Suggestion — April 11, 2013, 5:15 pm

Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America

Imagining a renewed role for poetry in the national discourse — and a new canon

( 5 of 10 )

POETRY REHABILITATES LANGUAGE

Muriel Rukeyser’s “Ballad of Orange and Grape” can teach us something about the fundamental import of language. Charming and didactic, the poem asks what it means when language is allowed to be unreliable. What, it wonders, happens to culture then?

After you finish your work
after you do your day
after you’ve read your reading
after you’ve written your say —
you go down the street to the hot dog stand,
one block down and across the way.
On a blistering afternoon in East Harlem in the twentieth century.

. . .

Frankfurters, frankfurters sizzle on the steel
where the hot-dog-man leans —
nothing else on the counter
but the usual two machines,
the grape one, empty, and the orange one, empty,
I face him in between.
A black boy comes along, looks at the hot dogs, goes on walking.

I watch the man as he stands and pours
in the familiar shape
bright purple in the one marked ORANGE
orange in the one marked GRAPE,
the grape drink in the machine marked ORANGE
and orange drink in the GRAPE.
Just the one word large and clear, unmistakable, on each machine.

I ask him: How can we go on reading
and make sense out of what we read? —
How can they write and believe what they’re writing,
the young ones across the street,
while you go on pouring grape into ORANGE
and orange into the one marked GRAPE — ?
. . .

He looks at the two machines and he smiles
and he shrugs and smiles and pours again.
It could be violence and nonviolence
it could be white and black  women and men
it could be war and peace or any
binary system, love and hate, enemy, friend.
Yes and no, be and not-be, what we do and what we don’t do.

On a corner in East Harlem
garbage, reading, a deep smile, rape,
forgetfulness, a hot street of murder,
misery, withered hope,
a man keeps pouring grape into ORANGE
and orange into the one marked GRAPE,
pouring orange into GRAPE and grape into ORANGE forever.

Rukeyser’s overt educational intention here may evoke a reflex uneasiness among some poetry lovers. When a work of art aims directly at “the public welfare,” the first objection concerns the proper motive of art. What is it art for? Beauty or truth? Entertainment or character building? Is Painting X worth looking at because of its subtle color, its ugliness, its idealism, its truth-telling, or because of its conversation with the history of aesthetics? Is the essence of art the unique expression of individuality, or of a cultural condition? When art is evaluated or loved for its “utility,” its ethical benefits, artists and intellectuals object that it has been demeaned, commodified, and oversimplified. The civic bureaucracy, meanwhile, argues that art is just not verifiable enough in its beneficence. But if we said that elementary-school playgrounds, with their monkey bars and swing sets, were intended to build hand–eye coordination and balance, would that make playgrounds oppressive, or less fun?

Rukeyser’s poem delivers its crucial idea in brief and forceful form, and although poems need no motive of instruction to justify themselves, hers accomplishes its mission memorably. The American who has read it will never take as given the duplicitous, inaccurate language that surrounds us commercially and politically in the way that Rukeyser’s speaker does. She urges us instead to see the corruption of language as it should be seen: as an ethical betrayal, as nothing less than an existential insult, one with snowballing consequences. Orange for grape, grape for orange — such a commonplace misrepresentation may seem trivial alongside fibs about weapons of mass destruction, yet it can lead into the valleys and mountains of bad faith. “The Ballad of Orange and Grape” provides anyone who has encountered it with a correlative, a reference point by which to recognize how certain worldly forces (in this case, indifference) anesthetize our language and thereby steal our reality.

Obviously, poems in a curriculum may usefully complicate and contradict one another. “The Ballad of Orange and Grape” addresses the ethics of language and the need for trustworthy speech. Against Rukeyser’s urgent formulation of that truth, one might, in our imaginary curriculum, counterpose Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” which asserts the superiority of silence and nature to scholarly language and ideas. In Whitman’s poem, two kinds of learning are opposed to each other, and the speaker advocates playing hooky:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” represents a streak of anti-intellectualism that is a familiar part of the American tradition of self-sufficiency and independence. The natural man, claims the poem, has little need for arid recitations of classroom knowledge. Rather, as Emerson suggested, it is the true work of each American to go outside and forge her own original relationship with the universe. Whitman’s lyric embodies that American narrative.

Is it so hard to believe that only twenty poems, commonly possessed and mutually valued, could make a difference in American culture? Our skepticism is founded in our ingrained impression of poetry as anemic, difficult, and obscure. We believe that, like other kinds of “high” art, poems must be force-fed to people; that poems are prissy, refined, cerebral, rhymed; that they are a kind of test devised to separate the bumpkins from the aesthetes. At bottom, such a prejudice, pervasive as it is, imagines that culture is a side dish on the meal of economic realism, an innocuous auxiliary to our lives.

To underestimate the appeal of art is to underestimate not only poetry but also human nature. Our hunger for myth, story, and design is very deep. I hold these poems’ truths to be self-evident. If we are not in love with poems, the problem may be that we are not teaching the right poems. Yet ignorance of and wariness about art gets passed on virally, from teacher to student. After a few generations of such exile, poetry will come to be viewed as a stuffy neighborhood of large houses with locked doors, where no one wants to spend any time.

