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We Will Never Leave Earth

Iain S. Thomas   |   July 21, 2015   12:40 PM ET

We will never leave Earth.

Battlestar Galactica is a lie.

Star Trek is a lie.

Alien is a lie.

We will never leave Earth.

We will never leave Earth because we will spend the time we have left and the one chance we have to leave Earth bickering over who did what to who.

We will never leave Earth because instead of building spaceships, we decided to build walls and razor wire and prisons and bombs instead.

We will never leave Earth because we aren't building space elevators and warp drives and new kinds of space suits and lasers -- just in case we ever meet anyone as petty and mean as ourselves out there.

We will never leave Earth because we're too busy building tanks to fight over the last barrels of oil and planes to drop the bombs we made on the people who disagree with us over the specifics of the story about where we all come from.

We will never leave Earth, even though all our stories agree, that heaven is above us.

We will never leave Earth. Even though Stephen Hawking says we've only got 200 years left. The last 2000 don't give us much hope.

We will never leave Earth because so many of us have agreed that passing laws about what someone else does with their genitals is more important, than leaving the Earth.

We will never leave Earth and we will sink and drown on this ship while we fight over the deck chairs.

We will never leave Earth.

The Last Starfighter is a lie.

Babylon 5 is a lie.

Star Wars is a lie.

Iain M. Banks is a lie.

We will, never, leave Earth.

We will never leave Earth and we will never be anything more than a strange thought the universe had, a moment in which it went, "Heh, wouldn't that be crazy. Na."

We will never leave Earth because the world will erupt in fire and ice while we're still debating whether or not fire and ice actually exist. We will still be arguing over whether we're burning or freezing to death when we die.

We will never leave Earth and the few robots we've sent out in our place will be our only fingerprints on the firmament, the only proof that a grabbing, desperate hand shot out of our coffin, before it sunk beneath the soil.

We will never leave the Earth and meet Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, or Pisces.

We will never touch Gemini's face and hear her say, "You look just like me. You look just like me."

We will never leave Earth because we're too busy arguing over who you're allowed to love to bother actually doing the work of love, of leaving the Earth.

We will never leave the Earth because we're obsessed with the soil we were born on and we never realised that all the dirt that we stand on and all the dirt we're made of, isn't dirt. It's star dust. Our dirt, is their dirt, and we will never ask their dirt for help and so, we will never leave earth.

Carl Sagan is a lie.

Douglas Adams is a lie.

Guardians of The Galaxy is a lie.

Space Quest is a lie.

We will, never, leave Earth.

Except as dust and ashes and minerals, returned to the sender, to be light, burning, in someone else's stars.

__________

This poem appears in the collection of short stories and prose, "How to be Happy: Not a Self-Help Book."

The Layers Unseen

Iain S. Thomas   |   May 11, 2015   11:02 AM ET

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There is magic even here, in gridlock, in loneliness, in too much work, in late nights gone on too long, in shopping trolleys with broken wheels, in boredom, in tax returns, the same magic that made a man write about a princess that slept until she was kissed, long golden hair draped over a balcony and fingers pricked with needles. There is magic even here, in potholes along back-country roads, in not having the right change (you pat your pockets), arriving late and missing the last train home, the same magic that caused a woman in France to think that God spoke to her, that made another sit down at the front of a bus and refuse to move, that lead a man to think that maybe the world wasn't flat and the moon could be walked upon by human feet. There is magic. Even here. In office cubicles.

_____
The picture and words in this poem appear in the book I Wrote This For You. Photography © Jon Ellis.

Cameron Keady   |   April 30, 2015    1:02 PM ET

A team of young poets is bringing spoken word to kids that deserve a voice.

Project Voice -- a team of educators and writers -- performs spoken word to encourage literacy and creative expression among young students. In celebration of National Poetry Month, which takes place annually throughout April, the group launched a scholarship fund to bring their art to schools with few resources for the arts.

“One of our highest priorities as educators is to be as inclusive as possible,” the group wrote on its website. “A challenge we have come up against is the difficulty of visiting schools that don’t have funding for the arts. So we have decided to try and address the issue head-on.”

When the group visits schools, they perform for students and then hold workshops to teach them how to create their own spoken word. Project Voice aims to teach students to “use spoken word poetry as an instrument through which they can explore and better understand their community, their society and ultimately themselves.”

This scholarship will help fund these interactive lessons with the intention of sparking creative thought and expression for students.

Donations can be made to the Project VOICE scholarship fund here.

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For Mom, the Yia Yia (Grandmother) of All Pontians

Thea Halo   |   April 28, 2015   11:56 AM ET

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It's difficult to believe that a year has passed since we had services for my mother on April 28, 2014. After the funeral, I went back to her house and I took clippings from her fig bush, put them in three pots, and brought them to my country house. They are thriving, as if not to disappoint her. Each clipping has multiple figs and lush green leaves. Like my mother, moving from one sphere to another didn't faze them... in fact, it seems they have become even more hardy and productive. Perhaps her breath is on them, helping them grow. Now that worldly things no longer hinder her, she can move through time and space at will.

