Jane Hirshfield’s “Those Who Cannot Act”

Bystanders watch the First Lady’s motorcade in Kyoto. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

This poem is by one of my favorite poets, Jane Hirshfield. It was republished in a recent 2017 anthology of poetry about gun violence entitled Bullets Into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence. I discovered it while my junior students were writing argumentative essays about gun violence in the United States and thinking about whether or not we should support stricter federal gun control legislation. The poems raise important questions and bear witness to the victims and survivors of gun violence in a myriad of ways.

The best poems in the anthology, like this one, don’t really pick a side in the gun control/gun rights battle, but instead show us something we might have missed—a detail, a life not our own, or even an entirely new way of looking at what we see and hear about everyday—that helps us see the more complex picture. I love the second stanza of this poem, with its “banished” sister and nameless dog who both suffer despite their inability to change their situation. Vanishing, too, according to Hirshfield, is a form of suffering.

Even the bystanders vanish…

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Paula Meehan’s “The Solace of Artemis”

Irish poet and playwright Paula Meehan’s poem “The Solace of Artemis” was first published in the Notre Dame Review in the fall of 2012. Technically, it’s a poem of the twenty-first century, but the issues surrounding this poem have been in the making for quite some time. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons — and troubles — that accompanies new climate change research is, in fact, the slow accumulation of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere that haven’t even begun to register in our current climate. It’s the stockpile of oil and gas that we have yet to burn. This poem, then, is years in the making, and it’s a sad poem to boot. It’s all solace, as the title points out.

I see him loping towards me across the vast ice field to where I wait in the cave mouth…

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Kim Stafford’s “Dear America”

Kim Stafford, son of the late American poet William Stafford, published this striking poem at the end of 2016 during troubled political times in America. Like many poems and speeches of protest, it takes advantage of a number of poetic and rhythmic devices to deliver a powerful response to those men and women who are quickly reshaping this country, for better or worse. Like many poets of witness, Stafford, too, finds a voice that pivots firmly in space, as he seeks to find solid footing in the new spinning and unstable world around us, as if we were all caught in the midst of an earthquake without fully realizing it.

If you were a century, I would be one breath,
striving to speak my honest syllable…

In addition to being a poet and teacher, Kim Stafford is a published and award-winning essayist, editor, and musician. He founded and directs the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Like his father, his poetry and writings deal largely with nature, place, preservation, and the West.

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Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones”

I love this poem. I first read it after the poem itself had gone viral in the wake of the tragic Orlando shooting at a gay nightclub on June 12, 2016. The shooter, Omar Mateen, killed 49 people and wounded 53 others before a 3-hour standoff with Orlando police that ended with Mateen being shot and killed. At first, the poem seems simple enough, and even slightly repetitive, but it grows on you. We start to understand the speaker is having some difficulty speaking, almost needing to keep re-forming the words in order to “sell” her children on the false idea of a world that is not “fifty percent terrible.” We begin to see the difficulty of telling our children the horrible truth that our world holds. We are left with “good bones,” though it’s fairly clear by the poem’s end that this is a fantasy. Aren’t we all guilty, to some degree, of selling ourselves a world that isn’t really there?

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Lorine Niedecker’s “The Radio Talk This Morning [The Obliteration]”

Born in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, in 1903, poet Lorine Niedecker wrote in relative seclusion and anonymity for most of her life. Most of her neighbors and friends, in fact, did not even know she wrote poetry. Her poems are characterized by their sparse, almost Japanese-influenced character. She described her own work as “condensory,” a word she made up. Generally overlooked during her life, her poems are now widely considered to be an important and unique contribution to the canon of twentieth-century American poetry. I’ve included her work here because four volumes of her work has been published since her death and, in many ways, a large portion of her readership has grown in the twenty-first century.

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Sam Witt’s “Occupation Dreamland”

Published in 2012, Sam Witt’s poem “Toxic Assets” is officially a poem of the twenty-first century (the term “toxic assets” itself came into public use very recently, during the 2007 financial crisis). I am including Witt’s poem here because, one, he is a friend of mine and, two, I think it is a fine example of a multidimensional poem that is part protest, part confession, part appeal to the reader.

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W.S. Merwin’s “Chords”

W.S. Merwin Way in Union City, N.J., where the poet grew up
W.S. Merwin Way in Union City, N.J., where the poet grew up

The poem, “Chords”, is a powerful protest poem from W.S. Merwin’s poetry collection Rain in the Trees (1988). Merwin has often been an outspoken critic of modern “progress”, writing poems throughout his lifetime about the direct link of capitalism to the destruction of the environment and the widespread abuse of human rights violations. In the 1950’s, he protested nuclear testing; in the 1970’s, the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War; and, in his later years, he has been a vocal defender of the planet and the restoration of devastated plantation land in his home state of Hawaii.

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