Tag: short poems

Poets on Politics: Frank Stanford’s “Politicians”

Today I want to take a quick look at one of Frank Stanford’s shorter poems.  Though Stanford’s language is pared down, the central argument of the poem presents some interesting complexities.  It’s not easy (or useful in some situations) to pin down a specific meaning from this kind of poem, which is one of the points Stanford’s making with the poem, which uses the title, “Politicians,” as an integral part of the poem.  (Imagine this poem with a different title–wouldn’t work quite the same):

POLITICIANS

by Frank Stanford

And so, we call on them again,
those that walk
the pale buildings that hold
an odor the color of bones.
They stroll the corridors
with the skins of seafood
in their pockets, whistling
Dixie, rolling balls of dung
by their sides, carrying
briefcases full of bats

The poem opens conspicuously with the “And so,” which points to a cause-and-effect relationship, but there’s a bit of a problem because we don’t know the cause, just the effect.  The phrasing introduces the question: why must “we call on them again”? Oh, right, because that’s how our political system works.

But who are we calling on exactly? And to what end? Nevermind, as long as you know they walk the bone-white government buildings.  But Stanford introduces, in that opening sentence, a bit of unease with his description of the buildings, which “hold / an odor the color of bones.”  This little bit of synesthesia (mixing the senses, smell/color) seems confusing at first, but the more you think about it, the more sense it starts to make.  Why would those buildings smell like bones? Whose bones made these buildings? Bingo.  But matching the image of a human bone and associating it with both color and smell forces me to link that sun-bleached, mineral smell of bone with the color in a way I hadn’t before–in association with the buildings in the capital.

In the second sentence, Stanford elevates the diction, they “stroll the corridors,” which basically repeats the same sentiment expressed with “walk / the pale buildings.”  Just a more elevated way of saying the same thing.  Remind you of anyone? Hint: look @ the title!

But these people we  must depend on, these politicians we are obliged to call on, what do they do other than walk through big buildings? And what do they do when they walk through those corridors? Stanford claims they carry “skins of seafood / in their pockets,” a pretty disgusting image.  But when you look at it closer, it suggests both something sinister (why would you carry the skins of anything around with you, and in your pocket?), and something exorbitant, excessive (did they just finish eating a bunch of food and decided to slide the skins in their pockets? and WHY?).

The image of whistling Dixie, shows how non-nonchalant, and outdated, these people really are.  But just in case you were unclear about how the poet feels about these people, the “rolling balls of dung,” should make it pretty clear that Stanford thinks politicians aren’t just full of shit but trying to snowball it all around them, using a briefcase of bats (like a vampire magician?) to create an illusion for everyone watching.

Again, the images are suggestive and not exactly ones you can (or maybe even should) pinpoint with certainty, but the tone of the poem expresses Stanford’s sentiment, and in a round-about-way presents a pretty deliberate attack that’s difficult to parry because its attack simultaneously presents and avoids direct meaning.  Let me ask: how would you respond? Or maybe a better question: say you’re a politician who enjoys poetry (I know, kind of a stretch), and you read this…how do you feel? If the answer’s any variation of “bad” (including “angry”), then the reaction proves the poem’s truth.  And there ain’t no hiding that.

 

-Taylor Collier
5/10/2016

P.S. You may be cool, but you’ll never be Frank-Stanford-wrapped-in-a-quilt-sitting-next-to-a-panther-with-the-moon-in-the-distance cool:

 

A Happy Poem: A Few Words on James Wright’s “TODAY I WAS SO HAPPY…”

Look how happy James Wright looks on this horse (with Robert Bly holding the reins):
48. James Wright and Robert Bly

James Wright was one of the first poets I fell in love with, and as an early student of free verse, it was important for me to see and understand the power of his book, The Branch Will Not Break, which ushers in not just a new personal approach to poetry for Wright, but marks a significant shift away from American formal poetry towards a more expressive, organic free verse.

Often I have students who chime in and say that all the poems I show them are incredibly sad, and they ask for a happy poem.  They don’t like it when I try to tell them that sad poems are also happy.  Who cares about art that makes a negative experience transcend into beauty? Give us something happy! And so I usually bust this James Wright poem out whenever I get that complaint:

TODAY I WAS SO HAPPY, SO I MADE THIS POEM

by James Wright

As the plump squirrel scampers
Across the roof of the corncrib,
The moon suddenly stands up in the darkness,
And I see that it is impossible to die.
Each moment of time is a mountain.
An eagle rejoices in the oak trees of heaven,
Crying
This is what I wanted.

The title for the poem helps establish the mood because it gives us the occasion or the reason behind the poem’s–our speaker, our poet, is so happy he feels compelled to write this poem.  With so many poems stemming from a place of isolation and despair, so many poems that are elegies, or that highlight the depraved and grimy living conditions of American life, it’s rare to see a poem that so openly declares itself optimistic.  And so it’s a great example of a “happy” poem to show off.

More than that, it’s a tiny little poem that operates according to pretty basic free verse conventions.  We have a setting established in the opening lines, and we can from the speaker’s POV that we are somewhere in the country, observing nature.  The juxtaposition of the squirrel and the moon widens the scope of the speaker’s vision.  He moves from the small little scurrying animal to the cosmic, and though moons usually plague a lot of poetry, here the moon’s nuance, and seems to arrive with an epiphany: it is impossible to die.

Wait? How is it impossible to die? We all die.  We all know that we die, so what is Wright trying to say?  The way I read this epiphany is: because each moment of time is damn near infinite (is a mountain), time’s slack, it’s depth and dimension allow us to soak in each moment to such degree that death disappears from consciousness, gets jettisoned from the frontal lobe.

The poem ends with our speaker personifying the desires of the eagle, suggesting that the eagle is rejoicing, but also Wright seems to be dumping the speaker’s realizations and feelings onto the bird.  “This is what I wanted,” seems to be the speaker’s sentiment about the moment in nature, about the epiphany.  Wright’s able to do a lot of psychological work quickly, and without too much overly calculated steering.  I feel like I arrive at the epiphany in much the same way he did because of the telescoping, the camera angles.  It’s a beautiful and highly charged poem.  And if you can get beyond the central focus on death, you can see that it’s pretty damn happy.  Which is a feat in itself.

Taylor Collier
4/12/2016

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