Look at / what passes for the new.

Solmaz Sharif
August 5, 2013
Comments 1

The Los Angeles Times has issued a call for poems. I’ve longed for such a moment. It seems a natural marriage, not just because newspapers and poetry both seem to be involved in the same meta-conversation of their respective survivability and relevance in an iWorld, but because the news and poetry both should be considered daily. (In high school, I asked my guidance counselor what I could do with my life if I were to study political science and creative writing—journalism, of course.) Even those lines of William Carlos Williams we often cite to prove the relevance, the utility, the power of poetry, place verse in relationship to the news:

WCW news

“Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” is a love poem, but it, too, discusses the news:

WCW bomb

So the marriage is natural as the mediums are in some ways at odds with each other—the “our”  of Williams’ poem is hard to imagine in a hard news article on nuclear fallout; the “my,” too, would be hidden behind objectivity; the direct opening sentence wouldn’t make it past a fact-checker; etc. I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to have this excerpt appear alongside the latest, to have, just by juxtaposition of the two, without even a topical relationship, a reader approach an article rattled a bit. Muriel Rukeyser, in The Life of Poetry, argues: “A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites a total response.” The possibility to approach the news, what I heard Jeremy Scahill refer to as “the stenography of the power,” in such a state—watch out!

I should not, then, be disappointed upon reading the actual call for poems to be published in the Los Angeles Times’ Opinion pages (strike one, by the way): “Any subject appropriate for an Op-Ed is fair game for your Op-Poetry — politics, culture, international relations, you name it. […] With all that in mind, if you have an opinion that can only be expressed in rhymed iambic pentameter or lively doggerel, in a haiku or limerick, now’s your chance to express it.” The marriage of news and poetry is useful by juxtaposition and engagement, not by assimilation, not by shaping an opinion piece into “lively doggerel” or some similar buffoonery.

The New York Times published 446 poems in 1946, publishing poems more or less regularly for decades before and after. I’m not convinced the yesteryear of poetry publishing in American dailies were all grand and rigorous. It’s telling to look at a poem that perhaps did not make the cut.

In the left margin of a letter to his sister, June, in 1962, George Oppen writes: “(Did I tell you Mass Review is sending my poem to the ‘Poets’ Column’ of the N.Y. Times? Lordy Lordy. How the times and the N.Y. Times do change).” The poem must have been “The Undertaking in New Jersey,” a poem not surprisingly missing, as far as I can tell, from the pages of the Times. After all, the opening lines of the poem read as a sort of antithesis to the news:

Beyond the Hudson’s

Unimportant water lapping

In the dark against the city’s shores

Are the small towns, remnants

Of forge and coal yard. The bird’s voice in the streets

May not mean much: the bird the age of a child chirping

While I long for a newspaper that publishes poetry regularly, what’s the point if it parrots the news in pentameter? What’s fit to print is the “lack / of what is found there,” a poetry of unimportant things. The asphodels, for example, poor as they are.

One thought on “Look at / what passes for the new.

  1. Excellent piece. I know the LA Times make a point that there are no prizes, but this is still just another competition – with a select group (elite) passing judgment on which poems get to be published. The relative competence of the LA Times decision makers or a poetry competition jury is just a question of degree, not of type.

    I remember two days after the Boston bombs Googling ‘Boston Bomb Poetry’ and seeing the flood of responses. I sensed this digital outpouring wasn’t just reaching for traditional forms, it was also an illustration of the limitation of blogs which had no news beyond the what everybody already knew. As you suggest poetry has the possibility of constructing or deconstructing the moment differently.

    We’re quietly opening http://www.poetryzoo.com and today we opened ‘anthologies’ which allow people to write about a particular subject – including a news story. There are no prizes and there are no judgments by an appointed elite; the hearts that can be given/received are not used to organize a most popular. We hope that one day newspaper’s will see this poetry as a source of content, reflective, reflexive and altogether articulate, providing an interpretation beyond the (news) facts.

    In the meantime we will encourage as many people as possible to inundate the LA Times with poetry!!

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