Ai (& the end of Committed Poetry)

I’m just about to shut up about committed poetry, just want to take a quick look at Ai, if I may, before shutting up. Ai seems to be one of those people who puts energy into resisting other people’s attempts to put them in some easy ethnic/cultural/linguistic box (what is that desperate, apparently insatiable human need to put everything encountered neatly into some shapely, recognized box: !!where’s your box, you have one, it has a name, answer my questions, it is my right to define, to put you in your box, quickly!! etc etc. (And maybe it is, after all – who can say.))

There’s that about her, and there’s the awfulness (in a good way) of her, which is that she writes about such dreadful things. I actually have her book Vice, and I find I can only read it a bit at a time, it sort of makes you retch even as it fascinates you. I think of her when I think “committed” poetry (that thing I’m still thinking about, although I promise I’m shutting up about it after this post). A couple of quotes from the UIUC English site about Ai: 

Her particular forte has been to adapt Robert Browning's dramatic monologue to her own purposes, poems whose different voices speak of fracture, violence, revenge, sexual hunger, as if to emphasize the human disorder both beneath (and often enough at the surface of) society.and:

Ai’s poems have the indirect effect of calling cultural definitions of all kinds into question. A dramatic monologuist, she invents voices for those whose entrapment in their cultural definition is most apparent.

And this one:

Grandfather Says  

by Ai 


“Sit in my hand.”

I’m ten.

I can't see him,

but I hear him breathing

in the dark.

It’s after dinner playtime.

We’re outside,

hidden by trees and shrubbery.

He calls it hide-and-seek,

but only my little sister seeks us

as we hide

and she can’t find us,

as grandfather picks me up

and rubs his hands between my legs.

I only feel a vague stirring

at the edge of my consciousness.

I don’t know what it is,

but I like it.

It gives me pleasure

that I can’t identify.

It’s not like eating candy,

but it’s just as bad,

because I had to lie to grandmother

when she asked,

“What do you do out there?”

“Where?” I answered.

Then I said, “Oh, play hide-and-seek.”

She looked hard at me,

then she said, “That was the last time.

I’m stopping that game.”

So it ended and I forgot.

Ten years passed, thirtyfive,

when I began to reconstruct the past.

When I asked myself

why I was attracted to men who disgusted me

I traveled back through time

to the dark and heavy breathing part of my life

I thought was gone,

but it had only sunk from view

into the quicksand of my mind.

It was pulling me down

and there I found grandfather waiting,

his hand outstretched to lift me up,

naked and wet

where he rubbed me.

“I’ll do anything for you,” he whispered,

“but let you go.”

And I cried, “Yes,” then “No.”

“I don’t understand how you can do this to me.

I’m only ten years old,”

and he said, “That’s old enough to know.”___________

Q.E.D., I think.

Committed/political/advocacy poetry

Many thanks to Scavella and Twitches for bearing with my itching and speculation on committed poetry, political poetry, advocacy poetry – whatever the heck the most accurate appellation is. Am thinking that there is an politico-economic ruling underlying these classifications. If you delve into the web as it stands in Africa and in the Middle East, for example, there you find much more a sense of: Poet, you are called! and the poet who wants to look at hills and wildflowers and how far we have strayed from what hills and wildflowers are is not the poet who is called, but the poet guilty of dereliction of duty and the one who gets shunned because s/he is not using his/her poetic voice for the general good. The General Good being stopping the people from starving, and being indiscriminately imprisoned and criminally oppressed and other terribly basic things.  I’m thinking the fate and place of such poetry runs along the fault lines of human rights abuses — the more egregious the abuses, the fierier and more mainstream the poetry. We’re all so overfed and commercialized in the West that our human rights abuses become nuanced and specialized. Not amenable (or perhaps only too amenable) to poetry? In any event, much food for thought. And a gazillion thanks to Scavella for the mention of Etheridge Knight. Read this and curl up in a ball.

Needing help out of a small box

I feel I’m in a very small box here. Still thinking about committed poetry, which I finally begin to consider less tangentially to other stuff (such as how to get first grade homework done so the first grader actually does most of it and what to give a six-year-old with a dry cough so both of you can sleep most of the night?). How demented is that appellation, committed? Maybe I’m just small-minded – hopefully I am – understanding committed poetry as poetry denouncing a) some regime and/or b) some real or perceived discrimination against a minority group, with the two not being mutually exclusive. I don’t have anything particularly for or against such poetry at this point, but do wonder about both how it is classified and classifies itself in poetry circles. I am familiar with gay advocacy poetry and some women’s advocacy poetry, but surely those genres are a tip of the iceberg? My question remains: how come one (that would be me) rarely comes across committed poetry in mainstream internet poetry venues? Am I visting the wrong venues?

Nifty gift shop

Look what I stumbled upon this morning – the Philosophy Gift Shop. Nifty. I think I’m going to order myself a mouse pad, T-shirt, button and refrigerator magnet with Socrates’ BEWARE THE BARRENNESS OF A BUSY LIFE on them. How does one un-busy one’s life, is what I would like to know, after that?

