This companion to the first edition of Poetry Like Bread was published by Curbstone Press as a pamphlet and distributed to Barnes & Noble Bookstores and to schools nationwide. The essay was included in the 2nd edition, which came out in 2000. To request copies for your classes, please write to Curbstone Press, 321 Jackson Street, Willimantic, CT 06226 or follow this link to their website: http://www.curbstone.org
Introduction: The Political Imagination
1. How to Read Poetry Like Bread
2. What Poems are About
3. How Poems Work
4. Evaluating Poems
Introduction: The Political Imagination
Poetry Like Bread contains poems by nearly forty poets published by the Curbstone Press during the last twenty years. These poets are probably unlike any you have studied. Their engagement with everyday political and economic realities is as direct as a newspaper, their language as familiar as conversation. Their motto, taken from Roque Dalton for the title of the collection, is that "poetry, like bread, is for everyone."
These poems were not written to be studied. They were meant to be read. Or better yet, heard. Whole or in part. Alone or among friends and strangers. Reading and hearing them, you must respond and react. Some may inspire you, knock the wind out of you - make you indignant, sad, joyous, ashamed. Whether you drop this book, seek out others, join a social action group, write letters to your elected representatives, or write poems of your own, your reaction to the poems will be as political as the poems themselves.
Some of the subjects of these poems may be unfamiliar to you. Many relate stories from war-torn Central and South America, where U. S. policy has had a huge impact on people's lives. The rest are the voices of the voiceless here in the U.S.: Latinos and African Americans, Vietnam veterans and Vietnamese, prison inmates, blue collar workers, migrant workers, women, the homeless. No amount of footnotes or historical prefaces could prepare you for the alien worlds opened up by these poets. It's their job to overcome our ignorance and confusion, to rouse us from our sleep. Our job, once roused, is to learn. To learn and to act.
So, this booklet is not a study guide to help you understand
the poems. Its purpose is to help you use the poems to understand the world
and yourself as an actor in it. If you've never read much poetry before, Poetry
Like Bread is a good place to start. If you have read poetry before but
never liked or understood it, it's a good place to start over. Here is a chance
to reintroduce yourself to poetry, to rediscover your native talent for reading
literature and enjoying it.
1. HOW TO READ POETRY LIKE BREAD
Poetry is almost always taught backwards. Teachers tend to think that we must know everything they have spent years learning before we can appreciate poems as they do. So we get used to having them direct us to the most "important" poems and even to the most crucial passages. But choosing poems and passages to focus on is the most rewarding part of reading. You don't have to pick out the "best" poems or the most "important" passages - that kind of thinking is also backwards. The "best" and "most important" works are simply those that readers have chosen most often to either enjoy or question over the years. And their judgments change over time. So the question is simply whether you will be an onlooker in this process or an active participant.
All you have to do to read actively is to take notice of the poems and parts of poems that most affect you - one way or the other. Read around in the anthology, then pick out the following (remember, no teacher can do this for you; there are no right answers):
Then, within these poems, start to single out lines you respond to powerfully or find yourself remembering, using the same five criteria. You can even focus on single words that seem powerful to you or whose sound, position, or associations seem to have a special significance.
Now try to account for your responses. This is the only purpose of what critics call poetic analysis. There are no right responses, but by examining them they evolve, becoming richer and more complex. So, you might begin by asking yourself:
This is not easy, and any advice might limit you. Some obvious connections, however, might be that violence and profanity disturb you, or poems about cities attract you. Maybe you are unbalanced by choppy lines or enjoy poems that paint vivid pictures.
Nothing is too simple-minded to be useful. No personal experience or bias is irrelevant. The challenge is to be honest about your biases, your motives, your areas of expertise and ignorance. Sometimes an unusual point of view brings out the most profound meanings in a poem or raises the deepest questions. Your vantage point, with all its limitations, offers a unique way to see the poem. And though your responses will always be valid for you, to understand them and have them make sense to others, you have to be conscious of who you are.
Not knowing Spanish may make some poems seem inaccessible, yet it may also make you feel the presence of the other culture more strongly. Some poems might seem like they'd have more relevance to you if you were poor - on the other hand, they might be less likely to shake you up. So, your viewpoint doesn't necessarily determine your response, just the path you take.
