Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Daily Poem Project, final vote(s)

The final vote for the Daily Poem Project took place this morning, Tuesday, July 4. The twelve finalists had been narrowed down a little bit for purposes of discussion: all the students and I had written shortlists of two to six or seven poems (with each student making his or her own choices about how to pick which poems were on his or her shortlist). My tally of the shortlists led to an initial list of four poems for discussion: A. E. Stallings, "Fragment," Abraham Sutzkever, from Epitaphs, John Balaban, "If Only," and Bill Zavatsky, "Monologue" (with Stallings having been named on 16 shortlists of the 22 submitted to me, including my own).

Before discussing the poems, though, I asked two questions: first, how many of the students had already made up their minds about what to vote for? If only one or two had not decided yet (along with me), then I would have had the vote then and there, and the discussion would have occurred after the vote. However, as seven or eight people were still undecided, I put off the vote until after the discussions. (Still, it is worth noting that that means the clear majority had already decided before the discussion.)

I then asked if there were any poems that any student wanted to ask to have added to the discussion. This led to two further poems being added to the list for discussion: Terrance Hayes, "Woofer (When I Consider the African-American)" and C. K. Williams, "Thighs."

This left us with about ten minutes to discuss each poem, which is, of course, not much, but it was also enough to sketch out what the issues raised by each poem were. The selection from Sutzkever's Epitaphs, for example, raised the issue of how we would read the poem if we did not know it was about the Holocaust. The poem does contain some information that points toward the Holocaust for contemporary readers (a young woman is being taken against her will from Paris to Poland by train, and she throws her most precious possession, a pearl necklace on a red silk thread, out the "grate" of the train—not the window). But many readers, even today (and definitely in the future), might well read the poem without its historical context; we agreed, though, that they would still have a sense of the poem's power. That power might be more mysterious then, even eerie, but it would remain.

The issue of information is raised by C. K. Williams's "Thighs." The poem contains a great deal more information and contextualiztion than Sutzkever's does, and to someone aware of the what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is nothing mysterious about the poem. (Its strengths lie elsewhere.) However, it struck us that quite a bit of what we can infer from the poem depends, as with Sutzkever's, on our knowledge of things that the poem does not mention explicitly (for example, it never mentions the United States!). In rereading the poem before class, I had also noticed that its depiction of the powerlessness of the newspaper reader when confronted by information that he cannot do anything about is repeated not only for the speaker of the poem but also for its reader: we read the poem and remain as powerless and frustrated as the speaker does. In this light, the poem also ends up highlighting how the sheer quantity of information in newspapers does not empower the newspaper reader; on the contrary, "Thighs" suggests, all the reader can do is make his ironic comparisons (perhaps by writing a poem about them).

The discussions of both Balaban's "If Only" and Zavatsky's "Monologue" focused on how the poems' conclusions change the rest of the poem. Balaban's final line ("This is how it should have been"), some suggested, provides a twist that strengthens a poem that otherwise takes the risk of being too "sentimental" (as one student put it, one who did not think the twist was effective). For me, the most interesting point was about typography: the italicization of the line, it was argued, made the conclusion too heavy-handed, precluding a neutral, even resigned reading of the line.

Zavatsky's poem also ends with a striking image, when the speaker of the monologue compares the old friend he has been breaking off with to a "pesky insect that flies around, / buzzing in one's ear its tiny / message about mortality." My sense of this startling image was that it overwhelmed the rest of the poem with its vividness. This led one student (who had had the poem on his shortlist) to agree with me in these terms: the change in tone in the final lines does not work (whether you prefer the tone of what comes before, as he did, or the concluding image, as I do).

Before the final vote, I asked whether anybody had changed their minds because of the discussion. Nobody had! :-)

The results were quite clear:

1. A. E. Stallings, "Fragment": 10 votes
2. Abraham Sutzkever, from Epitaphs: 4 votes
3. Ingeborg Bachmann, "I Step Outside Myself": 3 votes
3. Rachel Hadas, "The Nosebleed": 3 votes
3. Dick Allen, "On Tenterhooks": 3 votes
6. Terrance Hayes, "Woofer (When I Consider the African-American)": 2 votes
7. John Balaban, "If Only": 1 vote
7. Bill Zavatsky, "Monologue": 1 vote

I had also polled "outside" voters, just to spice things up a bit. I received (only) 10 votes (after emailing over 100 people, but it was at short notice, so I understand why many people might not have wanted to participate). Here, the results were much more spread out: A. E. Stallings, "Fragment," and William Wenthe, "Groucho and Tom," each received 2 votes, while six poems received one vote each:

Hayden Carruth, "Springtime, 1998"
Abraham Sutzkever, from Epitaphs
Ingeborg Bachmann, "I Step Outside Myself"
Rachel Hadas, "The Nosebleed"
Dick Allen, "On Tenterhooks"
John Balaban, "If Only"

After we determined the final winner, I wondered whether the class all felt comfortable with the result (as was the case with last year's winner, "The Shout," by Simon Armitage). That group was smaller, so it was not hard to achieve consensus acceptance of the winner; in this, larger group, several students mentioned that they had not liked the poem at all. One of them made an interesting characterization of the group: most of them were students of philosophy. One could ponder why that might be so, but it is true that the poem begins with a reference to philosophy: "The glass does not break because it is glass, / Said the philosopher."

If you have read this far, thanks. Feel free to comment!

Finalist list
Week 12
Week 11
Weeks 9 and 10
Weeks 7 and 8
Week 6
Week 5
Week 4
Week 3
Week 2
Week 1 (with explanation of project)


Suz said...

Yeah, Fragment!!!! Amazing poem!

Anonymous said...

Among the weekly winners, I was struggling between Hayes's "Woofer" and Wenthe's "Groucho and Tom." Unfortunately, I had to decide and ended up voting for Hayes, which doesn't diminish "Groucho and Tom." The decision was probably not so easy this time because there was no "Shout," nothing that clearly stood out.
But contacting the winner shouldn't be as hard as last year...

Altogether, the weekly winners weren't very strong, though. Some really great poems just didn't make it to the final vote. Two that I can think of right now are Major Jackson's "Hoops" and the translated Yves Bonnefoy, "Let This World Endure." This was probably the best out of all 84 poems.

Anyhoo, it was a great experience and a lot of fun again. You should continue this "project" beyond the realm of a seminar. Maybe come up with a weekly, then a monthly winner, and finally one for the year. Later you can have a vote on the poem of the decade and then of the century!!! ;-) The winner of the DPP Award.