Mazisi Kunene – South Africa

Mazisi Kunene
Mazisi Kunene

OK. That was a long derailment. Back to the national poet project. Today we’re in South Africa, which instituted the institution of poet laureate in 2005, selecting poet and scholar Mazisi Kunene as its first laureate. He died this year, so presumably a new South African poet laureate will be named at some point. He was born in Durban in 1930 and studied and taught in South Africa, England and California. Kunene draws on Zulu culture and oral tradition in his writing, I read, with his main influences being the praise poem, the dirge and the war song. His seminal work is Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic (which it seems is available on, an epic poem published in 1979. Originally written in Zulu, it chronicles “a legendary rise to power and greatness matching the feats of Napoleon and the Caesars,” according to one reviewer. Shaka Zulu was most definitely no-one to be trifled with – funny how great warriors and personalities often have difficult and humiliating beginnings (am remembering what I wrote of the Arabian poet-warrior Antara here a couple of months ago) and how the very elements that bring them to greatness also end up sowing the seeds of their undoing. A biography here says: Shaka was born circa 1787, son of a minor Zulu chief, but his mother was an unranked woman, and Shaka was a humiliated and discredited child.Shaka reorganized the Zulu into a military clan, and he soon made them into a force unchallenged in Southern African kingdoms.After 10 years of unrelenting warfare that placed incredible strains on the Zulu nation, Shaka, always psychologically unstable and obsessively worried about being replaced by an heir, finally snapped into derangement after the death of his mother in 1828. He imposed a year of celibacy on his people and executed anyone who did not show enough grief at the death of his mother. He was murdered within the year by his half-brother, Dingane, who succeeded him as ruler. He was 42.

Fascinating personality, he sounds like. There seems to have been at least one movie and one TV series about him. Some scholarly analysis of Kunene’s work, should you be interested. I couldn’t find anything but snippets of his work on the internet – sorry! This is the longest thing I found – very politically committed stuff, with some interesting imagery. No title that I could find:

By Mazisi Kunene

Was I wrong when I thought
All shall be avenged?
Was I wrong when I thought
The rope of iron holding the neck of young bulls
Shall be avenged?
Was I wrong
When I thought the orphans of sulphur
Shall rise from the ocean?
Was I depraved when I thought there need not be love,
There need not be forgiveness, there need not be progress,
There need not be goodness on the earth,
There need not be towns of skeletons,
Sending messages of elephants to the moon?
Was I wrong to laugh asphyxiated ecstasy
When the sea rose like quicklime
When the ashes on ashes were blown by the wind
When the infant sword was left alone on the hill top?
Was I wrong to erect monuments of blood?
Was I wrong to avenge the pillage of Caesar?
Was I wrong? Was I wrong?
Was I wrong to ignite the earth
And dance above the stars
Watching Europe burn with its civilisation of fire,
Watching America disintegrate with its gods of steel,
Watching the persecutors of mankind turn into dust
Was I wrong? Was I wrong?

I wonder, as an aside, at how little “committed” poetry one seems to run into in one’s mainstream internet poetry life in the West – you always have to go to Africa or Asia or the Middle East to find that in the mainstream, it seems. Or am I wrong?

Utah poet!

Who knew May Swenson was from Utah? Not me, for sure. Now I have this thing about Utah, I asked myself, who are the poets from Utah? Google tells you right off the bat that Swenson was Utahn (yep – that’s the adjective), and it’s a good thing something does, because I haven’t been able to find anything particularly Utah-specific in her poetry so far. You can be a universal poet or a poet of place, I suppose, and she appears to have gone for the former. She was born in Utah to a Mormon family (in 1919) , but appears to have had issues with her religion (It’s not for me – religion. It seems like a redundancy for a poet . . .) and left Utah at the age of 20, never to return, but for visits. She died in Delaware in 1989. Have found nothing in her official biography that indicates she was gay, but looked further as soon as I read her Blue and Little Lion Face. Beautifully sensual and tender and definitely woman writing to woman. The Gay & Lesbian Mormons site has a nice tribute to her.  She left Utah and went all over, spending a long time in New York, and teaching poetry writing at Purdue, where she made this heartening speech to her students: 

“I don’t consider myself a teacher. I do profess my belief in poetry. All my work is experimental and when I begin a poem I don’t know what it’s going to turn into specifically. I don’t start out with form or a rigid plan or any kind of pattern. I have never studied prosody nor have I ever deliberately tried to write a formal poem. Nor have I ever studied under another poet or enrolled in a class or workshop in poetry. I can’t teach anyone how to write poetry but I can try to teach why the writing of poetry can’t be taught.”

Please read this piece, it’s a love poem by Swenson called Bleeding, really good and scary, about dysfunctionality and codependence. 

And lastly, this:

by May Swenson

It is a stern thing,

This bringing into being;

This taking of a clod that is cold

And veining it with sprouts of fire;

This wresting of a star from chaos,

And chiseling it upon the lathe of exactness;

This making of an indolent thing urgent;

This begetting of eagerness;

It is hard and a fierce thing …

Did You find it so, God?

This, with the Swenson quote above, call to mind this post on Dick Jones’ blog. Where is the line between inspiration and craft? Where does one end and the other begin?  The way Swenson has it, craft is way way way down there in the scheme of things. Not sure I agree.