’s books include What Narcissism Means to Me (Graywolf). He teaches at the University of Houston, and through the organization The Five Powers of Poetry.

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  • Wes

    It seems that we still have yet to break ourselves from Plato’s message in the Republic that poetry only serves to arouse the passions of the polis

    • http://dadpoet.wordpress.com/ David J. Bauman

      Excellent suggestion, Wes!

  • thoughtsarefree

    Thank you for writing this article. This is relevant for non-American readers, as well. I feel that the teacher’s failure to guide students into seeing the beauty of poetic language has made studying poetry into an awful bore. I’d include Carolyn Forche’s The Colonel in the list — it’s a powerful poem that resonates with each reading.

    • http://twitter.com/confettifoot confettifoot

      Amazing that you’d say that – I’d just been sitting here thinking the same thing.

  • Zach Mathews

    I agree with the sentiment, but I’m and English teacher in Vancouver and I’m not teaching the old canon described. I teach poems that interest me, that are recent, and that I think my students will like. It’s not much more complicated than that. Also, at least around here, this approach isn’t unique.

    For instance, I typically teach “Heartbeat” by Jose Gonzalez and the students dig it. Then I put on the “The Knife” version and the kids say “wow! Wwwhat is this?” Get them to guess which is the original and you can blow their mind!

    Anyhow, I guess I saying, “come on, give us teachers a little credit!” Hopefully the people teaching Frost are retiring.

    • thoughtsarefree

      Sounds like an interesting lecture! I love both versions of Heartbeats. How do you tackle it?

  • April Ossmann

    Excellent, on-point, beautifully clear, and leavened with characteristic good humor (in both senses), thank you, Tony Hoagland! I will quarrel only with the statement about popular culture:

    • Kathleen Cain

      Ditto on the Princess Di story. Your words echo those of an essay by Camille Paglia (remember her?) on the same topic. The mythology’s constantly being updated.

    • http://dadpoet.wordpress.com/ David J. Bauman

      I love this article for many reasons, and I cheer on Tony Hoagland for even more reasons, but he does have a tendency to overshoot the mark in his passionate enthusiasm. I think you are right here. He says, “Just as junk food mimics nutritious food,fake culture mimics and displaces the position of real myth.” But at the same time supports a poem with a fake flower rather than a real flower. There is beautiful commentary worth discussing, and arguing about, not just about aesthetics, in that piece. I support you, Tony, and I marvel happily that you have this bravery to charge forward into the fray as you do, despite critics among your contemporaries, but your bent toward overstatement sometimes gives them too much ammunition against you.

  • Susan

    Thank you for this essay. Like the commenter from Vancouver below, I teach poetry that interests me and the students, and if at times I feel like abandoning it because of a few students who just won’t come along, there are many, many occasions that remind me poetry does reach people. This essay is one of those occasions, and next time I feel like quitting I will go back to it.

  • julie ann

    So good!

  • will08smith

    Holy ED Hirsch Batman! It’s a wheezy breezy rootin’ tootin’ rebootin’ of the canon!

    And almost complete sanctimonious nonsense. One doesn’t even know where to begin.

    • DrunkenOrangetree

      Maybe one could enlighten us simpletons?

  • will08smith

    Doesn’t this essay presume too much: “A reader who first falls in love with Billy Collins or Mary Oliver is likely then to drift into an anthology that includes Emily Dickinson and Thomas Hardy.”

    Dickinson is for sale in every bookstore and Mary Oliver in a smaller number for a reason: ordinary readers buy and read her poetry. It’s almost certainly true that more people in 21st-century America have gone on to read Oliver by first reading Dickinson than the other way around.

    Oliver’s new and selected poems: Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #28,238 in Books.

    Dickinson’s Collected Poems (only one of the dozens of out-of-copyright versions): #8,932 in Books

    • Kathleen Cain

      An interesting point but numbers alone can’t tell the full story. Dickinson’s bound to be required reading in more places than Oliver is, thus more sales. Just sayin’.

  • courtney

    a compelling and terrifically written piece – thanks, Tony.

  • Kathleen Cain

    I appreciate the care and thoughtfulness – as well as the knowledge of poetry – that went into the writing of this article. After teaching genealogy many years ago, I’ve long since thought that poetry (and literature) should be approached the same way: work from what you know back to what you don’t know. I’ve been spoiled, though, in having a chance over the years to work with the fine teachers at the Denver School for the Arts, where daily infusions of poetry are fresh and synergistic and the canon is renewed like spring run-off in a good year; and also to be acquainted with the work of another high school instructor in Lincoln, NE whose slam poetry team just won the state championship (now there’s a team that deserves a full field house and sold-out season tickets for the next 20 years!). With a fellow poet I’m in the process of organizing a round of “conversations” on behalf of a local literary magazine, The Bloomsbury Review. I don’t think it will take much convincing, since my co-facilitator is also a poet, but I hope we can feature your article as a centerpiece for one of our discussions and get those who attend involved in this effort. P.S. I love your audacity to imagine that poems could/can save America. Bravo!

