, Cate Marvin, Major Jackson, Brian Teare and Patricia Spears Jones—said. They were quite wonderful and all approached the subject from a different angle. Maybe next time. Until then, here's something I cut out of my panel as I didn't have time for it.

In remembering the "Young Sycamore" I remembered also that much used grad school directive that the poem is (to quote Wallace Stevens) the "cry of the occasion." I was trying to make sense of how a  poem could be the "cry of the occasion" and resist aboutness so I went looking for the original Stevens quote and found this, from "Of Modern Poetry":

    It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
    It has to face the men of the time and to meet
    The women of the time. It has to think about war
    And it has to find what will suffice.

A partial answer.

Originally Published: April 12th, 2010

Poet and educator Rachel Zucker was born in New York and grew up in Greenwich Village, the daughter of novelist Benjamin Zucker and storyteller Diane Wolkstein. She earned her BA at Yale University and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.   Zucker’s expansive yet lyrical poems interrogate and deftly...

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