Monday, April 25, 2011

Hope wakes ... to off and hunt

Originally printed April 11, 2010.
University of Iowa Press has long shown a very practical approach to poetry. Its many poetic anthologies bring together a variety of voices, genres, styles and experience to explore specific themes -- from violence, to Guantanamo Bay, to poetry and the law, to a host of other topics.

Whatever meaning the individual poems conveyed within their original settings, the poetry becomes instantly more accessible and engaging because the poems have been placed in dialogue with so many others.

Now, with the recently published "Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama's First 100 Days," UI Press has brought this valuable tradition to bear on a single political phenomenon -- Barack Obama. Starting with a reprint of "Praise for the Day" -- the poem Elizabeth Alexander read at Obama's inauguration -- "Starting Today" includes one poem, per day, for the first 100 days of the Obama administration. Editors Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg read through the daily selections from the popular blog and chose an eclectic mix of poems from an equally odd mix of well known and unknown poets. (The collection also includes 30 pages of poet biographies and notes on the selection process.)

Iowa City is represented in the collection with poems by Cole Swenson, "Taking Cover Under the Sun" (Day 18) and Marvin Bell, "the Book of the Dead Man (Day 51)." But the poems included run the gamut of form and style -- from non-sense verse, to ethical parables, to songs, to acrostics, to abecedariuses, to formal sonnets, to the freest of free verse.

The poems in the collection are hardly odes or paeans to Obama. Many do express an optimism about the "Hope" and "Change" promised by the new administration. And many others express frustration over the previous eight years of the Bush administration.

But poets' collective expectations for the new administration are actually quite low. As Laurel Synder writes on Day 19, "Hope wakes starving / in the storm, / to off and hunt." Or as Katie Ford writes on Day 34, "You are no messiah / but we wished for you then."

Some of the poems respond to each other (such as "Praise for the Inaugural Poet, January, 2009" on Day 14 and "Varieties of Religious Experience: After Fanny Howe, Day 5" on Day 89). But more often the poets riff off of the great American poets, such as on Day 90 when Joshua Corey updates Walt Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" to be about "spokesmen" spinning reality.

Although no single poetic anthology can really explain "How Poetry Saved America" -- as Joy Katy suggests on Day 92, -- "Starting Today" proves a good staring point for encouraging more poets to respond directly to the world around them

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at and 319-887-5435.

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