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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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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Charles Bernstein’s “On Election Day”

In 2012, filmmaker Gabe Rubin (see his short film, Boyland, another film centered around a poem) made a short video of Charles Bernstein’s poem, “On Election Day,” being read by the author around parts of, presumably, his hometown of Philadelphia (someone correct me if I’m wrong here). The mixed-media piece, which includes at times the author’s voice in a choral reading, is a dramatic example of how poetry can be combined with other genres to reach a wider audience. Perhaps we should see more of this kind of thing in the future.

The air is putrid, red, interpolating, quixotic, torpid, vulnerable, on
election day…

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Yusef Komunyakaa’s “We Never Know”

Yusef Komunyakaa published his sixth book of poetry, Dien Cai Dau, in 1988. In Vietnamese, the title literally translates to “crazy in the head,” a term that the Vietnamese used to refer to U.S. soldiers fighting in their war-torn country. The poems in Dien Cai Dau, more than any other of Komunyakaa’s books, witness the events he saw and wrote about as an army correspondent during the Vietnam War. Often cited among the best books of poetry written about the Vietnam War — or any war, for that matter — the poems also explore the unique experiences of African American soldiers on the front lines. In 1968 — the same year that Martin Luther King, Jr, was assassinated — African Americans made up roughly 12% of the total Army and Marine soldiers fighting in Vietnam; however, they represented around 50% of the total front-line combat force and suffered significantly higher casualty rates than other soldiers. Komunyakaa’s poems are important in many ways, but especially for bringing attention to the military sacrifices of African Americans in the turbulent 1960s and ’70s.

There’s no other way
to say this: I fell in love…

Komunyakaa would go on to publish many more books of poetry, publish a book of essays and a translation of Vietnamese poetry, and co-edit two important anthologies of Jazz Poetry. Some of his other books focus on the Civil Rights era, his childhood growing up in the segregated South, and his African heritage. His book Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems won both the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1994. In 2001, Komunyakaa won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, widely considered the most prestigious award that can be won by an American poet while living. Komunyakaa currently teaches at New York University.

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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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Haki Madhubuti’s “For the Consideration of Poets”


African-American poet and author Haki Madhubuti published Run Toward Fear in 2004, where this short poem first appeared. As its title suggests, the poem seems written to challenge poets and writers and shame much poetry and writing being published today in magazines, newspapers, and literary journals. In simple language–the poem is just two short questions–the speaker asks each of us to consider something else in our writing: “a poetry of resistance,” as it is put it in the poem’s opening line. Where is it? Great writers question the validity of what they are writing about and, especially, how they are writing frequently, and Madhubuti reminds us (with a not so gentle slap in the face) that even writers (should) have a responsibility to defy and resist whatever they don’t ethically agree with. Probably an even more important lesson to ponder today.

…where is the poetry of doubt and suspicion…

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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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Anne Sexton’s “Snow”


Anne Sexton was one of the first poets I read extensively. Her poetic language, compared to most of what I had encountered before, was raw and crackling with electricity. I appreciated then (and still do) her brevity and barrenness, her roughness and lack of skin. Everything in her poems is written in vivid color and stark form. At the time, I wasn’t aware of her lifelong struggles with depression and mental illness. I had no idea what confessional poetry was (I still dislike the term). Sexton’s poems are so much more than personal and to label them “confessional” only seems to limit your understanding of a true poetic genius. Her poems are brave and wild songs she cast purposely, even recklessly, into the gaping void. Among other honors, she received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1967.

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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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Dunya Mikhail’s “The War Works Hard”

Fallujah, Iraq. Steelworker 3rd Class Robert Sprague ties together rebar before a concrete placement on a bridge project.
Fallujah, Iraq. Steelworker 3rd Class Robert Sprague ties together rebar before a concrete placement on a bridge project.

Dunya Mikhail was born in Iraq and has published six collections of poetry in her native Arabic. Her book, The War Works Hard, from which the title poem included below is taken, was translated into English by Elizabeth Winslow and published in 2005 by New Directions Press. Mikhail’s poetry is strongly critical of war in her native Iraq and scrutinizes the effects of the U.S.-Iraq wars on the Iraqi people, the land, and its culture. Markedly different than other masculine Iraqi poets of her generation, Mikhail’s tone indirectly points fingers at the forces of greed, corruption, and martyrdom that characterize both the U.S. and Iraqi governments. Mikhail currently works as an Arabic instructor at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

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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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Barbara Guest’s “Illyria”

Barbara Guest
Barbara Guest

Barbara Guest was an American poet (1920-2006) and early member of the influential New York School of poets and painters. Lyrical, imaginative, and often playful, Guest’s poems are deeply concerned with language construction and form. In 1999, she was awarded the Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement by the Poetry Society of America. Her book, Moscow Mansions (1973), from which “Illyria” was taken, was a landmark collection of poems that borrowed elements of Surrealism, abstract expressionism, experimental music, and jazz.

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Anna Świrszczyńska’s “Building the Barricade” (excerpt)

Anna Świrszczyńska was born in 1909 in Warsaw, Poland, and spent part of her adulthood in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. During the Warsaw Uprising, Świrszczyńska served as a military nurse, witnessing some of the worst nightmares of the second World War. Her war poetry is brutal, lucid, full of simple descriptions of the events that occurred during the complete leveling of Warsaw in 1944.

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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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Mahmoud Darwish’s “I Come From There”

Mahmoud Darwish was an award-winning Palestinian poet and prolific author who died in 2008. A member of the Palestine Liberation Organization from 1973 until the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, Darwish was also a strong political voice in the Palestine movement and a member of the PLO Executive Committee. When he was a child, Darwish’s village was destroyed by the Israeli army and his family was forced to relocate to nearby Lebanon. Like Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, a poet he admired and was challenged by, Darwish also wrote moving poems that professed his love for the land of his people.

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