Difficulties are also easier to solve if you try to identify exactly what it is you "don't understand." What knowledge and experience are you missing that keeps you from fully responding or understanding your response?
Once you start to isolate your difficulties, it's easier to overcome them or respond to the poem despite them. Sometimes, just articulating the difficulty as a question is enough: "What countries do James Scully's poems take place in?" One approach to this factual question is to look for clues and narrow down the choices - or find out. Another approach is to ask why Scully omitted this detail. Are we supposed to know (and so how does not knowing make you feel)? What difference does location make (could it be L.A.? Chile? Either?)?
A more literary question might be: "Is the speaker in Eileen Kostiner's poem "Mastectomy" describing one or just imagining it?" The factual approach is to do research on the author. This might provide an answer or explain the poet's interest in a subject. Another approach is to examine the words and phrases that seem ambiguous to see if they really allow both possibilities. See how your response changes in either case. Which way makes it more interesting to you? Can it suggest both things at the same time? How did she do that? Your response and understanding will deepen even if firm answers can't be found.
Reading poetry on your own, you have to use your own instincts about what's beautiful and important. You have to honor the difficulties you face with a sense of curiosity instead of panic. You have to believe that you are the reader the poet imagined. Often a poem's primary function is to motivate readers to go out and learn more about the facts and issues behind the immediate, vivid experience it has just delivered.
But reading on your own doesn't mean you have to read alone. There is a quality of voice in these poems that imagines being shared, read or recited among friends. Unlike other poems, they seem to demand a social response, whether affirmation or dissent. So, although you can read it in the solitude of your room, try taking the book with you to a café or a park or a public library. Read these poems on a train or bus during rush hour. They go well with a cheap meal or a cup of coffee.
When you can, read them out loud, either to yourself or to friends. They come alive this way more than other poems you may be used to. Sharing the poems also gives you the chance to fill in the gaps in your knowledge more naturally and to discuss the issues they raise. You may be surprised to find out how many of the people you know have traveled, have been to prison, have experienced union-busting tactics, or just know a little Spanish. Poems should not exist in a vacuum. They are part of the social fabric, and urge us to make them part of our ongoing dialogue with each other.
A word about the inclusion of Spanish text: it makes the book accessible to Spanish speakers, of course, of which there are 25 million here in the United States, and over 300 million more around the world. But including the Spanish also plays an important role for English speakers. It makes a strong political statement, reminding us that not everyone in the world speaks English, even here at home. So, even if you don't know any Spanish, try reading these pages out loud or to yourself. Imagine living in the world of this language and its sounds. You will also be surprised by how much Spanish you can pick up by using the facing translations. If you know some Spanish, notice how the book invites you in on a more intimate level.
2. WHAT POEMS ARE REALLY ABOUT
The political nature of the collection may strike you as unusual, but in many ways it reflects the majority of poetry written in the world. A brief glance at almost any traditional folk music or at our own popular music from blues to punk is enough to confirm this. But political themes run through the "classics" as well, from the Bible to Robert Frost. If the poets in Poetry Like Bread are unique, it is in the way they combine the directness of folk and popular traditions with the quiet complexity we call literary, creating poems that are socially engaged and addressed to the people whose lives they hope to change.
The difficulties posed by these poems are, for the most part, different from the ones posed by most "modernist" poems - T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," for instance, or Ezra Pound's Cantos. Eliot and Pound refer to ancient mythology and works of literature in several languages. The poems in Poetry Like Bread speak of countries where U. S. foreign policy plays a direct role in people's lives; they speak of racism and class divisions here at home that blind us to the problems of millions. Even if we don't know about these places and problems, we are implicated in them. And this is often the poets' point.
The most common complaint people make about poetry is: "Why can't poets just say what they mean?" It always seems like they're hiding something on purpose. But the opposite is usually the case. The best poems are tools - instead of telling a truth, they manipulate us into discovering it for ourselves. Knowing a truth, after all, is less important than discovering it, seeing it suddenly, plain as day. A good truth is not a fact or a concept; it is a recognition, a mental event that has to occur. And a good poem can make us relive this act of recognition every time we read it. That moment of discovery, more than the action being described, is the event the poet means to preserve.
