Five or six months ago a UW committee dreamed up the idea of an anthology of poems for their annual Common Book for incoming freshman—and they started with this poem: Philip Levine's What Work is.
"You know what work is—if you're old
enough to read this, you know what
work is, although you may not do it."
It's the perfect 'gateway poem' for non-poetry-readers, not to mention the anxious future job-seekers of America, which today's college students have become. The unriddling process of reading the poem allows us to experience the extra punch of the last line (I won't tell you, but, yes, it has to do with work).
This isn't the only way to write a good poem, as the other selections do their utmost to show. There's the dreamy romance and brutality of Mahmoud Darwish's Rita & the Gun, which begins and ends with:
"Between Rita & my eyes is a gun."In this poem you can't exit with some life-changing insight--you're trapped in a fluid, circular universe saturated with an almost unworldly emotion. Darwish is a favorite of mine, a Palestinian who bore witness to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until his death in 2008. He vacillates between rabble-rousing political poems in his earlier years to the wistful soul-searching of the last decade.
Lynn Emanuel's The Politics of Narrative : Why I am a Poet is another provocative alternative, wavering between prose poem and manifesto.
"And I write for people, like myself, who are just tired of the trickle-down theory where somebody spends pages and pages on some fat book where everything including the draperies, which happened to be burnt orange, are described, and further, are some metaphor for something. And this whole boggy waste trickles down to the reader in the form of a little burp of feeling. God, I hate prose. I think the average reader likes ideas."Whoa. What I like about this grotesque, funny diatribe is it reminds us to ask what we actually want out of a story, movie, poem, book: the conventional sameness with beginning, middle, and end or a visceral, instantaneous thrill or the pure, bald ideas themselves? It also manages to put some pressure on those who dismiss poetry over and over again before they read it, while giving a nod to those who do. Emanuel describes poetry readers this way:
"They pull their own weight." In fact the whole collection is a solid defense of the genre. The perfect summation comes from UW Professor/Poet Richard Kenney, quoted in the introduction:
"People like poetry like people like music: nobody doesn't. If some think they don't, they just haven't listened to the right thing."Touche. Yes, I'm happy all the freshman will be reading this, and their families and some other curious folk. It's not just about poetry, but about refusing to be cowed by what is challenging, unusual and smart.