The Poetry of Violence

As Marilyn Manson wrote, in his once again incredibly pertinent essay Columbine: Whose Fault is It? originally published in the June 1999 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine: “Times have not become more violent. They have just become more televised.”

Violence in our society, whether we are talking about the violence of mass shootings, domestic violence, the violence of war, or the inherent violence built into the class structure – is everywhere we look and the effects of violence surround us and inform our daily lives.

All of us, as human beings, are affected by the unpleasant fact that we share the world with twisted and/ or traumatized individuals. Many of us have come into direct contact with that kind of violence, in one way or another.

Movements like #blacklivesmatter and the #metoo phenomenon are just two examples of just how pervasive the aftermath of violence, and the current condition of our culture’s obsession with it, continually affect people’s lives.

I have always seen poetry as the language of pure human emotion. This is certainly not the best definition, as it leaves many aspects of poetry, and what makes words written as verse – poetic, out and unaccounted for.

This, in and of itself is a cause of great debate in poetry circles, as a poet and teacher colleague of mine and I are fond of discussing. William Wordsworth, easily on my short list of favorite poets of all time, defines poetry as follows: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility” – Lyrical Ballads. This definition, itself, has been the cause of great debate, and it is central to a discussion on the value of poetry composed as an emotional outcry from the effects of violence. Under the most lax analysis of this definition, Walt Whitman’s ‘barbaric “Yawp” is poetry. However, is that resounding, clarion call, affirmation of life, deep and penetrating “Yawp!” a poem? Did it, take its origins from emotion recollected in tranquility? No. The writing of the poem, Song of Myself, in all of its parts, however, certainly is.

In a few months, my poetry collection Kindred Spirits & Mirrored Souls will be released on Ghost Writer Press. It is a labor of love for me in many ways, and central to this debate and ongoing conversation in two specific ways. First: my friend Rhonda and I were very good friends from childhood through adulthood. We were constantly sharing our poems with each other as we were growing up, and both of us had a deep love of poetry. We had always dreamed of putting a poetry book together that showcased both of our works, colliding and juxtaposed over various topics. The root of our discussion lay at Wordsworth’s definition of poetry. In truth, I had a hard time seeing value in many of Rhonda’s pieces, as she took Wordsworth literally, at his most liberal interpretation.  Second: ten years ago, this June, my friend took her own life.  Afterwards, her family gave me a suitcase full of her poems, left almost like Emily Dickinson, on scraps of papers, envelopes, notebooks, everywhere her mind spilled onto paper.  The book is more of a reflection of two journeys, one that ended in tragedy, and the other that is still surviving tragedies like bullets, and trying to process them.  I am not sure if it is good… but I do think that it is poetry.

My aforementioned colleague, a poet from Tucson, Jefferson Carter, would certainly define most of my friend’s work as the poetry of a child that ought not be published. In response to an article published by the Sun-Sentinel entitled, Parkland Freshman Turns to Poetry to Ease Her Pain, Jefferson got some quite heated response from his original posting of the article on social media.  To be fair, I include it here not to throw Jefferson under the bus, but to use him as a very real, and vital, voice on the edge of this spectrum that we are discussing.  Is poetry valid, if poetry is everywhere?  Is poetry an art, if it is something that anyone and everyone can do?  Does society placing value on that which is more ordinary, harm the value of those ideas that are more complex and precisely honed?  Is the news less valuable if anyone and everyone can be a “journalist” on the Internet?  These are all valid questions, and a perspective that Jefferson had the courage to voice.

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A few years ago, I wrote a poem about the Tucson shooter for my own private “healing.” [The shooter he mentions is Jared Loughner, and the shooting he is referencing is the January 2011 shooting of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona.]  He was a good friend’s student at Pima Community College. I didn’t post it or try to publish it. Why? Because it felt like exploiting the pain and suffering of others, like turning a spotlight on my own precious feelings.”


Carter continues: “And tell me this: as the Parkland story disappears from the news and we wait for the next school shooting, do you think the “Sun-Sentinel” newspaper will be printing a poem about the same topic by an established, professional poet that is complex, skillful,and deeply emotional? Fuck, no! Easy sensationalism sells. And, perhaps, as a poet friend suggests, bad poetry drives out good poetry.”

A reader responded, basically summing up the liberal interpretation of Wordsworth, “Do you want to know why it’s good, even if it isn’t groundbreaking poetry? It’s an earnest, honest, heartbreaking experience, that no teen should ever have to endure, and this is an outlet for her to express how she feels. What kind of shit were you writing in your teen years? I’d wager it isn’t going in any Canon.”

