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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Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting”

Lately, I have been listening to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, a full-orchestra and multi-chorus work written to commemorate the reopening of the Coventry Cathedral which was built in the late 14th and early 15th century and obliterated during German air-raid bombing during World War II. Britten, a pacifist, put everything he had into the work, and Britten’s 1963 version of it with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir stands out as one of the masterpieces of Western music in the 20th century. You should listen to it. Britten’s genius was to weave together nine of Wilfred Owen’s World War I poems with the liturgical mass texts found in the traditional Requiem Masses of Mozart, Verdi, Bruckner, etc. The juxtaposition is striking: one lone voice vs. the choir rising and falling in waves. Owen, whose poems describing the horrors of trench warfare and the widespread use of chlorine and mustard gas, died on the battlefield in 1918. Most of his poems were discovered only after his death.

Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world…

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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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William Stafford’s “A Message from the Wanderer”

William Stafford was born in Hutchinson, Kansas in 1914. While pursuing his Master’s Degree at the University of Kansas, Stafford was drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces. Being a registered pacifist, Stafford served in the Civilian Public Service Corps from 1942-1946 where he worked in forestry and soil conversation. After completing his degree, he moved to Oregon, where he was a long-standing teacher at Lewis and Clark College. Known for his plain-spoken style–and his views against war and violence–Stafford’s poems (of which there are many–he wrote a whopping 22,000 in his lifetime) continue to have a profound influence on young writers. In 1963, his poetry collection, Traveling Through the Dark, won the National Book Award for Poetry.

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Jack Gilbert’s “A Description of Happiness in Kobenhavn”


Jack Gilbert is an American poet born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. Gilbert worked as a door-to-door salesman, an exterminator, and a steelworker before attending college at San Francisco State University where he met Allen Ginsberg and participated in Jack Spicer’s Poetry As Magic workshop. Gilbert’s first collection of poems, Views of Jeopardy, won the prestigious Yale Open Poetry Competition and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1962, catapulting him into early fame, something unusual for any American poet, of any time. Gilbert, however, avoided the limelight and moved to Europe shortly afterwards. He would not publish a second book of poetry for another twenty years. He spent most of that time living in England, Denmark, and Greece. Gilbert won the National Book Award for his fourth book of poems, Refusing Heaven. His last book, The Dance Most of All, was published in 2010. Gilbert died on November 13, 2012, at the age of 87.

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Logya Pema’s “Life Experience”

Ganzi-d04I know very little about the poet Logya Pema, except that he wrote this poem while in Garzê, an autonomous Tibetan prefecture occupying the western arm of Sichuan province in the People’s Republic of China. Logya Pema’s poem was written as part of an online poetry competition that took place on March 22, 2012 by the Three Provinces of Tibet poetry group. The title “Life Experience” was given to the poets, and they started to write at 22:30, finishing in one hour at 23:30.

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Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel”

Protest Against U.S. Involvement in the Salvadoran Civil War, Chicago, 1989
Protest Against U.S. Involvement in the Salvadoran Civil War, Chicago, 1989

Carolyn Forché was born in Detroit, Michigan and is the author of five collections of poetry, including her first book, Gathering the Tribes, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition in 1976. Her second book, The Country Between Us, was also the Lamont Poetry Selection by the Academy of American Poets. In 1993, Forché went on to publish the highly influential anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. Her work has always been marked by a strong interest in politics and human rights issues throughout the world and is particularly focused on how our actions in the world affect our language.

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Ahmed Fouad Negm’s “Who Are They And Who Are We?”

Slum in Old Cairo, Egypt. Between the buildings are streets with piles of solid waste.
Slum in Old Cairo, Egypt. Between the buildings are streets with piles of solid waste.

Ahmed Fouad Negm was a revolutionary Arab poet who wrote many vernacular protest poems, a great deal of which were aimed at Egypt’s presidents Gabdal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak. Living in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Cairo, Negm befriended many impoverished artists and musicians, including blind musician Sheikh Imam Issa, which led to a 30-year collaboration where Imam composed music to Negm’s written verse and the two of them sang together. In 2007, Negm was chosen by the United Nations Poverty Action as Ambassador of the poor, and Negm is widely considered a folk hero in modern Egypt. Negm died on December 3, 2013.

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Natalya Gorbanevskaya’s “This, From The Diagnosis”

Moscow's Red Square
Moscow’s Red Square

Born in Moscow in 1936, Natalya Gorbanevskaya was a Russian poet famous for her political dissidence. She received international fame and attention after she and seven others protested peacefully in Moscow’s Red Square after the forceful Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and the reformist Prague Spring in 1968. Gorbanevskaya was not immediately arrested, as she had just given birth, but went on to publish reports of the ensuing trial in the Chronicle of Current Events, a periodical she created and continued to write into the 1980’s. Arrested in 1969 for her dissidence, she was confined to a Soviet psychiatric prison until 1972. Gorbanevskaya, with her two sons in tow, emigrated to Paris in 1975, where French psychiatrists reversed her fabricated diagnosis of “continuous, sluggish schizophrenia.” Gorbanevskaya wrote and translated poetry until her death on November 29, 2013.