  • Rex

    Perhaps Mr Hoagland (and a few others) should look at Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska – for two years, the Nebraska Writers Collective, and Louder than a Bomb Nebraska, in affiliation with the enthusiastic support of many high schools in Nebraska, have exploded performance poetry into the classroom and stages here – check out http://ltabomaha.org/ and http://newriters.org/ .. AND, the NE Writers Collective funds trips into the classrooms by Nebraska poets, which produces ENthusiasm for writing, editing, reading, reviewing, and reciting — POETRY ROCKS in Nebraska!!

    • http://dadpoet.wordpress.com/ David J. Bauman

      I’ve seen this in Poetry Out Loud via some of our local schools, and it’s exciting. I do think Tony has some points though, even if he generalizes a bit in his exuberance. We certainly need more changes like what has been happening in Nebraska. Thanks for the great links!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Christina-Stopka-Rinnert/1168070351 Christina Stopka Rinnert

    Thank you for choosing poems from such a wonderful cross-section of American poetry. Gorgeous article.

  • Charlene

    I don

    • Krystin

      So glad to see someone bring up LTAB and Poetry Out Loud. Here in Alabama, the Poetry Out Loud competition has an original work component as well, which actually does away with any kind of “canon” or “curation” of already-existing poets, at least from the beginning. I think the beauty of this program is that it brings young readers to poetry via the creation of it. As a teacher/coach, my favorite part of POL is looking at a student’s work and giving them recommendations based on what they’ve created. They figure out their own poetic lineage, their own personal canon, who inspired them before they knew they were inspired, who thought and felt and expressed ideas just like them. Not only does this instill a personal commitment and accountability to poetry within the student, I find it is more “American” in nature, that personal journey, culling from a great expanse of time and place. I still “curate” a “canon” for the student in the same way Hoagland has here, except the standards with which I choose poets I think a student will like are geared more towards the student rather than some arbitrary definition of what I think “American” is.

  • tiojo

    Really interesting opening for a discussion! At one point Hoagland mentions the scaffolding of cultural identity. What about the scaffolding of the poem itself? I did not see much discussion here about poetic craft

  • http://www.facebook.com/raymmax Ray Max

    Twenty-First. Night. Monday

    Twenty-first. Night. Monday.
    Silhouette of the capitol in darkness.
    Some good-for-nothing — who knows why–
    made up the tale that love exists on earth.
    People believe it, maybe from laziness
    or boredom, and live accordingly:
    they wait eagerly for meetings, fear parting,
    and when they sing, they sing about love.
    But the secret reveals itself to some,
    and on them silence settles down…
    I found this out by accident
    and now it seems I’m sick all the time.

    Anna Akhmatova

  • DxRachel

    “But largely, c

  • Weldon Goree

    Did I really just read 10 pages about the death of poetry among the young in which hip hop was not mentioned once?

    • DxRachel

      ^ my sentiment, also, but expressed more crisply by you.

  • Marija Liudvika

    The article by Tony Hoagland has refreshed my mind, highlighting American poetry in particular. Thank you.

  • Ken Bullock

    “As for public relations, Yeats said, They do not like poetry; they like something else. But they want to think that
    they like poetry.” ~ Pound, ‘Confucius to Cummings

  • teaching English in Paris

    I will be the first to buy your Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry for the classroom. When will it come out?

  • heyitsgogi

    Why is Tony Hoagland being so awful? The idea that literature should edify or instruct us morally is 19th century era outdated and sadly myopic. Do people pick the five movies everyone in ‘Murica needs to watch to be ‘Murican? Or the ten trees we all need to climb? How about we don’t give people a list of poems they can check off their to-do lists before getting back to office, and instead we all read a lot, and share poems a lot, and not worry too much if we’ve read the right ones or the wrong ones or what ever.

    • DrunkenOrangetree

      Go back and read the essay again.

  • Dee El Bach

    It is sad that poetry seems to be dying, especially in American schools. My sister home schools my niece and as it is a mandate in the curriculum she taught it. I tried to help as I a a poet, however, I believe my sister has allowed her distain for poetry (even though she claims to love songs) to influence her daughter to where she feels the same way at 13 years old.

    I do not recall really having any lessons about poetry until 7th grade in junior high school. Our English teacher taught poetry for a quarter semester. This is when, as a very shy and backward girl, found my voice and my place to belong. In 45 years I have written more poems than I can count and even have one book of poetry published on Amazon. My work ranges from simplistic to involved. However, I have had many tell me that, in general, they do not like poetry, but find something in mine for them them to hold onto.

    Failing to teach our nation’s children this vital genre of creativity will only hinder growth and moral perspective. Had my teacher not taught poetry to my class, I would be completely lost. I would not be the woman I am today.

    National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo) should be observed in every school around the world to help children to better understand what poetry is all about and develop a deeper understanding for themselves and the world around them. Just a thought.

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