Jefferson continued his argument: “It may be a sincere effort to express her feelings though why she has to “pretty” them up in rhyming verse, I have no idea. I also have no idea why she’d want a newspaper to print them. Groundbreaking? The question still needs to be answered: why post such poetic attempts or let someone else post them? The author must think the poem is good enough to “share.” Or if one simply wants to “share” his/her “feelings,” why cast them in verse?”

The following day, Jefferson reposted the article, with the following message:

“Well, I was right. I got LOTS of grief for my comments. I get it, the outrage about my insensitivity, etc. The best I can do to justify my position is a somewhat strained analogy: an earnest teenager with no background in law hangs out a shingle and takes on a civil rights case. A local newspaper praises the “lawyer’s” dedication to social justice. The legal community echoes the praises and trashes any lawyer who points out the imposter’s lack of qualifications and legal skill.”

In essence, and please, in regards to poetry which is the topic here, Jefferson is making the hard-line argument of the Wordsworth interpretation. The more mediocre poetry is praised as groundbreaking, the less value is placed on crafted poetry. T.S. Eliot would approve. I remember when I used to teach parts of The Wasteland in college, I would draw specific reference to Eliot’s own reaction to criticism about the sheer number of footnotes required to understand the poem. The sentiment is echoed perfectly on the student site, SHMOOP.com:

Yep, there’s no getting around it: “The Waste Land” can be one tough cookie to read. The poem constantly shifts between different speakers without warning, and it’s chock full of references to classic literature from cultures all over the world, many of which are more than a little obscure. Which raises the question, why oh why would Eliot want his poem to be so hard to read? Well, like many writers of his time (so-called modernists), he felt that Western culture was headed to hell in a handbasket, and that people were getting dumber and dumber (it’s a good thing he didn’t live to see the days of Conveyor Belt of Love). So basically, his message to readers was: “Hey, if you don’t understand what I’m talking about in this poem, go to a library!” 

As is evident, the debate between the purely academic {used here as a descriptor of one who sees poetry and verse as an exploration of craft, language, and finesse} side of poetry and the purely emotional side of it has been raging for well over a hundred years, and will certainly continue to be debated for as long as human beings write verse. Kindred Spirits & Mirrored Souls attempts to give a view into the actual poems of that debate – not to say that mine are immediately more important or of more value than Rhonda’s: we simply come from different areas of the Wordsworth spectrum.

This brings the argument full circle to once again rest on the question, is there value in the poetry of violence?

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On the first Sunday of February, I was sitting listening to the other Open Mic readers at The House of Bards in Tucson. One gentlemen got up and read a piece, and I really wish that I had a copy of it, about Vietnam, and its repetitive refrain haunted me: “and the farmers kept farming the rice”. The poem described the sheer volume of war, of guns, of helicopters… and the farmers kept farming the rice. I loved it, and I couldn’t help but think of the number of veterans that may be enrolled in workshops for just this purpose. Poetry can help heal the traumas of past violent events. Should it be shared?

The National Association of Poetry Therapy, obviously would say yes.

“Not I, but the poet discovered the unconscious,” wrote Freud. Other theoreticians, such as Adler, Jung, Arieti and Reik also confirmed that the poets were the first to chart paths that science later followed. Moreno suggested the term “psychopoetry,” as well as the term “psychodrama”, for which he is famous. By the 1960s, with the progressive evolution of group psychotherapy, therapists were delighted to discover that “poetry therapy” was an effective tool which they felt comfortable incorporating into their work. Poetry Therapy began to flourish in the hands of professionals in various disciplines, including rehabilitation, education, library science, recreation, and the creative arts.  

Mental health professionals were exploring the therapeutic value of literary materials, especially of poetry. Their contribution to the emerging discipline was two-fold: 1) emphasis on the evocative value of literature, particularly poetry; and 2) recognition of the beneficial potential of having clients write either their response to poems written by others or original material, drawing on the clients’ own experiences and emotions.”

In Psychology Today, Linda Wasmer Andrews writes:

“Back in 1982, the first piece of writing I ever sold was a poem called “The Miscarriage,” which originally appeared in Mothering magazine. The poem was a simple but heartfelt response to my own pregnancy loss. It had been a first-trimester miscarriage, so medically and societally, it was almost a nonevent. But emotionally, it felt like a significant loss, and this poem was my way of mourning it. Apparently, the poem spoke to other women as well, because it has been widely republished ever since, appearing in magazines and anthologies, on websites and blogs, and, most recently, in condensed form in Twitter tweets.  Did writing this poem help me feel better? Absolutely, and that was true from the moment I put it to paper, which was well before I ever showed it to anyone or submitted it for publication. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was instinctively practicing poetry self-therapy as a means of helping myself grieve.”