For the last five years of her life, I spent a week a month caring for my mother in her home. On warm days in spring, summer, and fall, we'd sometimes sit on her swing in the back yard and sing the songs she sang when I was a child. They are etched in my memory, even though many decades have passed since then. The sound of her sweet voice was such a comfort, assuring us the world would go on forever and she would be there baking her pies and cakes, her special rolls, her Sunday roasts, and Baklava as only she could make it. Now, I find myself singing certain lines from those old songs to myself. They sometimes just pop into my mind, such as: "What'll I do, when you are far away and I am blue, what'll I do?" Or: "You went away and my heart went with you. I say your name in my every prayer..."

She has given all of us the great gift of memory in her memoir, Not Even My Name. She has given us our shared history. And tragic as her life was for a while, she made the best of what was left of it. Her mother, whom she so dearly loved, must be so proud of her. My mother refused to hate. She refused to surrender to depression and anger. When asked how she could go through so much pain and loss and still not hate, she said: "Why should I waste my life hating when there is still so much beauty in the world?" Perhaps that's why she lived in this realm for almost 105 years.

As a child I promised her she would live forever. We must celebrate her life, not her passing, because she will never leave us. She lives on through her story and will live on through all the generations. I see her all around me in the nature that she loved--in the new daffodils pushing through the earth; the just budding branches; the spring rain. She is in the wind. She is in every blade of grass. She is in our hearts.

For Mom
May 10 1909-April 28, 2014

When I die, don't weep for me as if I am gone.
Whisper my name to someone beside you.
Whisper it loud,
so my name will be carried on the air
to all corners of the earth.

Tell my story to your young
so they remember me.
Speak of me to your neighbor
so our people will live alongside me.

Don't say I am gone when I die.
Say I live forever in your memory--
the memory of those who know me
and the memory of those who will know me
through my story--our story.

Don't speak of me as if I am dead.
Speak of me as if I stand beside you.
I will be there.
On your lips I will never die.

Speak my name often
to resurrect those who have perished
at the hands of the murderers of innocence.
I am their representative.
My story is their story.

To stop the enemy of our people from winning
speak of me and our people often.
We live on through you.

You are my breath--our breath.
You are my voice--our voice.
You alone keep memory alive.

Silence is the final stage of genocide.
Speak of me often.

Brief history:

Although my mother came from a place in the world that was too small to be depicted on a map, as the subject of the memoir, Not Even My Name, she became known to Pontic Greeks world-wide, as the Yia Yia (Grandmother) of all Pontians. To her family and friends she was a warm, sensitive, often humorous, and caring mother, grandmother, and great grandmother.

The only known survivor of her family of 15, including parents, grandparents, siblings, and aunts and uncles, my mother's extraordinary memory brought to life the details of how the Pontic Greeks lived in mountain villages of the Black Sea region of Turkey in the early 20th Century, how the Assyrians lived in small hamlets in southern Turkey, and how the Armenians lived in Diyarbakir. Her memory also allows us to see and feel her community's devastating death march to exile in 1920. To help her survive, her mother left 10-year-old Themia in a small hamlet in southern Turkey, with a woman who promised to care for her. After her mother's death, young Themia was treated as a slave. With the loss of her family, community, and finally her name, changed to Sano by her cruel keeper, Sano ran away to Diyarbakir at age 12. There an Armenian family took her in. When they fled to Aleppo, Syria to avoid further massacres, they took young Sano with them as their daughter.

Sano's future husband, Abraham, an Assyrian who had also fled Turkey and emigrated to the U.S. in 1905, traveled to Aleppo in 1925 to visit exiled cousins and to find a bride. To give Sano a chance at a free life in America, at just 15 years old, her Armenian family arranged Sano's marriage to 45-year-old Abraham. On their arrival in New York City, Sano became mother to Farage, Abraham's 10-year-old son from a previous marriage. Sano and Abraham raised 10 children of their own. I am the eighth.

My mother had once opined, "If I could only write, I'd tell the world what happened." Although I had made my career as a painter, after our trip to Turkey, I decided to be my mother's voice. Not Even My Name was published by Picador, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, in 2000. In 2002, Sano Themia Halo was given the New York Governor's Award for Excellence in Honor of Women's History Month, Honoring Women of Courage and Vision, for making known to the American public for the first time, the history and tragic fate of the Pontic Greeks, a people who had made Asia Minor their home for almost 3,000 years, until their massacre, death marches to exile, and finally the Exchange of Populations in 1923 pursuant to the Treaty of Lausanne. Sano is also featured in a number of documentaries, and has received numerous other honors and awards in the U.S., Canada, and in Greece. In 2002 I established The Sano Themia Halo Pontian Heritage Foundation with the intention of building a living museum in Greece to help future generations know how the Pontic Greeks lived in the Pontic Mountains along the Black Sea. So far our plans have been hindered, but I am still hopeful it will be built.

Although a resident of New York City since her arrival in 1925, neither I nor my mother, nor most of the country, were aware that over 40,000 Pontic Greeks made their homes in Astoria, L.I., with further Pontian communities in Connecticut, Chicago, Ohio, Canada, and elsewhere.

