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

What went wrong? Somehow, we blew it. We never quite got poetry inside the American school system, and thus, never quite inside the culture. Many brave people have tried, tried for decades, are surely still trying. The most recent watermark of their success was the introduction of Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg and some e.e. cummings, of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “In a Station of the Metro” — this last poem ponderously explained, but at least clean and classical, as quick as an inoculation. It isn’t really fair to blame contemporary indifference to poetry on “Emperor of Ice-Cream.” Nor is it fair to blame Wallace Stevens himself, who also left us, after all, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” a poem that will continue to electrify and intrigue far more curious young minds than are anesthetized by a bad day of pedagogy on the Ice Cream Poem. Let us blame instead the stuffed shirts who took an hour to explain that poem in their classrooms, who chose it because it would need an explainer; pretentious ponderous ponderosas of professional professors will always be drawn to poems that require a priest.

This essay will appear in Tony Hoagland’s collection of essays on poetry, forthcoming in 2014 from Graywolf Press.

Still, we have failed. The fierce life force of contemporary American poetry never made it through the metal detector of the public-school system. In the Seventies, our hopes seemed justified; those Simon and Garfunkel lyrics were being mimeographed and discussed by the skinny teacher with the sideburns, Mr. Ogilvy, who was dating the teacher with the miniskirt and the Joan Baez LPs (“Students, you can call me Brenda”). Armed with the poems of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Richard Brautigan, fifteen-year-olds were writing their first Jim Morrison lyrics, their Kerouacian chants to existential night.

But it never took. We flunked. We backslid.

Sure, there would always be those rare kids who got it anyway; who got, really got “We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!,” got it because they were old souls, preternaturally, precociously alert to the pitfalls of grown-up life, the legion opportunities for self-betrayal, the army of counterfeit values surrounding them. They were the ones who memorized “Dover Beach” and throatily recited it to their sweethearts, in the back seat of a Chevrolet on the night of junior prom, and then once more for select friends at the after-party.

But largely, c’mon — you and I both know — real live American poetry is absent from our public schools. The teaching of poetry languishes, and that region of youthful neurological terrain capable of being ignited and aria’d only by poetry is largely dark, unpopulated, and silent, like a classroom whose door is unopened, whose shades are drawn.

This is more than a shame, for poetry is our common treasure-house, and we need its aliveness, its respect for the subconscious, its willingness to entertain ambiguity; we need its plaintive truth-telling about the human condition and its imaginative exhibitions of linguistic freedom, which confront the general culture’s more grotesque manipulations. We need the emotional training sessions poetry conducts us through. We need its previews of coming attractions: heartbreak, survival, failure, endurance, understanding, more heartbreak.

I have met, over the years, many remarkable English teachers, God bless them, who make poetry vivid and real to their students — but they are the exception. By far the majority of language-arts teachers feel lost when it comes to poetry. They themselves were never initiated into its freshness and vitality. Thus they lack not only confidence in their ability to teach poetry but also confidence in their ability to read poetry! And, unsurprisingly, they don’t know which poems to teach.

The first part of the fix is very simple: the list of poems taught in our schools needs to be updated. We must make a new and living catalogue accessible to teachers as well as students. The old chestnuts — “The Road Not Taken,” “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” “Do not go gentle into that good night” — great, worthy poems all — must be removed and replaced by poems that are not chestnuts. This refreshing of canonical content and tone will vitalize teachers and students everywhere, and just may revive our sense of the currency and relevance of poetry. Accomplish that, and we can renew the conversation, the teaching, everything.

But, I hear some protest, aren’t the old poems good enough? Aren’t great poems enduring in their worth and perennial in their appeal? Love, death, strife, joy, loneliness — aren’t these the recurrent, always-relevant subject matter of our shared songs? In catering to the tastes of the present, wouldn’t we be lowering the caliber of the art we present to our youth? Isn’t this a capitulation to a superficial culture and the era of disposability?

Such questions are beside the point, since poetry is not being transmitted from one generation to the next. The cultural chain has been broken, as anyone paying attention knows. Moreover, the written word always needs renewal. Art must be recast continually. “Dover Beach” and “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” are not lost, but instead are being rewritten again and again, a hundred times for each new generation. Culture is always reanimating itself, and when it does so, it validates, reorganizes, and reinvigorates the past as well as the present.