On her site, Healing from Complex Trauma and PTSD, Lilly Hope Lucario shares several poems that she says have “touched the heart of other trauma survivors”.

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When I was in college, one of the most interesting segments we covered in one of my poetry classes was The Poetry of World War I. No Internet. No Cell Phones. No Telephones. No Video Games. No way to escape… so they wrote poems. They wrote them in the trenches and they wrote them in letters. It was a heart breaking, and wonderfully human, and raw segment of the class. More recently, NPR did a special on an Iraq War Veteran who used poetry to process his ordeals in the Middle East.

“Brian Turner is a soldier-poet who served for seven years in the U.S. Army. Beginning in November 2003, he was an infantry team leader in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. His book, Here, Bullet, reflects his war-time experiences in graceful and unflinching poetry. Turner tells Steve Inskeep about the military tradition in his family and why he joined the Army when he was almost 30. He reads selected poems from his collection and reflects on what inspired them. One poem, Eulogy, was written to memorialize a soldier in his platoon who took his own life.

It happens on a Monday, at 11:20 A.M.,

as tower guards eat sandwiches

and seagulls drift by on the Tigris River.

Prisoners tilt their heads to the west

though burlap sacks and duct tape blind them.

The sound reverberates down concertina coils

the way piano wire thrums when given slack.

And it happens like this, on a blue day of sun,

when Private Miller pulls the trigger

to take brass and fire into his mouth:

the sound lifts the birds up off the water,

a mongoose pauses under the orange trees,

and nothing can stop it now, no matter what

blur of motion surrounds him, no matter what voices

crackle over the radio in static confusion,

because if only for this moment the earth is stilled,

and Private Miller has found what low hush there is

down in the eucalyptus shade, there by the river.

PFC B. Miller

(1980-March 22, 2004)”

The Poetry Foundation lists not only a wonderful selection of wartime poetry and prose on their website HERE, but they also have a fantastic selection of World War I poetry that is very reminiscent of the class that I took at Arizona State University:

While many of these poems do not address a particular war event, we’ve listed them by year, along with a selection of historical markers, to contextualize the poems historically. You may notice that more poems in 1914 and 1915 extol the old virtues of honor, duty, heroism, and glory, while many later poems after 1915 approach these lofty abstractions with far greater skepticism and moral subtlety, through realism and bitter irony. Though horrific depictions of battle in poetry date back to Homer’s Iliad, the later poems of WWI mark a substantial shift in how we view war and sacrifice.” 

“If the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School five years ago had turned a different direction, then poet and writer Brian Clements’ wife Abbey, a teacher, might now be dead. She was spared; 26 people were killed.”  PBS did a special on NewsHour after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School:  His wife worked at Sandy Hook.  Now this poet is helping start a conversation about gun violence.

After that, a lot of other things happened, but it doesn’t really matter what,” writes Clements, of a day when so many lives were torn apart. That’s the last line of his poem in “Bullets into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence,” an anthology on gun violence in America published near the anniversary of the shooting.

The day was devastating for the hometown and the concentric circles of impact, the people who were there that day and the families of children who died,” said Clements, who is one of three editors on the anthology and recruited several voices to write reflective essays in response to the works. The shooting “changed our lives that day, and we became activists.”

Twenty children and six adults were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut. Earlier this month, the Connecticut Supreme Court heard an appeal by relatives of Sandy Hook victims, arguing that companies who sold weapons used by the gunman should be held responsible.

The anthology includes 54 poems about gun violence in the U.S., from poets including Jane Hirshfield, Natalie Diaz and Danez Smith, and at least six pieces that are original to the collection. Each work is followed by commentary and reaction from survivors, activists and writers, including a foreword by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who survived a gunshot wound to the head in 2011.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 56,851 incidents in 2017, 327 of which are considered mass shootings. As of Dec. 4, 14,331 people have died in the U.S. in 2017 due to gun violence.

I’ve always been in favor of varying degrees of gun control,” said Clements. “Sadly, it took the murder of 26 people in my hometown to light a fire under me and I think a lot of Americans find themselves in this position. We are quickly reaching a point where everyone in this country will be close to gun violence and it takes something like Sandy Hook or the Las Vegas shooting to make us pay attention to it.”