In 2009, for her 100th Birthday, Greece awarded my mother and me honorary Greek citizenship. "Now everyone will know I am Greek," my mother said, referring to a U.S. passport that depicted her place of origin as Turkey, without identifying her as a Greek.

Although my mother's story of loss of family, home, country, and finally even her language and her name was so tragic, she never held any animosity towards the Turkish people. After returning from our 1989 pilgrimage back to Turkey to find her home she said of the Turks we met along the way, "Everyone treated me like family." She said they had lived side by side in peace. "They are people like any other people. They want to raise their families and prosper. You must place the blame where blame belongs, with the Ottoman government. Ataturk. He was the one. Not the only one. But he was the one."

The Ottoman genocide of over three million of their Christian citizens: Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians under the Young Turk and Kemalist regimes from 1913-1923 took the lives of 353,000 of the 700,000 Pontic Greeks, and a further 700,000 Greeks of Anatolia and Thrace in Ottoman Turkey. It also took the lives of 275,000 Assyrians, more than half their population, and 1.5 million Armenians. In 2007, the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) passed a Resolution affirming the Genocide of the Pontian and other Asia Minor Greeks and Assyrians as comparable to the Armenian Genocide. Since then the Parliaments of Sweden 2010, and The Netherlands 2015, have each affirmed the Genocide of these three historic Christian peoples in their own resolutions.

When asked if she wanted restitution from the Turkish government for the loss of her family and her home, my mother responded that she wanted an apology from the Turkish government. "We had everything to live for and they sent us to die on the roads," she said. She never received that apology.

In 1976 my mother moved from NYC to Monroe, NY. Above all, she was devoted to her family. She often said, "my family is my life."

Sano Themia Halo is survived by seven of her ten children, plus her many grand- and great-grand children. She was buried with my father, Abraham, in a private family ceremony at Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, NY.

More info at: www.notevenmyname.com

The Day You Read This

Iain S. Thomas   |   April 20, 2015   11:14 AM ET

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On this day, you read something that moved you and made you realise there were no more fears to fear. No tears to cry. No head to hang in shame. That every time you thought you'd offended someone, it was all just in your head and really, they love you with all their heart and nothing will ever change that. That everyone and everything lives on inside you. That that doesn't make any of it any less real.

That soft touches will change you and stay with you longer than hard ones.

That being alone means you're free. That old lovers miss you and new lovers want you and the one you're with is the one you're meant to be with. That the tingles running down your arms are angel feathers and they whisper in your ear, constantly, if you choose to hear them. That everything you want to happen, will happen, if you decide you want it enough. That every time you think a sad thought, you can think a happy one instead.

That you control that completely.

That the people who make you laugh are more beautiful than beautiful people. That you laugh more than you cry. That crying is good for you. That the people you hate wish you would stop and you do too.

That your friends are reflections of the best parts of you. That you are more than the sum total of the things you know and how you react to them. That dancing is sometimes more important than listening to the music.

That the most embarrassing, awkward moments of your life are only remembered by you and no one else. That no one judges you when you walk into a room and all they really want to know, is if you're judging them. That what you make and what you do with your time is more important than you'll ever fathom and should be treated as such. That the difference between a job and art is passion. That neither defines who you are. That talking to strangers is how you make friends.

That bad days end but a smile can go around the world. That life contradicts itself, constantly. That that's why it's worth living.

That the difference between pain and love is time. That love is only as real as you want it to be. That if you feel good, you look good but it doesn't always work the other way around.

That the sun will rise each day and it's up to you each day if you match it. That nothing matters up until this point. That what you decide now, in this moment, will change the future. Forever. That rain is beautiful.

And so are you.

_____
The picture and words in this poem appear in the book I Wrote This For You. Photography © Jon Ellis.

The Bibliography of Strings

Iain S. Thomas   |   April 7, 2015    9:24 PM ET

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And you taught me what this feels like.
And then how it feels to lose it.
And you showed me who I wanted.
And then who I wasn't.
And you ticked every box.
And then drew a line.
And you weren't mine to begin with.
And then not to end with.
And you looked like everything I wanted.
And then became something I hated.
And you get thought of every day.
And then not in a good way.
And you let me leave.
And then wish I'd stayed.
And you almost killed me.
But I didn't die.