If anthologies were structured to represent the way that most of us actually learn, they would begin in the present and “progress” into the past. I read Lawrence Ferlinghetti before I read D. H. Lawrence before I read Thomas Wyatt. Once the literate appetite is whetted, it will keep turning to new tastes. 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.

The second part of the fix is rather more complicated: in addition to rebooting the American poetic canon as a whole, we must establish a kind of national core curriculum, a set of poems held in common by our students and so by our citizens. In the spirit of boosterism, I have selected twenty works I believe worthy of inclusion in this curriculum — works I believe could empower us with a common vocabulary of stories, values, points of reference. The brief explications and justifications I offer below for nine of these poems are not meant to foreclose the interpretive possibilities that are part of a good poem’s life force. Rather, I hope they will point to areas worthy of cultivation in that mysterious inner space, the American mind.

POETRY TEACHES THE ETHICAL NATURE OF CHOICE

To visualize this poetry-enriched near-future, please imagine that somewhere in the echoey, high-ceilinged meeting rooms of our nation’s Capitol, a congressional committee is in session. It is midsummer in Washington, D.C., and a pitcher of water is on the table, beads of condensation on its side; the ice has melted. A difficult bill is also on the table, one in which the exigencies of the political present must be weighed against the needs of the future — say, for example, that the subsidized production of corn for ethanol might be given priority over other alternatives to gasoline. Too many Midwestern farmers have become dependent on these subsidies. But if policy is changed now, they will suffer.

“It’s like that William Stafford poem,” says one congressional aide. “What’s the title — the one about the deer?”

“Traveling through the Dark,” says a representative from Missouri. The poem begins:

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

“That’s the one,” says the aide. “Yeah, that scene where the guy has to decide whether to push the mother deer over the edge of the cliff to make the road safer — even though the deer is pregnant, with a fawn inside her.”

“To swerve might make more dead,” says someone else.

“Yes,” says the first legislator, “here we are, getting ready to choose some lives over others, to clear the road for traffic. Are we going to push the deer over the side of the highway?”

“When you put it like that,” says another, “I think we should wait.”

“That’s not deciding,” says a third congressman, “that’s procrastinating. I say we vote right now.”

Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;?
under the hood purred the steady engine.?
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;?
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all — my only swerving —,?
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

“Traveling through the Dark” is a well-known poem, but one with legs yet — it offers a lucid ethical dilemma that foregrounds the nature of moral choice.

POETRY RESPECTS SOLITUDE AND SELF-DISCOVERY

Here’s another scenario. A woman, recently divorced from her husband of twenty-five years (he fell in love with his yoga instructor). Living in the city where they shared a life together, she’s discovering what it’s like to be single at fifty. She has a busy professional life and can handle the daylight hours, but the nights are hard, and she’s decided she’d better stay away from wine in the evening. She believes she might be alone for the rest of her days.

One night on the train home, she remembers a poem from tenth grade called “Bamboo and a Bird.” When she gets back to her apartment, she looks it up on the Internet. It’s by Linda Gregg.

In the subway late at night.
Waiting for the downtown train
at Forty-Second Street.
Walking back and forth
on the platform.
Too tired to give money.
Staring at the magazine covers
in the kiosk. Someone passes me
from behind, wearing an orange vest
and dragging a black hose.
A car stops and the doors open.
All the faces are plain.
It makes me happy to be
among these people
who leave empty seats
between each other.

Reading the poem, the divorcée finds focus. “It reminded me,” she says to her friend the following week, “that there can be dignity in being alone. Remember the woman in the poem? She sees everything so clearly because she’s alone.”

“Yes,” says the friend. “She has this pride about being alone.”

“No, it’s not pride, exactly — she just sees what is in front of her. Because she’s tired. She can see because she’s exhausted and by herself. And even though those other people are maybe unhappy and poor, like her, she isn’t responsible for them. They don’t need to be changed. They can’t change. All of them, they just are what they are.”

“No shame, no pity.”

“It’s all right to be lonely, because everyone else is, too. There’s company in loneliness.” She pauses.

“It’s like existentialism with a hand warmer.”

“What about that guy in the poem, who goes past, pulling the hose? We could never figure that out in class. “

“I don’t know what that hose is about. Does everything have to represent something?”