The anthology is a tool for a larger conversation on gun violence and empathy for survivors, Clements said. The editors of the anthology will also create public reading events in an effort to involve people in more direct action about gun violence. A book discussion will be held at the Boston Public Library on Dec. 13 featuring a selection of  contributors.

From the outset we didn’t want this to be a literary project; we wanted this to be a project of the American community… a conversation amongst Americans,” Clements said.

One poem that especially stands out to Clements is Dana Levin’s “Instructions for Stopping,” a poem about domestic violence, which has been linked to several mass shootings in recent years. The response to the poem is written by Kate Ranta, a survivor of domestic violence. “One of the untold stories is how many women die at the hands of their partners,” Clements said.

Instructions for Stopping

By Dana Levin

Say Stop.

Keep your lips pressed together

after you say the p:

(soon they’ll try

and pry

your breath out—) 

Whisper it

three times in a row:

Stop Stop Stop

 

In a hospital bed

like a curled-up fish, someone’s

gulping at air—

How should you apply

your breath?

List all of the people

you would like

to stop.

Who offers love,

who terror—

Write Stop.

Put a period at the end.

 

Decide if it’s a kiss

or a bullet.

 Instructions for Stopping” by Dana Levin, with a response from Kate Ranta, Domestic and Gun Violence Survivor and Cofounder of Women Against the Violence Epidemic. Excerpted from Bullets into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence  edited by Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader, with an introduction by Colum McCann (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.

Kate Angus writes, in 2014, Americans love poetry, but not Poetry Books: 

People often dismiss poetry by saying it only matters to other poets, but a few minutes spent sifting through the Favorite Poem Project’sonline archives proves otherwise; these short documentaries present a wide range of Americans—salesmen, construction workers, bakers, nuns, anthropologists, accountants, Marines, and Bill Clinton—reading aloud their favorite poems. To listen to photographer Seph Rodney talk about coming home from a disappointing date to find solace for his loneliness in reading the caustic urgency of Sylvia Plath’s“Nick and the Candlestick” poem, despite his surprise that this woman from a “well-heeled New England family” could speak to “me, a man, a Jamaican immigrant—you could hardly get two people in the world more different” is to understand how false the misconception of poetry’s irrelevance is. Robert Pinsky, founder of the Favorite Poem Project, stresses that the organizers didn’t solicit participants; rather they sent out a call for people to apply to share the poems that moved them. “I’m very proud that the Favorite Poem Project didn’t tell anyone to read poetry; we asked people,” said Pinksy, “We had no advertising budget so every time I was interviewed as poet laureate, whenever I published anything anywhere, I asked [them] to advertise it. I used to give the cards to cab drivers and we got 18,000 letters from people who wanted to participate and read their favorite poem on camera.” Poetry Foundation president Robert Polito offers a similar anecdote to illustrate the value people outside the literary community ascribe to poetry, mentioning how a friend who teaches at a military academy frequently receives letters from former students, soldiers who tell her that “the experience of interpreting poems in her class proved the best preparation for the complex and ambiguous circumstances they encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan” 

As I have often made the argument before, I will make it again now, Music is the most prolific voice of popular poetry.  This is not to say that all lyrics from all musicians are poetic, but to immediately discount the value of poetry that does exist within the canon of world music, would be remiss. In Can Poetry Change Your Life,   A Critic at Large writes in the New Yorker in July 2017:

“You also need to concede that the experience cools fairly quickly, and Robbins is alert to that, too. “No one has ever changed his life because of a poem or song,” he says in a chapter on metal, with reference to Blake, Milton, Rilke, William Empson, Peter Sloterdijk, Ozzy Osbourne, and Kant. “Changing your life is for Simone Weil or the Buddha. The rest of us need German poetry and Norwegian black metal because they provide the illusion that we are changing, or have changed, or will change, or even want to change our lives.” I don’t completely agree, but it’s a wise caution.  Another advanced-pop premise is that everything is happening now. Springsteen and Dylan speak to our current condition, and so do Boethius and Sappho. “

Are we seeing a new age of poetry dawning… has the new millennium brought its own new title to the chain of movements throughout history… the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment the Enlightenment gave way Modernism….. Modernism to Post-modernism…. are we seeing the dawn of a new age?

Regardless….. I think here, in the final analysis…. at the very least, we can agree that poetry, is necessary.

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Keep the Greasy Side Down, my Friends!

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