_____
The picture and words in this poem appear in the book I Wrote This For You. Photography © Jon Ellis.

  |   April 6, 2015    4:16 PM ET

easter in pittsburgh

Even on Easter Sunday
when the church was a

jungle of lilies and
ferns fat Uncle Paul

who loved his liquor
so would pound away

with both fists on the
stone pulpit shouting

sin sin sin and the
fiery fires of hell

and I cried all after-
noon the first time I

heard what they did to
Jesus it was something

the children shouldn’t
know about till they

were older but the new
maid told me and both

of us cried a lot and so
mother got another one

right away & she sent
away Miss Richardson

who came all the way
from England because

she kept telling how
her fiancé Mr. Bowles-

Lyon died suddenly of
a heart attack he just

said one day at lunch
I’m afraid I’m not well

and the next thing they
knew he was sliding un-

der the table. Easter
was nice the eggs were

silly but the big lilies
were wonderful & when

Uncle Paul got so fat
from drinking that he

couldn’t squeeze into
the pulpit anymore &

had to preach from the
floor there was an el-

ders’ meeting and they
said they would have

the pulpit rebuilt but
Uncle Paul said no it

was the Lord’s manifest
will and he would pass

his remaining years in
sacred studies I liked

Thanksgiving better be-
cause that was the day

father took us down to
the mills but Easter I

liked next best and the
rabbits died because we

fed them beet tops and
the lamb pulled up the

grass by the roots and
was sold to Mr. Page the

butcher I asked Uncle
Robert what were sacred

studies he said he was
not really sure but he

guessed they came in a
bottle and mother sent

me away from the table
when I wouldn’t eat my

lamb chops that was
ridiculous she said it

wasn’t the lamb of God
it was just Caesar An-

dromache Nibbles but I
couldn’t I just couldn’t

& the year of the strike
we didn’t go to Church

at all on Easter because
they said it wasn’t safe

down town so instead we
had prayers in the library

and then right in the mid-
dle the telephone rang it

was Mr. Shupstead at the
mill they had had to use

tear gas father made a
special prayer right a-

way for God’s protection
& mercy and then he sent

us out to the farm with
mother we stayed a week

and missed school but it
rained a lot and I broke

the bathroom mirror and
had to learn a long psalm.

James Laughlin, “Easter in Pittsburgh” from Poems New and Selected. Copyright © 1996 by James Laughlin. Reprinted with the permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Source: Poetry (March 1940).

This poem first appeared on www.poetryfoundation.org.

  |   April 6, 2015    3:49 PM ET

new york

Curtains forcing their will
against the wind,
children sleep,
exchanging dreams with
seraphim. The city
drags itself awake on
subway straps; and
I, an alarm, awake as a
rumor of war,
lie stretching into dawn,
unasked and unheeded.

Maya Angelou, “Awaking in New York” from Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? Copyright © 1983 by Maya Angelou. Used by permission of Random House, Inc.

Source: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (1994)

This poem first appeared on www.poetryfoundation.org.

Austin Allen   |   April 6, 2015    3:26 PM ET

soldier dusk

From an early age, Wilfred Owen seems to have demanded a lot out of the people around him. His younger brother Harold, as Philip Larkin recounted in a review of Jon Stallworthy’s Owen biography (1975), claimed that: “[Wilfred] as an adolescent veered from ‘too high spirits’ to depression and attacks of bad temper in which he was inclined to lecture the whole family furiously for their failure to attain proper standards.” Harold also recalled that Wilfred seemed to enjoy pointing out Harold’s errors in his schoolwork and reveling in “the pleasures of his destructive criticism.” If these recollections are accurate, Wilfred would hardly be the first poet to turn the flaws of his character into the strengths of his art.

In the Great War, Owen found an ideal object for his withering condemnation. Unprecedented in its brutality and—as one of Owen’s titles had it—“Futility,” World War I was not the “war to end all wars” but the beginning of modern, mechanized, cataclysmic warfare. Owen himself witnessed some of its worst slaughter, joining the Western Front in 1917 and suffering shell shock before achieving his artistic breakthrough. Killed a week before the Armistice in November 1918, he became one of the war’s great martyrs; arguably, in English-speaking culture, he is the symbolic sacrifice to its cruelty.

He also became a representative figure of what we now call “poetry of witness.” The poems he wrote in 1917–18 are uncompromising works, steeped in pity and fury, crackling with purpose as their author writes almost literally under the gun. The fist-shaking conclusions of “Insensibility” and his famous poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” have been models for generations of writers who aspire to save or at least shame the world. Yet like all such poems, they call to mind W.B. Yeats’s distinction between rhetoric (“the quarrel with others”) and poetry (“the quarrel with ourselves”). What makes “Insensibility” a poem and not a plain sermon—or a sour “lecture” of the kind he supposedly loved giving in childhood?

Insensibility” begins by stating its theme in the negative. This will be a poem about a lack of something: sensibility, which Merriam-Webster defines as “ability to receive sensations” and, metaphorically, “refined or excessive sensitiveness in emotion and taste.” We sometimes hear the word in phrases like “artistic sensibility” or “poetic sensibility,” which imply a heightened receptiveness to creative inspiration. Will Owen’s poem concern the lack of this quality?

Only partly. As it turns out, “Insensibility” is a war poem: published in 1918, it is one of the greatest of the World War I era, and of any era. It’s a study of not one but several forms of insensibility—a whole range of ways to avoid feelings, especially your own and others’ pain. Numbness can be physical, psychological, or both; for soldiers, it can be a trauma response (“shell shock”) or coping mechanism; for civilians in wartime, it can manifest as denial or indifference toward human suffering. Owen sketches the tragic isolation of these various states as he builds to a passionate affirmation of human connectedness. Writing in the midst of the war that will ultimately kill him, he applies his own fierce artistic sensibility—his deepest reserves of feeling—to the theme of insensibility.

The poem plays out over six sections, each brief but densely woven. The first five describe soldiers at war, with the fifth also turning inward to address the speaker and his fellow writers and intellectuals. The sixth shifts to a denunciation of civilians who turn a blind eye to war’s devastation.

