History in Poetry


The poems we had to read for this class were all about the presence of history in the city. The first, Aubade with Burning City by Ocean Vuong, was set in South Vietnam in 1975. The word “aubade” means dawn, and it could mean that the poem is about a dawn or it was written at dawn. The poem includes very strong images of devastation, and the contrast with the lyrics of the famous song White Christmas by Irving Berlin is shocking. The song was played as a code to begin Operation Frequent Wind, the ultimate evacuation of American civilians and vietnamese refugees by helicopter during the fall of Saigon. This was said in the epigraph, a very important tradition in poetry: it is the note that starts the poem, a contextual note that brings the reader into what is going to happen in the poem. The contrast between the joyful song and the violence of war is striking: the candour and whiteness of the whole poem, its atmosphere of calm after the chaos, is interrupted by the visualisation of terrible images. The colours are very intense: a nun on fire, a man with his face in a pool of Coca-Cola. Whether the Coca-Cola is a “popular culture” metaphor for blood is not completely clear, but it is indeed a very powerful image. The presence of history in this poem does not make it connected only to the period where it is set. Instead, the contrast between the “candid” popular culture and traditions, especially in happy times such as Christmas, and the terrible conditions of places where war, poverty and famine destroy entire populations, is a very much debated issue today.

The second poem we had to read was Brooklyn Antediluvian by Patrick Rosal. It is a long poem, rich in names of streets, populations, places. In this poem, names speak of identities, they conceive images of very different cultures. The author mixes pop culture and history, showing a sort of fixation with names and etimology. It is a poem about limits, bounds and the possibilities of immigration. The speaker questions their origins, the origins and roots of their family. It starts in New York City, but it flows on to different countries and times. Every name is a word embedded with a wish, the speaker says, in looking for the meaning of their own surname.


After re-reading these poems in class, Ron gave us a new one, Nail Technician as Palm Reader by Warsan Shire. To be honest, I found it a difficult poem. Not because of its language – the author uses a simple, straightfoward vocabulary. Because it is difficult for me to understand what the poet is trying to say, what the poem is about. Is it about regretting having an abortion? Is it about motherhood? It is a mysterious poem, no doubt it makes the reader wonder what is happening, what these daughters are doing, if they are symbols of something deep that worries and scares the speaker. This poem taught me a great lesson about poetry. I think that good poetry is the one that does not explain too much and leaves the reader interpret what is being said. But this may also be risky: sometimes, poems could be obscure, or the reader could not be receptive. This is neither the fault of the reader or of the author. Maybe this is a silly comparison, but it may be as bad dates: sometimes people just don’t click. They just are not good for each other. Perhaps with poems it is just the same.

After reading, Ron asked us to identify the kinds of history in these three pieces, and it turned out there are so many: family history, technology history, language history, musical history, military history, religion history (Spaniards trucked their God / from old Rome), history of place names (Montrose Avenue), history of commerce and business (the reference to Coca Cola), popular and cultural history (the song White Christmas), the history of economics, traveling history, tourism history history of names (Rosal in Spanish and other languages), colonial history, political history, personal history… Also in Nail Technician as Palm Reader there are some kinds of history, like medical/surgical history, an allusion to predictions anf future. History is hugely important to these poems. It is surprising how a poem could bring the reader in different places and times in just a few lines, which is a bit different from writing prose or fiction. Ron mentioned the word stratum (pl. strata), a latin term that defines the layer. Every layer represents a piece of geological history. He even showed us a picture of a hill in Argentina, where all these geological layers were visible in the different colours and textures of the earth. In these poems, relationships overlap, they grind in a tectonic way, as the Coca Cola and the Christmas song and the terrible images of the war in South Vietnam. The contradiction interplay is important, joy goes together with devastation, and these poems assume many meanings in their plurality and multiplicity. They let us see things on scale, but at distance at the same time.

After this discussion, Ron asked us how we play with contradiction in our writing, how we deal with it. When we celebrate something in our poetry, we also celebrate its opposite. So what is contradiction? How do we use it in our poetry? Contradiction can be used not only in the images and themes we write about. It is important to read and listen to the language that other poets and we use in our writing, because it much helps visualizing the poem. What I need to start doing in my poetry is focusing and concentrating on how lines and words are built up and look on the page. This plays a huge role in the understanding and comprehensing of the poem. It helps us surgically taking every line, word and image apart, seeing them in a cinematic way. The way in which each line alters everything that comes before and after is important.



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