April is not only the end of winter semester classes at the University of Michigan. It is also the start of something equally exciting — National Poetry Month! If you’re interested in reading poetry on the go or even writing some yourself, the LSA Institute for the Humanities has been celebrating all month long with posters around campus and various poetry prompts. Here at The Michigan Daily Book Beat, we decided to celebrate National Poetry Month by offering some recommendations for our favorite poems and poets. Instead of waxing poetically (get it?) about poetry, we’ll let our recommendations speak for themselves.
– Emilia Ferrante, Senior Arts Editor and Meera Kumar, Book Beat Editor
Poem: “New Year’s Eve & Day in the Anthropocene” by Craig Santos Perez
No other poem has sunk into my brain the way “New Year’s Eve & Day in the Anthropocene” by Craig Santos Perez did. The line, “I ask the water: ‘Will the world end this year?’ / A one-eyed GM salmon floats to the surface and whispers: ‘The world already ended’” is perfectly indicative of the poem’s half-joking, half so-serious-it-makes-you-sink-to-your-knees tone of deeply affected and incredibly unsettled desperation. The poem jests, asks questions that are too heavy to bear and throws up its hands in hopelessness simultaneously, all while ruminating on a singular question: what does it mean to be a parent in the time of late-stage capitalism and climate change?
The poem, in part, is a response to “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith, a well-known poem often circulated on social media in times of great disaster about “keeping the reality of life’s ugliness from young innocents” (according to The Wall Street Journal). Perez refuses to subscribe to the subtlety of “Good Bones,” instead making as much noise as he can while he worries about not only his daughter’s future but also our present. Both poems end with parallels of a realtor father-figure selling you the “shithole” or “anthropocene” or “landfill,” selling a place with “good bones” instead. But where the two poems diverge is their usage of skeletons: Smith considers it the “beautiful” structure in which she persuades her child to survive, while Perez throws the bones in a boiling vat, convincing his child that they can make “delicious” soup (it’s not really a secret which poem I prefer). As we all continue to swirl around in a messy, boiling pot, Perez laments the state of the world in all its timelines and grapples jokingly with the absurdity of existence, thus creating a seriously profound work.
Books Beat Editor Meera Kumar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Poet: Mary Ruefle
Finally, a chance to talk about one of my favorite poets of all time, whom I stumbled onto by accident. I was introduced to Mary Ruefle through her strange, haunting, gruesome, beautiful stream-of-consciousness prose-poetry piece, “My Private Property,” when I read it in a writing class at 16. I was absolutely floored by this piece, how it blended poetry and prose and history and philosophy; I thought then, as I think now, that it was magnificent in its strangeness. Art that has such an impact at 16 can only continue to have greater impacts as you get older, and Ruefle’s poetry is no different. I move on, I get older, sometimes I forget about her completely, but I always find myself returning to Ruefle.
Her poetry is both accessible and bizarre, gorgeous and weird, always striking and surprising. She is the queen of arresting first lines — “My Private Property” begins “It is sad, is it not, that no one today displays any interest in the art of shrunken heads.” The poem “Perfume River” starts with “She thinks fishing is an odd way / to make love.” Some of my favorite poetry has lines that make my chest tighten up and squeeze my heart and ribs. Ruefle does this over and over again, with “You know now your own life doesn’t belong to you” and “the whole / beautiful and weighted world / will settle in his lap / like the statue of a cat.” Even better are the lines that are so wholly unexpected that they jolt you into joyful surprise, like “In some small substation of the universe / the bullfrogs begin to puff out their mouths” or “a domineering little bird has eaten all the seeds. I think one day / it will build its nest in my abandoned cranium.” Ruefle wonderfully defamiliarizes the mundane world around us until it looks entirely new — and that is, perhaps, the real reason we read poetry in the first place.
Senior Arts Editor Emilia Ferrante can be reached at email@example.com.
Poem: “Hum Dekhenge” by Faiz Ahmed Faiz
I believe the impact of poetry is particularly pronounced when it’s used to speak out against oppression and hold the people in power accountable. We see this in everything, from spoken word to songs and music to slogans in campaigns. Of course, this long-standing practice is not something unique to the western world. In fact, one of my favorite, and arguably most relevant, works of poetry is from a Pakistani poet named Faiz Ahmed Faiz called “Hum Dekhenge,” which translates to “We Will See.”
The establishment of a democratic government in Pakistan has had many trials and tribulations. From military dictatorships to corrupt politicians, democracy has never had the chance to thrive and flourish, despite the peoples’ desire. To hold these politicians accountable, Faiz wrote “Hum Dekhenge” as a promise to the corrupt officials that the day will come when they, too, will be held accountable for their misdeeds. Faiz ties in religious references of the reckoning day and justice of God in his poetry, cleverly using religion as a means to unite the masses under a common cause. Despite the fact that Faiz was a member of the Communist party, at the time a very unpopular position worldwide, his words were still able to bind people together and rally for their rights.
To this day, his poems are used to confront people in power, corrupt politicians and challenge the status quo. His poetry is not only popular in Pakistan but across South Asia. Faiz’s words serve as an important reminder, especially in today’s global political climate, to never admit defeat or lose hope, and it illustrates how poetry can be used as a catalyst and important tool for justice. He writes in “Hum Dekhenge”: “We shall see / Certainly we, too, shall see / that day that has been promised to us,” before stating the powerful, “Then the masses, people of God will rule / Who I am too / and so are you.”
Daily Arts Writer Zoha Khan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Poet: Richard Siken
Richard Siken, a 55-year-old gay poet, dissects queer tragedy and love in a way that draws blood. The confessional style of his work often lays his heart bare and then some. His words are sharpened and poised, stabbing into each soft and tender part of the reader. The poems carry a rise and fall of love and violence much akin to Shakespearean tragedies. This depth is a deeply felt experience of many queer individuals that is often clouded in secrecy or shame. By bringing light to this, Siken creates a work of writing that can strike the hearts of queer individuals in a sparkling, raw new way. Unhinged and multifaceted desire is quintessential to his work and presses hard into the raw spots of the queer heart. Additionally, many of his poems involve one-way relationships, shame in one or both parties and the pure terror of coming of age as a queer individual. His tender violence is not beside his queerness; rather, it’s an integral part. Violence experienced from shame, whether it be self-inflicted, interpersonal or social, is an unfortunate stepping stone in many queer stories.
In one of his most well-known poems, “Wishbone,” Siken sets the scene of queer longing and torment. He writes, “I say I want you inside me / and you hold my head underwater, I say I want you inside me / and you split me open with a knife.” Here, love is both the twisting knife and the stitches. Here, love is a confusingly mortifying ordeal. The panic and obsession of this all-consuming love are particularly tumultuous in the queer community, and art is liable to hold a space for its exploration. Siken strips the queer experience down to its most carnal parts and then squeezes the poetry out of its carcass. His writing can undo all associations of personal and social violence as an aggressive force and, instead, turns the phenomenon into an act of poetry. Like his poem, “Dirty Valentine,” the reader swallows Siken’s heart and is made to spit it up again. They swallow his heart, and it crawls right out of their mouth.
Daily Arts Writer Ava Burzycki can be reached at email@example.com.