Take a look at this short poem by Sarah Menefee:
the blood of Colorado miners
machinegunned down by Rockefeller's cops in 1914
forms abstract impressionist smears on canvasses hung
on the boardroom walls of Chase Manhattan Bank
The poem refers to a specific historical moment, and implies a larger class war, accusing the very rich of murdering the working poor. This may be what the poem is "about," but what makes it a poem rather than a political treatise is that it preserves a different moment too - the shock of seeing not paint but blood. You don't have to know about Pinkerton raids or unions or even share Menefee's political views to imagine that moment and feel the shock. But depending on your knowledge and political views, your response may vary: surprise, disbelief, confusion, anger.
The poem presents a revolutionary idea, but its higher goal is to create a revolution in consciousness. For one moment, relived with each reading, the poet makes your mind work differently, combining thought, sensation, feeling and intuition. Once you've seen this boardroom art the way the poet sees it, you are forever changed. You can never again walk into a bank without wondering where its wealth came from. Abstract art can never again claim to represent nothing. The poet's metaphor gives you a sixth sense: the ability to perceive or intuit labor history as a distinct quality of the material wealth around you. Suddenly, objects no longer appear neutral, conveniently separated from the people who created them and who paid their true cost.
This revolutionary consciousness - experiencing the world as others experience it, seeing ourselves in new relationships to it, and sensing the potential for change - is at the root of what Martìn Espada calls the "political imagination." We must see the world in a new way and imagine a new reality before we can bring about change.
This is a tricky business. If the poet tells us too little, it sounds like she is holding back information. If she tells too much, we will not make the discovery for ourselves. If poets often seem to err on the side of telling too little, it's for two reasons. Leave a bigger gap and you get a bigger spark. Also, you leave open the possibility that as readers learn more about the world, they will gain more and more from the poem. Of course, the poet takes a risk here - a risk that this tool for conveying discovery will not work, that the images may never come together in the mind of some readers in a way that will lead to a sudden sense of understanding. But that risk goes with the risks of being a poet - remember that many of the poets in this book have been jailed, deported, tortured and even killed for what they wrote. Along with the readers' sense of adventure, the risk of failure when important truths are at stake makes poetry a vital activity and not an academic subject.
Reading poetry takes an act of trust on both sides: the poet must believe in readers' native intelligence and perseverence, and readers must believe that the writer has told enough, but not too much. Promoting the idea that you need a lot of knowledge beforehand in order to appreciate a poem fully short circuits the process of discovery. Reading poems motivates us to learn about the world, not the other way around.
You'll notice that most of the poems are written as if we are
already supposed to know what they are talking about - the assassination of
Victor Jara, for instance, in James Scully's "Now Sing," or the "disappeared"
men and women in poems by Roberto Sosa, Ernesto Cardenal, and Teresa de Jesús.
The revolution in Nicaragua, the civil war in El Salvador, the military dictatorships
in Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti. You may feel that the poet must be talking to
someone else. But the poet invites you to imagine that you know, to pretend
for a moment that the places and events are part of your world. In order to
feel the anguish, the anger, and also the defiance and joy of the speakers and
characters in the poems, you have to try to enter into their experience. As
Walt Whitman insisted, "what I assume, you shall assume." Once you
have felt and seen unfamiliar things through the unfamiliar workings of someone
else's mind, your knowledge will be deeper when it comes.
3. HOW A POEM WORKS
A 30-second TV commercial that costs a $250,000 dollars to produce and $50,000 every time it airs leaves nothing to chance. Special "hand" models are brought in for close-ups of hands, lip models for kisses. The exact age, sex, weight and skin coloring of the actors is determined by demographic surveys.
Poets, whatever their motivation, leave even less to chance. Because the poet has only a few words to make an experience leap from the reader's imagination, every detail is carefully chosen, even if their choices are sometimes instinctive and spontaneous rather than conscious and calculated.
