Thursday, February 23, 2012

Poems resonate best when placed in conversation

Originally printed July 16, 2011.

For several years now, the Press-Citizen has been committed to returning poetry to the pages of newspapers. Inspired by William Carlos Williams' observation -- "It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there." -- our "Poetic License" feature invites everyday readers to respond poetically to current events.

Yet in her recent poetry collection, "Smith Blue" (Southern Illinois University Press, 2011), poet and former Iowa City resident Camille Dungy finds that the news she reads in The New York Times and hears on National Public Radio has led her to a crisis of faith about poetry itself. That is, the worst events from the news -- from cluster bombs, to massive dyings-off, to the gruesome facts of a fellow poet's death -- leads Dungy to write poems about the inadequacy of poetry (or at least of some poets) to come to terms with the misery that people die in every day.

"This was meant to be / about love. Now there is nothing left but this," Dungy writes in the collection's long-titled first poem, "After Opening the New York Times I Wonder How to Write a Poem about Love."

Dungy bookends her collection with the throw-up-her-hands surrender of the introductory poem (although it's not a complete surrender because she's still using poems to discuss the limitations of poetry) and the slightly more optimistic tone of the final poem, "Maybe Tuesday Will Be My Good News Day."

In between, Dungy throws in a series of lengthy, clever, meaningful responses to poets that range from Adrienne Rich, to Gertrude Stein, to C.P. Cavafy, to Carl Phillips, to Philip Levine, to Ira Gershwin, to Phebus Etienne.

Dungy's longing to converse with poets past and present will serve her well at 5 p.m. today when she holds a joint reading with Shane McCrae, author of "Mule" (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2010). In what's been billed as the "round robin" poetry reading session of the Iowa City Book Festival, each poet is to choose a poem that in some way connects to the piece previously read.

That poetic conversation should benefit McCrae as much as it will Dungy. After all, it's hard to imagine any of the poems in "Mule" as purely isolated texts. Read individually, each poem provides only the smallest hint of the themes of marriage/divorce, collaboration/division, racial identity and neuro-atypicality that swirl and develop throughout the collection.

Both Dungy and McCrae, although two very different poets, seem to understand that no poem is complete in itself. It always resonates more suggestively by being placed in conversation with other poems, other poets and other readers as well as with the news of the day.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson will be participating in the Iowa City Book Festival panel on book reviewing at 10:30 a.m. today in the UI Main Library.

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