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Theodore Roethke’s “The Geranium”

Bloedel Reserve Zen Garden on Bainbridge Island where Theodore Roethke drowned in 1963
Bloedel Reserve Zen Garden on Bainbridge Island where Theodore Roethke drowned in 1963

Theodore Roethke was born in 1908 in Saginaw, Michigan, to German immigrant parents. Roethke’s father, Otto, owned and operated 25 acres of commercial greenhouses, and many of Roethke’s poems, early and late, view nature and the world, shaped by that early lens, as both wondrous and cruel. Roethke received the Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Award, and the Bollingen Prize for his poems during his lifetime, though he started writing poetry at a late age. He taught at the University of Washington in Seattle until his sudden death while swimming in 1963. His collection, The Far Field, published posthumously in 1965, received a second National Book Award.

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Nelly Sachs’ “How many drowned ages”

Nelly Sachs Park in Berlin-Schöneberg
Nelly Sachs Park in Berlin-Schöneberg

Nelly Sachs was a Jewish German poet and playwright who wrote some of the most powerful holocaust poetry of the twentieth century. Born in 1891, Sachs escaped from Nazi Germany with her mother in 1940, a week before she was scheduled to report to a concentration camp. Terrified by her experience — Sachs suffered from paranoia and delusions from her memories of leaving Germany — Sachs took up writing in her 50’s and published some remarkable poetry characterized by traditional Romantic imagery that morphed into an unsettling, surrealist poetry in her later years. Sachs was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1966.

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Nazim Hikmet’s “Letters From A Man In Solitary”

Prison ruin in Turkey
Prison ruin in Turkey

Nazim Hikmet was a Turkish poet, novelist, and playwright whose poems are considered to be some of the most powerful statements of the twentieth century. After serving several shorter prison terms, Hikmet was finally sentenced, in 1938, to twenty-eight years in Bursa Prison for his “Communist writings,” a verdict handed down not through the regular Turkish civil courts (who didn’t have the grounds to convict him) but through secret proceedings in the National Security Courts (a strange parallel to our current military courts for enemy combatants). In 1950, Hikmet was released early due to worldwide pressure and the announcement he would receive an International Peace Prize (along with painter Pablo Picasso and Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda). Hikmet fled into exile after 12 years “inside” and settled in Moscow, where he died in 1963.

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Rita Dove’s “Yellow House on the Corner”

Rita Dove
Rita Dove

Rita Dove is an award-winning poet and author and the second African-American poet to receive a Pulitzer Prize, which she received in 1987 for her poetry collection Thomas and Beulah. Dove grew up in Ohio, taught for almost a decade at Arizona State University, and eventually settled in Virginia, where she teaches at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. Among many awards and honorary doctoral degrees bestowed on her, Dove also served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993-1995, one of our country’s most prestigious honors for American poets.

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Brian Turner’s “Sadiq”

Brian Turner served in the U.S. Army in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq before receiving his MFA from the University of Oregon. Winner of the Beatrice Hawley Award for 2005, Here, Bullet is a remarkable twenty-first century collection of poems written during wartime. What makes Turner’s poetry so unusual and striking is his attention to language, his knowledge of Iraq’s history and its themes (which his poems become a part of), and his ability to let his poems just hang off the edge of their own cliffs.

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Yehuda Amichai’s “Autobiography, 1952”


Yehuda Amichai is considered Israel’s greatest modern poet. Born in 1924, in Germany, Amichai attended high school and college in Jerusalem. Amichai wrote his novels and poems in Hebrew, many of which have been translated into English and other languages. During his life, Amichai served in many wars of the twentieth century, including World War II (for the British army), the Israeli War of Independence (also known as al-Nakba in Arabic, “The Catastrophe”), the Sinai War (1956), and the Yom Kippur War (1973). Amichai’s poems are often personal, often describing daily encounters in a war-ravaged country, and many of his best poems can be arresting in their frank, matter-of-fact tone and Amichai’s unusual language, turn, and imagery.

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Adrienne Rich’s “For The Record”

Adrienne_Rich,_Trumansburg,_New_York,_October_2001Award-winning poet Adrienne Rich passed away in 2012, but left behind a remarkable collection of poetry (25 books) and essays (7 books). Often political, almost always personal, Rich’s poems pose deep questions about femininity, power, and language. In 1997, Rich was awarded a National Medal of Arts and declined in protest of Newt Gingrich and the House of Representatives vote to end the National Endowment of the Arts (it failed, thankfully) and the Clinton Administration’s anti-art and literature policies at the time (the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was also on the block). Rich stated, “[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.”

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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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