The poem’s structure is also founded, with caustic irony, on a biblical model. From the first lines onward, Owen imitates the Beatitudes of the Gospel of Matthew, as well as their equivalent in the Gospel of Luke: “Happy are men who yet before they are killed / Can let their veins run cold.” The Greek word that is traditionally translated as “Blessed” (as in the biblical phrase “Blessed are the meek”) can also be rendered as “Happy.” The eight “blessed” groups in Matthew are “the poor in spirit,” “they that mourn,” “the meek,” “they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness,” “the merciful,” “the pure in heart,” “the peacemakers,” and “they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (King James Version). Within this allusive framework the poem spins a dense web of parallels and contrasts.

Which of the Gospel’s labels might apply to combat veterans, according to the poet? Not the peacemakers, one would think—although some military slogans would disagree. They that mourn often fits. The others are more ambiguous, or debatable. Some of Owen’s battle-hardened men are poor in spirit in a different sense than Jesus meant: not spiritually humble but spiritually emptied, soldiers who have “cease[d] feeling” and “los[t] imagination.” Others, like the young recruit “whose mind was never trained” and who “cannot tell / Old men’s placidity from his,” are meek in that they’ve been taught unthinking obedience. Soldiers drilled in such meekness may be happy, or at least blissfully ignorant, but as Owen knew from the carnage he witnessed, they probably won’t inherit the earth.

At the end of the poem Owen turns to curse the “wretched” who not only are sheltered from the realities of war, but ignore them altogether. The biblical parallel here is with the “four woes” after the Beatitudes in Luke: four curses against the rich, callous, and complacent. Owen’s “dullards,” too, reject the ethics of humble compassion. In particular, as we’ll see, they fail to mourn.

In the popular poetry of World War I’s early years, the soldier was a man who exalted his country and whose country exalted him in return. “If I should die,” the speaker of Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” pleads, “think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England.” Loved and nurtured by England, he returns that love even in the afterlife. The dead in John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” remain so committed to their cause that they “shall not sleep” if the living betray it.

The whole arsenal of Owen’s war poetry is aimed at exploding this sentimental myth. In “Dulce et Decorum Est,” he famously slams the Roman poet Horace’s “old Lie”—“Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country”—by evoking the senseless horrors of modern warfare. In “Insensibility” his attack is less visceral but no less frightening. Here he portrays an atmosphere of universal war fatigue, a jaded world in which both soldiers and the home front are completely drained of passion. In this world, there are no stout-hearted corpses cheering on their living brothers under picturesque poppies:

… they are troops who fade, not flowers,
For poets’ tearful fooling:
Men, gaps for filling:
Losses, who might have fought
Longer; but no one bothers.

Ideals are dead, killed in action. There is no suggestion of a higher cause, or any cause; the war has become a murder machine running on sheer inertia. The dead are “gaps for filling” in the eyes of their superiors—or, worse, their comrades and the public. Veterans numbed by repeated traumas no longer register pain (“their old wounds”) or fear atrocities (the “scorching cautery of battle”). Doomed themselves, they “can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.” Young recruits are docile idiots, neither “sad, nor proud, / Nor curious at all.” All are “happy” in the meager sense that they’ve been spared the worst alternative: feeling the full extent of the nightmare.

At the end of this grim list, the poet pauses to take stock. In such a blighted moral landscape, where lofty ideals are useless and terrible ideas can cause the deaths of millions, what kind of vision should the artist or thinker strive toward? Owen ambivalently suggests that “we wise” must try to identify with the naïve young trainee, if only to comprehend the nature of the world he faces:

We wise, who with a thought besmirch
Blood over all our soul,
How should we see our task
But through his blunt and lashless eyes?

In The Poetry of Shell Shock (2005), Daniel Hipp examines the “state of paradox” the poem creates here—one whose resolution, for Owen, could not have been more urgent:

To see and communicate means that Owen must see through eyes incapable of poetic vision … The poet is an intermediary between the soldier and the homefront, a spokesperson but potentially a fellow sufferer himself. The question remains, within this poem, one of perspective—“How should we see?”

Yet, according to Hipp, Owen “deflects the conclusion” he might have offered, instead ending the poem with a blazing volley of indignation:

But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones.
Wretched are they, and mean
With paucity that never was simplicity.
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever moans in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
Whatever shares
The eternal reciprocity of tears.

Hipp contends that this provides “no final resolution … to the question [Owen] poses to himself,” only a slight clarification of his poetic mission. Owen’s alert, unflinching “sensibility” will exempt him from his own curse, “enabl[ing] him to possess ‘whatever’ moans, mourns, and shares” the interconnected sorrows of our moral ecosystem.

It’s possible, however, that this stanza answers Owen’s question implicitly rather than explicitly, by demonstrating a stance and style adequate to his “task.” “That they should be as stones” echoes King Lear’s indignation at the failure of those around him to grieve sufficiently for Cordelia: “Howl, howl, howl, howl! O! you are men of stones.” Perhaps the image of a dangerously ignorant young soldier compels Owen—and should compel us—to similar urgency, anger, and compassion.