POETRY STIMULATES DARING

At this point, perhaps, you may feel you are on the receiving end of a William Bennett–style sermon on Poetry as Moral Improvement. That intuition is only partially right. Not all of the twenty poems I’ve selected have “instruction” as their agenda. Their usefulness is not so constrained or predictable. Poems are existentially unconventional: though some may look like philosophical fitness equipment, designed for self-improvement, others may look like Siamese cats. Consider, as an example of something unpredictable, the following poem by Kerry Johannsen:

Black People & White People Were Said 

to disappear if we looked at
each other too long
especially the young ones —
especially growing boys & girls
the length of a gaze was
watched sidewise
as a kingsnake
eyeing a copperheadwhile hands
of mothers and fathers gently
tugged their children close
white people & black people were said to
disappear ifbut nobody ever said it
loudnobody said it
at all& nobody ever
talked about where
the ones who didn’t listen
went

Johannsen’s poem helps us to name a feature of the social landscape that every American will recognize; it drags into plain sight, and into our common vision, the mystery of race and the ominous way it plays out in our collective social life. It describes the haunted condition that results from repressed knowledge. Moreover, Johannsen’s poem does not avoid complexity in order to create agreement. It does not accuse or judge or cry out; it speaks from the position neither of the oppressor nor of the victim. The poem’s vocal tone is largely one of wonder, which makes it an unthreatening starting point for conversation about a touchy subject.

Alarmed by the rapid erosion of shared knowledge among Americans, the liberal scholar E. D. Hirsch, Jr. took on the role of cultural correctionist with his best-selling book, Cultural Literacy (1987). Hirsch argued that, without the propagation of a common vocabulary — Benedict Arnold, Sigmund Freud, King Lear, “revenue-ers,” the Cold War, Emmett Till, gerrymandering — the American cultural fabric would fray and fall apart. Indeed, unless we continue to renew and supplement our common intellectual property, we can and will get stupider, less comprehending of one another, more disconnected.

The scaffoldings of cultural identity can be either trivial or profound, toxic or sustaining, ephemeral or lasting. The celebrity culture that seems ubiquitous in our moment is a kind of fake surrogate for the culturally significant place gods and myth once held in the collective imagination. The saga of Princess Di, or Michael Jackson, or Amy Winehouse is a shallow substitute for the story of Persephone, lacking the structure to edify but charismatic to many people nonetheless. Just as junk food mimics nutritious food, fake culture mimics and displaces the position of real myth. Real culture cultivates our ability to see, feel, and think. It is empowering. Fake culture makes us passive, materialistic, and tranced-out.

Culturally important artworks establish new benchmarks of relevance, break icons, embody new recognitions for a people and a time. “Diving into the Wreck,” Citizen Kane, “Prufrock,” Glengarry Glen Ross. In poetry, as in other art forms, some works are of significance for cultural reasons, some for aesthetic. Both categories are legitimate, and, of course, they sometimes overlap. Artworks may sometimes lose their shape and resonance, their intensity and relevance, in five years, or ten, or fifty — and what’s wrong with that? The relative value of the “immortal” and the “contemporary” has been the subject of many intellectual battles, but why can’t these categories coexist?

The idealized America envisioned by Hirsch — one shored up by the deliberate revival of old and new traditions — would be one in which poems were part of the civility and pleasure of the dining table, in which guests and hosts staged impromptu readings, in which poems could usefully and naturally be worked into a conversation about anything at all. Is such a culture so far from possible?

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.

POEMS DEFUSE SEXUAL ANXIETY AND ACKNOWLEDGE THE NATURALNESS OF CURIOSITY

Sharon Olds’s “Topography” could perhaps shatter the petrified classroom notion that poetry has no libido or sense of humor. The poem’s narrative achievement is to be both playful and wholesome on the subject of sex. “Topography” is also a tutorial in the pleasures of extended metaphor and language itself, allowed as it is to somersault in a non-directive, extracurricular capacity.

