In my MFA program, I learned this about poems: if there’s no surprise for the writer, there’s no surprise for the reader. Most contemporary poets believe that a poem doesn’t truly take flight unless it offers an unexpected twist of heart, thought, or image. But it’s hard to manufacture surprise when you already know why you’re writing. How do you wind around the topic in a way that invites your reader to participate without telling him or her how to feel? How do you write about social injustice?
My graduate school advisor, John Balaban, reached the draft age during the Vietnam War. Although he conscientiously objected to the war and our part in it, he flew over there to help rather than to fight. Working with International Volunteer Services, he experienced the violence first-hand and ultimately chose to work in military zones where he could rescue children damaged by bombs and stray bullets. When he returned to the States, he wrote about what he saw and became well-known for the reality he brought back. His poems will break your heart. Their words don’t tell what to think. They don’t state the horror he felt, but emotions infuse the images and rhythms. You experience the horror.
Many of my creative writing students feel such ardor for their poems, they forego ambiguity. They want to insure that others recognize their meaning, their intent. It’s not uncommon for young poets to write: I feel sad. I feel lonely. But not only do these phrases lock down the experience, they reduce it to an uncomplicated one or two feelings. They also put off the reader. One person’s experience cannot dictate another’s.
I try to tell them that the details will draw in the listeners, allowing readers to place themselves in the poem and imagine their own reactions. It builds empathy. Some may not want to join your journey. Maybe, the best they can manage is simple acknowledgement and a cursory “I’m sorry,” but on some level, readers are likely to recognize in gross terms what’s sad, funny, overwhelming, or frightening.
I recently returned from AWP, the annual (and very large) conference for writers and writing programs. There, I learned about a poem by Joe Pan, which Eph;phany magazine published. It relates to the recent controversy over drone use. Even The New York Times referenced it in an article. Here’s a link, so you can decide what you think about “Ode to the MQ-9 Reaper”:
Pan’s tone, snappy language and metaphor drive much of this poem’s power. What do you think of it? If you didn’t already agree with his point-of-view, would you find yourself reconsidering?