Either way, the ending keeps ambiguity alive; the crucial word clearly is “whatever.” Owen can’t quite pin down the proper response to mass tragedy—won’t label it precisely as “compassion” or “empathy,” or claim that it can save us, or even bless it along with the Gospels. But he’s quite clear about cursing those who lack it.

This complex and resonant ending is one answer to our earlier question: what makes “Insensibility” a work of art, instead of a plain sermon or lecture? True, Owen unequivocally denounces moral complacency, the refusal to confront or even acknowledge widespread human suffering. In this he echoes John Donne’s insistence that “I am involved in Mankinde” and anticipates Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s appeals to “the great decent majority who through blindness, fear, pride or irrationality have allowed their consciences to sleep.” But like these poet-preachers—Owen himself had considered a career in the church—he delivers a wake-up call far transcending its immediate occasion. “Insensibility” avoids explicit references to the Great War, and broadens in its last lines to encompass all mass tragedies (“… when many leave these shores”) and finally tragedy itself (“The eternal reciprocity of tears”). Again, Owen recruits us to no positive action, leaving us to locate the appropriate response (“Whatever mourns”) in ourselves and for ourselves.

Then too, there is the sensuous artistry of Owen’s language. His sonorous, slant-rhymed lines unscroll with Shakespearean grandeur:

Having seen all things red,
Their eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever.

“The last sea and the hapless stars” rivals the apocalyptic best of Shelley, Keats, Crane, and Plath. Like those four, Owen is one of the tragically snuffed-out talents of English literature. What might he have written if he hadn’t died at age 25, his voice conscripted by historical accident to a narrow thematic cause? On the other hand, the work of poets who died young inevitably gains drama from our knowledge of their doom, and “Insensibility” moves us with an especially eerie combination of anguish and poise in the face of personal danger.

Finally, the poem fulfills Yeats’s maxim about poetry versus rhetoric by embodying a tense inner conflict, rather than speechmaking or grandstanding. For Owen the ironies of the “Happy” refrain must have been deeply self-wounding: as a traumatized soldier he knew that to “cease feeling” is not happiness but hell, and as a writer he knew that to “lose imagination” is to lose everything. The section beginning “We wise” is equally cutting, implicating the speaker in the bloody follies of his era even as he confronts his “task” as resistant witness. Both weary and fiery, autobiographical and impersonally grand, “Insensibility” seems to command its author as well as its reader to keep feeling, keep imagining, and keep fighting the artist’s fight.

This piece first appeared on www.poetryfoundation.org.

Nate Marshall   |   April 6, 2015   10:32 AM ET

poetry

I was born in 1989 at the end of hip-hop’s infancy. By the time I dropped into being, hip-hop had a Grammy and platinum records. Reagan had already wreaked his brand of havoc on the American underclasses and crack was well integrated into our communities. By the time I came of age, much of the cultural context for hip-hop was already in motion — drug war, mass incarceration, neoliberalism, post-Civil Rights respectability politics, urban divestment and subsequent repatriating gentrification, zero tolerance schooling and 
policing. I don’t have a particular moment when I “discovered” hip-hop or saw it take over the world. For folks of my age bracket (born in the late eighties to early nineties) hip-hop was a central part of the zeitgeist; the rapper was just as viable a musical star as the singer. I was a child when hip-hop surpassed country as America’s biggest selling music genre. The centrality of hip-hop to cultural identity isn’t an argument to me so much as it’s the up that is sky.

Hip-hop is an imperfect culture, reflective of an imperfect people. Hip-hop, like the dominant worldwide culture, is cis-male-hetero dominated. This is wack. This is a vital point to start with and one that I will return to later, one that we all must return to in every conversation.

Hip-hop music is an ecosystem. Hip-hop speaks to multiple artistic media and an entire shifting coda of language, dress, attitude, and political thought. Hip-hop music also falls at the intersection between musical form and political/poetic speech because much of the music is especially text heavy. Hip-hop is as much about what is being said as it is about how it sounds. In traditional poetry we express this spectrum as lyric versus narrative. While we recognize some rappers as important because of their sonic genius rather than deep content (Missy Elliot or Biz Markie), we recognize others as vital because of what they had to say despite a limited sonic or rhythmic range (Tupac or Chuck D). Each rapper carries elements of both properties but it is important to point this out for critics who might question the level of artistic value in some of hip-hop’s more textually simplistic figures.

But the central question of my work as an editor and poet remains: What does any of this hip-hop shit have to do with poetry? The 
answer is, quite simply, everything. W.E.B. Du Bois, when he writes his early masterpiece, The Souls of Black Folk, takes up the task of theorizing how black folks got over, how they made it to his early twentieth century present day. His first answer and recurring refrain is music. He positions the sorrow songs as central to the culture of black folks through and rising out of slavery, and he points out the direct tie between Black America’s artistic value and their ability to educate themselves (e.g. The Fisk Jubilee Singers as the foundational fundraising arm of Fisk University).