After we flew across the country we
got into bed, laid our bodies
delicately together, like maps laid
face to face, East to West, my
San Francisco against your New York, your
Fire Island against my Sonoma, my
New Orleans deep in your Texas, your Idaho
bright on my Great Lakes, my Kansas
burning against your Kansas your Kansas
burning against my Kansas, your Eastern
Standard Time pressing into my
Pacific Time, my Mountain Time
beating against your Central Time, your
sun rising swiftly from the right my
sun rising swiftly from the left your
moon rising slowly from the left my
moon rising slowly from the right until
all four bodies of the sky
burn above us, sealing us together,
all our cities twin cities,
all our states united, one
nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

The former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky once said that American poetry would be a warmer, more inviting place if it included more sex, humor, and violence — if, in some ways, it artfully incorporated some of the “life-affirming vulgarity” of the popular entertainment that has, it sometimes seems, elbowed it aside. Olds’s poem dispels the atmosphere of stodginess and elitism we culture lovers must constantly resist. It also sets the table for a host of subsidiary conversations on subjects ranging from patriotism to porn, from the curious pleasure of phonemes (“Sonoma”) to the nature of innuendo (“Fire Island”). The god of play is Eros, and sometimes art leads with the libido. If Americans only knew that poetry is sexy, surely more books would be checked out of the library. “Topography” demonstrates one of the wondrous facts of American poetry — its populist brilliance and range. It can be high and low, entertaining, erudite, provocative, rude, brainy, and mysterious.

POEMS ACKNOWLEDGE TROUBLE AHEAD

Gender is such an inextricable part of our lives and our identities that we spend our lives trying to untangle its truths and mysteries. The literature of gender is vast because the struggle to understand it is a fundamental one; yet the incisive swiftness of poetry cuts to the heart of most subjects, including this one. Whereas “Topography” praises the united states of sex, the inevitable difficulties between male and female are addressed more seriously in “A Man and a Woman,” by Alan Feldman. In fierce, fast-moving, broken-off lines, the poem catalogues the passionate suspicions and doubts of each gender towards the other. Feldman’s poem opens door after door for discussion, and closes none of them:

Between a man and a woman
The anger is greater, for each man would like to sleep
In the arms of each woman who would like to sleep
In the arms of each man, if she trusted him not to be
Schizophrenic, if he trusted her not to be
A hypochondriac, if she trusted him not to leave her
Too soon, if he trusted her not to hold him
Too long, and often women stare at the word men
As it lives in the word women, as if each woman
Carried a man inside her and a woe, and has
Crying fits that last for days, not like the crying
Of a man, which lasts a few seconds, and rips the throat
Like a claw — but because the pain differs
Much as the shape of the body, the woman takes
The suffering of the man for selfishness, the man
The woman’s pain for helplessness, the woman’s lack of it
For hardness, the man’s tenderness for deception,
The woman’s lack of acceptance, an act of contempt,
Which is really fear, the man’s fear for fickleness,
Yet cars come off the bridge in rivers of light,
Each holding a man and a woman.

The difficulties and differences are immense — “Yet cars come off the bridge in rivers of light/ each holding a man and a woman.” Feldman’s poem is tough, true, and vivid enough to deserve registration in our communal anthology. It begins, artfully, with a declared but never explicitly answered question. The anger between the man and the woman is “greater” than what? Love? Greater than the other sorts of anger we feel? The way this opening grammar hangs, semantically incomplete, is one of the poem’s many charms and sophistications. The catalogue of gendered differences, clearly compiled from experience in the field, is a provocative pleasure of its own. It is not hard to imagine the difference this poem might make in helping a husband and wife to consider the reasons for tolerance.

POEMS REHEARSE THE FUTURE

Poems, some more than others, are songs, passed down through time. It is amazing how far and how long they can travel and still remain fresh. Was there ever a poet named Speaks-Fluently? That is the name assigned to the author of this Native-American poem of Osage origin, passed on to me by another poet. “Song of Speaks-Fluently” is as light as a nursery rhyme and as serious as a gospel; wry, yet firm about the facts of life. And what a flavor of reliability it bears from its at once distant and personal source.

To have to carry your own corn far —
who likes it?
To follow the black bear through the thicket —
who likes it?
To hunt without profit, to return without anything —
who likes it?
You have to carry your own corn far.
You have to follow the black bear.
You have to hunt without profit.
If not, what will you tell the little ones? What
will you speak of?
For it is bad not to use the talk which God has sent us.
I am Speaks-Fluently. Of all the groups of symbols,
I am a symbol by myself.

Here is the news, says the poem sympathetically: You too shall labor, and on Tuesday your enterprise shall not succeed, and on Wednesday you shall bend again to the labor before you. Now, this is a message well worth inclusion in the speech of any high school valedictorian in America. Instead of demanding favors of the universe, Speaks-Fluently tells us, we must cultivate the wisdom of the shrug and exercise the muscle of persistence. “You have to carry your own corn far. You have to hunt without profit.”

