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Life of a Poem, Part II

In my last post, I spent some time with the first line of George Starbuck’s poem “Of Late.” “‘Stephen Smith, University of Iowa sophomore, burned what he said was his draft card,’” Starbuck begins. The poem in its entirety is as follows:

“Stephen Smith, University of Iowa sophomore, burned what he said was his draft card”
and Norman Morrison, Quaker, of Baltimore Maryland, burned what he said was himself.
You, Robert McNamara, burned what you said was a concentration
of the Enemy Aggressor.
No news medium troubled to put it in quotes.

And Norman Morrison, Quaker, of Baltimore Maryland, burned what he said was himself.
He said it with simple materials such as would be found in your kitchen.
In your office you were informed.
Reporters got cracking frantically on the mental disturbance angle.
So far nothing turns up.

Norman Morrison, Quaker, of Baltimore Maryland, burned, and while burning, screamed.
No tip-off. No release.
Nothing to quote, to manage to put in quotes.
Pity the unaccustomed hesitance of the newspaper editorialists.
Pity the press photographers, not called.

Norman Morrison, Quaker, of Baltimore Maryland, burned and was burned and said
all that there is to say in that language.
Twice what is said in yours.
It is a strange sect, Mr. McNamara, under advice to try
the whole of a thought in silence, and to oneself.

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While “Of Late” is not included in Carolyn Forché’s seminal 1993 anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, as Starbuck did not (I assume) directly “witness” these events, nor did he “personally endure such conditions” as what Forché calls “the experience of extremity,” Forché’s introductory essay (first published in American Poetry Review) still speaks to a number of techniques at play in Starbuck’s poem.

Forché speaks of the “immediacies of direct address,” writing, “The epistolary mode, while intimate and private, is also deeply public. It has always been the poetry . . . of a conscientious communality, an attempt to speak for more than one and to engage all others.” (“You, Robert McNamara . . . It is a strange sect, Mr. McNamara.”)

She then turns to another technique, writing, “It should come as no surprise that poets who urgently desire to influence a public have also used the news media as models, even if somewhat negative ones.” She cites Zbigniew Herbert’s “‘objective’ report” and “flatness of tone” in “Report for the Besieged City,” then notes how John Balaban’s poem “News Update” “explodes the myth of the impartiality of the media.” Forché concludes her analysis of Herbert and Balaban’s poems as follows:

Herbert and Balaban use the news media to stress the importance of poetry: what comes to us in the newspapers and on television is not necessarily factual, nor is it necessarily cogent. Determined by the market and by the tender conscience of the distant consumer, the news is a degenerate form of art, neither wholly fact nor wholly fiction, never true to objective truth or subjective reality. The demands of modernist literary communication, with its stress on close reading, irony, and the fiction of textual depth, open up more complex visions of historical circumstance than are otherwise available.

Both explicitly and implicitly, Starbuck’s dark tonal irony borrows from the language and methods of the news media: “what he said was,” “what you said was,” “No news medium troubled to put it in quotes,” “what he said was,” “He said it,” “Reporters got cracking . . . so far nothing turns up,” and then the lines, “Nothing to quote, to manage to put in quotes. / Pity the unaccustomed hesitance of the newspaper editorialists. / Pity the press photographers, not called.”

Where once we took the speech tag “he said” as a responsible and objective citing of sources, now we must reckon with it as a distancing abdication of responsibility, trust, and humanity. But while Starbuck’s act of writing a poem is in agreement with Forché’s assessment of “the importance of poetry” as an alternative to the news media, the poem itself reveals a mind much less sure or celebratory of poetry as a viable alternative. In “Of Late,” what is “true” seems to be—what? Perhaps what is burning? And, perhaps, what isn’t spoken:

Norman Morrison, Quaker, of Baltimore Maryland, burned and was burned and said
all that there is to say in that language.
Twice what is said in yours.
It is a strange sect, Mr. McNamara, under advice to try
the whole of a thought in silence, and to oneself.

Try as we may to “try / the whole of a thought in silence, and to oneself,” our poems, by their very nature, are not silent—they do engage outside the self. Thus we must wrestle with the fact that they are still inherently the same “medium” as the newspaper editorialists and the politicians. We reckon with this truth in each poem we write.

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Heather McHugh’s poem “What He Thought,” first published in Tikkun in 1991, is another poem of burning and silence. Read it in its entirety here. Reading McHugh’s poem alongside Starbuck’s poem, I think of Walter Pater famously saying that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” Can a poem aspire towards the condition of burning? Can a poem aspire towards the condition of silence? And when our poems “aspire towards” the conditions of that which they cannot be (music, burning, silence), how do we accept and celebrate our work as what it necessarily is—a failure, failing?

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