Du Bois wrote, “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” He posited that after the broken promise of Reconstruction, the quandary of what to do with the new semi-free black class of Americans would be the central question for the country to answer. America answered. America’s answer to Du Bois’s “problem of the color-line” was death. Economic, civil, sexual, psychic, and physical death were the strategies employed in that century through sharecropping and debt peonage, ghettoizing and redlining, lynching and rape, over-sexualizing and asexualizing, mass incarceration and police brutality, poll tax and offender disenfranchisement, suburbanization and gentrification, etc.

However, the conversation between power and the disempowered does not end with America’s answer. Black folks responded artistically and politically by asserting the importance of their lives. This assertion of life is present in every major black artistic movement from the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement to the current movement of BreakBeat poetics. This assertion of life may be best articulated in Lucille Clifton’s masterwork, "won’t you celebrate with me," where she says,

come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

For Clifton, celebration is central as a non-white, non-male person who defies the odds by continuing to draw breath. This declaration of living and the resolve to celebrate that life is in direct opposition to the dominant American agenda.

Hip-hop would pick up this mantle in full almost immediately because of its genesis as a party music of the divested urban underclass. The Notorious B.I.G. insightfully raises this exact point when he borrows the ending of The Last Poets’ important composition “When the Revolution Comes” to serve as the centerpiece of his early solo track “Party and Bullshit.” In this song, Biggie describes the before, during, and after of a hypothetical party scene as a means to contemplate his own mortality and the mortality of his peers. Biggie’s potential violence in this record is not senseless; it’s a strategy to preserve his life and the lives of those he loves. The listener looking to dismiss this song as shallow is not listening.

BreakBeat writers are the offspring of Clifton and Biggie. We are the offspring of Nathaniel Mackey and Missy Elliot. Phillis Wheatley and Lil’ Kim. Pablo Neruda and Rakim. Carl Sandburg and Common. Frank Marshall Davis and Melle Mel. Essex Hemphill and Queen Latifah. The Dark Room Collective and the Wu-Tang Clan. Carl Phillips and MF Doom. James Baldwin and Tupac Shakur. Nikki Giovanni and Kendrick Lamar. Li-Young Lee and MC Lyte. The Native Tongues and the Nuyoricans. We are many.

We write to assert the existence of ourselves, to assert our right to our own lives and bodies. These considerations influence not only the subject matter but also the aesthetic approach to making poems. I understand this influence to manifest itself in a number of ways:

1. We believe in the necessity for poems to live in multiple 
media (page, performance, video, audio, various multi-genre presentational forms).
2. We believe in work rooted in a democratic cipher of ideas rather than privileging high intellectual or artistic pedigree. For us everything is on the table and equally valid until proven wack.
3. We believe in a foundational canon that is multicultural and multiethnic by definition and that celebrates and elevates the art and lives of people of color.
4. We believe in art that speaks to people’s lived personal and political experience.
5. We believe in art that invites, acknowledges, and celebrates the voices of poor people and other disenfranchised people.
6. We believe in art that samples, steals, and borrows to create the most compelling and important work possible.
7. We believe in Ezra Pound’s charge to “make it new” and/or Andre 3000’s revelation that “you only funky as your last cut.”

This list is not perfect, but it is intended to gesture toward the foundational ethics that I’ve observed in my generation of makers born directly into hip-hop. The poems we have worked to compile are not perfect. Hip-hop is an imperfect culture, reflective of an imperfect people. The BreakBeat Poets, from which the poems in this issue are taken, is an anthology edited by three cisgender, hetero men who claim Chicago as their personal artistic capital. I think it is 
important to name. I hope that by doing so we can continue the conversation and encourage others to add to the incomplete cipher we’ve set forth. That is, for me, the ethic of hip-hop. The most primary rule is that the cipher must expand and must stay current. Hip-hop is shark art; when it stops moving it dies. We aim for this portfolio to add to the conversation about hip-hop and literature and life. Most of all, I aim for this writing to be an expansive invitation for all.

This piece first appeared on www.poetryfoundation.org.

What to Read When You Don't Read Poetry

Iain S. Thomas   |   April 2, 2015    1:44 PM ET

Maybe you don't read poetry. That wouldn't make you unique by any stretch of the imagination. But allow me to be bold and suggest that maybe you just haven't found the right poetry yet.

Poetry is a continent with many countries and you could never hope to visit them all. And while I can't prove it, I think there's a kind of poetry for every kind of person on this planet, and a poem for every mood and situation they find themselves in.

Here are some people and places you should consider visiting during National Poetry Month 2015, from the local and familiar to the foreign and exotic.

Start with a classic. Get acquainted with 'Leaves Of Grass,' by Walt Whitman, considered by many to be the father of both free verse and American poetry. He spent his life refining and perfecting this book and you owe it to yourself to read it. It's a universe of perfectly broken language.

Or maybe you'd like something grittier. Seedier. Less noble and more contemporary.

At the darker end of the rainbow to Walt Whitman, there's 'You Get So Alone At Times' by Charles Bukowski. It's filled with alcoholism, sex, gambling and the flotsam and jetsam of the human condition, all of it superbly and almost casually observed. It's like listening to someone describe the end of the world while making a sandwich.

