Occasion: Patriotism

Memorial Day and Flag Day are commemorative occasions just ripe for a poet.  While many are addicted to Open Mic nights, these public ceremonies will stretch any writer’s abilities.

The 5/5 blog presents the 2 Chief Reasons to write and perform occasional poetry:

  1. adhere to audience requirements.
  2. keep to the 4 Requirements of Song.

Now let me add a 3rd:

3] manipulate structure to stand out.  Poets who do so can provide copies of their poems to participants.  It’s like free publicity.  “All politics is local”, 1930’s newspapermen said, and word-of-mouth is the best marketing.

Also in the 5/5 blog, is a brief mention of the inaugural poems of Maya Angelou and Robert Frost.  She gives us a poem as sprawling as American cities while his “The Gift Outright” is tightly focused and structured.  For the audience, this is the difference between a 30-minute speech and a 5-minute one.

It’s the Gettysburg Address that we know and love, not the hour-long speech that preceded it.

Craft the poem well, and it gains power to reach into the ages.

3 Poems for a Patriotic Occasion

Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier”

Memorial Day is when we recognize and thank the sacrifice of those who died for the freedoms we may not deserve.Brooke gives us a sonnet unannounced.

The opening octet presents to us the loss, ending with the sadly ironic “suns of home” for England’s dead sons buried away from home.

The sestet presents the gain and the reason for the sacrifice.

Death arouses emotion, but Brooke asks us to THINK.  In each stanza, he reminds us of the purpose.

Brooke himself died in WWI.  The Great War to end all wars, they called it.  And it was not and never will be, as long as human nature is what it is.

Gwendolyn Brooks’ “the sonnet-ballad”

Like Brooke, Brooks writes another sonnet, yet hers is also a ballad.  The ballad has the three subject matters of love, betrayal, and death.  What is more appropriate for a poem exhibiting the grief of those on the homefront?

As the speaker mourns her soldier gone, she reminds of the sacrifices of those on the home front, feeling betrayed by the death of their beloved.

Particular phrases that haunt us, as the speaker is haunted by her loss, are “my lover’s tallness” and “an empty heart-cup”, the knowledge that her lover had to “court / Coquettish death”, and the powerful opening and closing with the same line, an obsessive repetition of grief.

Carl Sandburg’s “Grass”

With “Grass”, Sandburg is experimenting with poetic line.

Austerlitz, Waterloo, Gettysburg, Ypres, and Verdun:: important battlefields of the past.  Ground on which lay slaughtered soldiers.  Carcasses piled high until burial.  Death strips away humanity, and the very indifference of the grass only increases the horror.

Just as the veterans who survive are horrified by those of us who do not understand the sacrifices that freedom requires.

Of these three poems, “Grass” reads the most naturally.  Standing at a podium, the natural flow of words is extremely important.

We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda;  it is a form of truth. ~` John F. Kennedy.

Wrapping Up

On the 15th of June we look at poems for the occasion of Father’s Day.  Join us.

Occasions: Mother’s Day: When Audience Trumps Poet

May and June and July are jammed with occasions.

  • Mother’s and Father’s Days.
  • Memorial and Flag and Independence Days.
  • Graduation and Wedding and many other types of days.

For poets seeking an audience, these occasions offer multiple opportunities to practice craft.

Poetic Occasions: 2 Chief Reminders

1] For a poet writing an occasional poem, the most important remembrance is that the audience controls the writing.  Occasions require poets to stretch their abilities without causing deliberate offense to the audience.

2] The poet also needs to remember the 4 Requirements of Song. The writing must be heartfelt without being smarmy.  Powerful lines and strong imagery must keep the audience engaged:  a listening-only audience will break attention faster than a reading one.  Rhetorical devices that emphasize points are especially necessary as they help the audience “hear” the ideas through repetition and climactic ordering.

♥ Maya Angelou’s inaugural “On the Pulse of the Morning” and Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright” are perfect examples (one long and sprawling free verse, the other 16 tightly constructed lines).

Here are 2 + 1 poems for Mother’s Day (the 1 is a “just because”) with the reasons they work so well.

Of course, you can always fall back on a greeting card.

Li-Young Lee & the Water of Time

I Ask My Mother to Sing

Li-Young Lee presents the connection of past to present to future, something mothers do for their children almost unconsciously.  Mothers ground their children with who they are and who they come from even as they encourage who they will become.

Lee celebrates this ability.  The women’s joy comes across in the second line—then Lee sidesteps the typical encounter of a poem with a mother in it—much as Langston Hughes did with “Mother to Son”.  The second stanza has the readers wishing that they knew this song.

It’s the third stanza, however, that contains the most power:  waterlilies like a bamboo fountain.  Soothing serenity.

And then Lee has done something wonderful with the title, usually only glanced at, here it is a necessary part, pouring us into the poem, just as the waterlilies into the next and the next and then pour us out of the poem.

Three stanzas, unrhymed, with very little tying the poem together—yet still with a tranquility that draws us back and back.

George Barker’s Occasion for his Mother

Sonnet, Barker announces in the title, and most of us wouldn’t have noticed if he had not announced it.

The first line sounds like the Mother’s Day greeting card.  Surprise comes in the third line.  No woman wants to be described “as huge as Asia”.  “Seismic with laughter”, yes.  Barker gives us the reality of his mother.  He doesn’t gild the lily, for it is not the pretty image that makes up the mother he loves.  She is  a woman who helps the weak and hurt.  She is brash yet alluring, fascinating and courageous.

His mother has her weaknesses, but he bolsters her with “all my love” and a reminder of “all her faith” as she copes with a devastating death, punned into the last line.

By now we are studying the poem, re-reading portions, nodding to ourselves as we picture the woman he describes.  And closer examination tells us that his rhyming is as atypical as the woman herself.

Surprising poems like Barkers draw us back and back—and isn’t that what we want with our poetry?  Readers returning over and again.

Judith Viorst

My plus-1 occasion poem, which actually fits all occasions:  Mothers are known for their advice.  Teenagers think it’s nagging.  Young adults starting their own path to wisdom begin to see the wisdom that flows from the mother.  Her advice may be oft-repeated until we understand the simplicity of the truth.

Some Advice from a Mother to her Married Son

The answer to do you love me isn’t, I married you, didn’t I?
Or, Can’t we discuss this after the ballgame is through?
It isn’t, Well that all depends on what you mean by ‘love’.
Or even, Come to bed and I’ll prove that I do.
The answer isn’t, How can I talk about love when
the bacon is burned and the house is an absolute mess and
the children are screaming their heads off and
I’m going to miss my bus?
The answer is yes.
The answer is yes.
The answer is yes.

Wrapping It Up

Join us on the 25th, just in time for Memorial Day and then Flag Day.  We will look at poems on patriotic occasions.