With its images of ancient farming and hunting, “Song of Speaks-Fluently” carries another quiet implication — that we readers, whatever our work, are connected to the oldest rhythms of human effort and human survival. The necessities and hazards of our lives have changed in appearance, but not in essence.

A thousand kinds of poems exist, and they point in an infinite number of directions.

POEMS TEACH AESTHETICS THAT ARE OF BROAD APPLICATION

Another dividend of even a basic investment in poetry is the way it refines our sensitivity for tone, for subtleties of inflection, which in turn enables us to navigate the world more skillfully. Take the delicate, tentative mix of irony and affection in “The Geraniums,” by Genevieve Taggard:

Even if the geraniums are artificial
Just the same,
In the rear of the Italian café
Under the nimbus of electric light
They are red; no less red
For how they were made. Above
The mirror and the napkins
In the little white pots . . .
. . . In the semi-clean cafe
Where they have good
Lasagna . . . The red is a wonderful joy
Really, and so are the people
Who like and ignore it. In this place
They also have good bread.

Taggard’s poem, delivered in a reflective, tender, meditative voice, is about aesthetics. It asks an interesting question: Can a thing be simultaneously false and beautiful? Is the modern world, with its manifold illusions, nonetheless an environment in which the soul can find nourishment? What do we see and what do we habitually ignore? Can we train ourselves to appreciate any environment? Consider the loveliness of the humble fake flowers! To cultivate an ear for tone is, oddly enough, to cultivate one’s own perceptual alertness. In “The Geraniums,” irony and wonder (the “semi-clean” cafe and the “wonderful joy, really” of red) collaborate intricately in the speaker’s casually unfolding voice. To develop an ear for such delicate modulations is in fact a survival skill that can aid one for a lifetime.

The Fatal Card: The powerful drama, by Haddon Chambers & B. C. Stephenson. Library of Congress, Cabinet of American Illustration collection

The Fatal Card: The powerful drama, by Haddon Chambers & B. C. Stephenson. Library of Congress, Cabinet of American Illustration collection

I could go on with more examples. My list is ready — I am only waiting for the president to give me the go-ahead. Perhaps twenty other experienced readers of poetry might come up with twenty other lists of poems that might similarly serve, poems that could be smuggled into twenty-first-century life as amulets and beatitudes to guide, map, empower, and console. The argument of this essay is not complex; the poems are richly so.

Poems build our capacity for imaginative thinking, create a tolerance for ambiguity, and foster an appreciation for the role of the unknown in human life. From such compact structures of language, from so few poems, so much can be reinforced that is currently at risk in our culture. As an American writer, I long for the art form to be restored to its position in culture, one of relevance and utility, to do what it can. In everything we have to understand, poems can help.

To implement a program of poetry reading and appreciation across the educational system, in prep schools and charter schools as well as in public schools, would take daring and conviction and willingness. It would take the willingness of teachers to enjoy poems themselves, to handle a kind of material that aims not to quantify, define, or test but to open one door after another down a long hallway. To communicate credulity requires credulity, the faith that a small good thing contains the potential for great transformations. Yet our own lives provide the testimony that futures are formed from such chance encounters, such small receptions and affections. In increment after increment, the grace of the future depends on the preparation and generosity of the past. It is that incidental, almost accidental, encounter with memorable beauty or knowledge — that news that comes from poetry — that enables us, as the poem by William Stafford says, to think hard for us all.


TONY HOAGLAND’S TWENTY POEMS

Twenty-First. Night. Monday., by Anna Akhmatova
God’s Justice, by Anne Carson
memory, by Lucille Clifton
A Man and a Woman, by Alan Feldman
America, by Allen Ginsberg
Bamboo and a Bird, by Linda Gregg
A Sick Child, by Randall Jarrell
Black People & White People Were Said, by Kerry Johannsen
Topography, by Sharon Olds
Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver
Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car, by Dan Pagis
Merengue, by Mary Ruefle
Ballad of Orange and Grape, by Muriel Rukeyser
Waiting for Icarus, by Muriel Rukeyser
American Classic, by Louis Simpson
The Geraniums, by Genevieve Taggard
Song of Speaks-Fluently, by Speaks-Fluently
Traveling Through The Dark, by William Stafford
When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer, by Walt Whitman
Our Dust, by C. D. Wright

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’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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Combustion Engines·

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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There Will Always Be Fires·

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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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The End of Eden·

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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
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How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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