If you're looking for something with a sense of purpose, give Saul Williams' 'Said The Shotgun To The Head' a chance. It's a brilliant and brutally inspiring example of poetry as commentary and protest.

On a similar note, 'The Rose That Grew From Concrete,' by Tupac Shakur contains the early thoughts of one of hip-hops greatest lost talents.

While still in the world of music, how do you feel about Leonard Cohen or Yoko Ono? Leonard Cohen was an award winning poet way before he started writing music. His latest, 'Book of Longing,' from 2006 will give you a rare insight into the man behind the legend and the heart that occupies his chest. And Yoko Ono's book, 'Acorn,' is a kind of magical set of directions, exercises and experiments, with the directions and exercises themselves being poetry.

Or maybe you're looking for something to move you closer to yourself, something philosophical and spiritual. If you are, read the 'Tao Te Ching.' It's speaks to the poetry of a life well lived in short, bite sized bits, like Psalms or Proverbs.

On the other hand, how about video games? If you like video games, listen to the author of 'Ready Player One,' Ernest Cline, in his early slam poetry days. I heartily recommend his spoken word album, 'Ultraman is Airwolf' (available for free on his website) and, regardless of whether you're a nerd or not, the poem 'Dance Monkeys Dance.'

Have you lost someone you loved? 'Crush' by Richard Siken, which was heavily influenced by the death of his lover, is a heartbreakingly beautiful catalogue of sorrow and loss. It plays with light and shade in a way many writers and even painters could only hope to.

Maybe no one died. Maybe you're just being trolled. Listen to the poem 'Troll' by Shane Koyczan. It's an incredibly moving portrait of Internet trolls, who they are and what they mean.

For me, personally, my current favorite poem is 'Lighght' by Aram Saroyan. You've just read the whole thing. It's one word long.

There's a lot out there, some strange and some familiar. But whatever you decide to read, let me give you one rule to keep: If you're not enjoying it, stop reading it.

It's art, not work, and if it's not working for you, it's not your art. Move on to something else. Skip. Jump around. We don't, or at least, shouldn't, read poetry to impress others or to try and prove something to ourselves.

We read poetry because it's exhilarating to recognize ourselves in someone else's words, and it delights some sacred part of us when we see a familiar part of the world in a new and strange light.

So start searching wherever you want but whatever you do, start. Because if you're lucky, somewhere on the continent of poetry, you will find yourself, living and breathing as someone else.

_________

What book would you give to someone who doesn't read poetry? Let us know in the comments.

The Fur

Iain S. Thomas   |   March 23, 2015    9:16 AM ET

2015-03-23-1427095764-9066341-1131446306_ba3845da4f.jpg

Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let the pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.

_____

The picture and words in this poem appear in the book I Wrote This For You. Photography © Jon Ellis.

Sunrise at High Noon

Amy Elias, MS   |   March 2, 2015    5:05 PM ET

Read More: poem, poetry, huffpoetry

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Sunrise at the high noon
Angels sent you to my side
Doubts arising like the full moon
As our hearts silently collide.

The Gods must know the plan --
That higher power thinking of us
As we meet, greet and take command
Of the free, take holds of everlasting lust.

Look way up high, so far above
the stars realign like jupiter and Mars
Showing me the magnetic love
that tugs my orbit like strings on your guitar.

We don't have to speak
We mind meld with eyes flirt
You touch me and my soul gets weak
You hold me and I never feel hurt

We grew up near, yet so far
you lived, you loved and I prayed
That someday, under the brightest star
You'd come, as love, as a total fair trade.

Been years without love,
Been years without you
finally got my chance, love
To fall head over heels, with you

Sunrise at the high noon
Angels sent you to my side
Doubts arising like the full moon
As our hearts silently collide.

To fall head over heels, with you.

Draw

Logan Nakyanzi Pollard   |   February 25, 2015    1:36 PM ET

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Self-portrait, copyright Logan Nakyanzi Pollard


I met a homeless man once
who drew my picture in pencil on a subway
street people I have encountered
strangely have been the most peaceful people
to me
this man who drew me
it was beautiful
and yet weirdly
I got up and walked away
How could that be me?
I was lost then.

So one day I said Self
Draw a picture of yo-self.

[If u ask a child s/he will not say
Oh I can't draw!
They just do.

Or, are.
I'm a fireman!
a butterfly!
and a doctor!]

Remember your own
Beauty
Even if it's a dream
That was lost
Or taken
Find it again.

The world can lie
when silly and fearful and jealous
But --
you are brave
and wise and generous.

We are what we make ourselves
And true vision is seeing the light
And the unseen.

I have scars
the time I tried parcours -- running
scraping swing-set bike surgery
the battle and other things
I wear them like ransom
but now I see beyond this
I see what overcame
why I lived
what I learned
what never, never gives in
I see what is peaceful
I see what the artist saw
finally --
and I know.

B. told me long ago they fade with time
she was so right.
Such a profound statement from my friend, who had no faith
but I know she had it --
once, I've found it like a jewel.
now I can finally see for both of us
for many of us
not always looking outward
But inside.
Look inside.
And draw.


--Originally published at findcreatejoy.com © Logan Nakyanzi Pollard. All rights reserved.

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