Look again at Menefee's tiny poem. It recreates a moment in which the sight of red paint registers as blood, something seemingly out of place in the austere boardroom of a bank. Like a holographic plate, every single fragment of the poem encapsulates the whole picture in miniature. The fact that the crimes are hidden, unspeakable, is reflected in the way the murders are only partially alluded to. If you haven't heard of them, that is part of the poet's point. Part of a healthy response is curiosity about the incident. If you don't head for the encyclopedia now, at least your antennae will be primed to pick up pieces of information. And if the information is hard to come by, your concern will only be deepened. Maybe a trip to the encyclopedia is not enough. Maybe what you need is not a poetry course but a course in labor history.
Also, the poet doesn't say "I saw the paintings and they reminded me of the blood that was spilled to pay for them. In the poem, the paint is the blood. And notice that the blood comes first. The blood is the reality - it is what the poet sees; the paint is just an illusion. The imagination has turned knowledge into fact.
Though every poem is open to interpretation, the poet's language both evokes and limits the range of responses. Fierce words like "machinegunned," "cops," and "smears" rule out sadness here, even though the deaths of the miners is tragic. In this context, even the word "hung" rings ominously.
Even the line breaks are important here, though the poem has no meter and no rhyme regulating them. The first line, "The blood of Colorado miners" is a single complete image. The blood is not a thought, it is there, existing by itself. The second line is a complete event, the murders. It shocks by itself, even though it is only part of the story. The third line is also a single image, the abstract red designs of the paintings; this allows you to see the paint before trying to understand what it means. The impending doom in the word "hung" is amplified by its position at the end. The last line saves the recognition until the end and delivers the surprise in a single blow.
To the casual observer the poem says "Look again. Don't take anything for granted." To the banker and his allies it says, "We know what you've done. We see." It manages to be an accusation, perhaps even a threat.
Whether you can tell a metaphor from a simile, or an image from a symbol, is not that important. If you let red paint become blood instead of just thinking about their similarity, then you have performed the metaphor, created a mental image. All the poet's tricks are just ways of transforming words from signs with "meanings" attached to them into actual events in your head. Rhythm and rhyme and concrete detail are all ways of giving these mental pictures texture, structure and staying-power. The poem asks that you read at the simplest, most literal level first. Then, it's the pictures and events that have meaning, not the words. This is all that is meant by that mysterious term, symbol.
Seeing paint as blood is relatively easy. Tomàs Borges' lines "Have you drunk shadows/ when your lips are parched?" require more magic. No one has ever tasted darkness before, so a new sense comes into being. And when Jack Hirshman describes the "tortillas of smog" hanging over Los Angeles, the metaphor does more than just evoke the oily flat layers of polluted air hanging overhead. Tortillas of smog are different from a blanket of smog or even pancakes of smog. The ethnicity of tortillas becomes part of the physical description. The city's Hispanic culture is so dominant that it even shapes the pollution in the air above it.
This is what poetry is best at: creating new experiences, even new senses, through which meanings and emotions are grasped directly, with the sudden force of a spark or explosion. From dreams and nightmares you know that imagined experiences can evoke real responses, and in poetry there is no limit to the experiences you can have.
Let words become things. Let the rhythms of the lines set the tempo of your imagining. What you imagine is a real event in your mind. Trust it. The emotions and thoughts that follow are subjective, but they are your particular set of keys. Trust them. Only from these images and responses, sometimes immediately and sometimes only after many years, comes meaning.
4. EVALUATING WHAT YOU READ
Poetry Like Bread proves that good poetry can be accessible and political without sacrificing artistic integrity. But the book's argument goes further: it reverses the usual standards for judging poems. As the title suggests, poetry must be both accessible and engaged in people's everyday political and economic struggles in order to really fulfill its promise and function as art. Poetry is social - not a solitary pursuit of the educated elite - and a complete picture of human experience has to consider not only the inner, individual psyche but our outer, social and political selves which are just as essential to our identity.
The politics of these poems goes beyond their subject matter and opinions. They also demand a kind of political engagement from you as you read. They point you outward toward the world rather than inward into yourself. They ask you to consider that who you are "inside" as an individual is shaped by who you are "outside" as a member of a particular gender, class, nationality, and cultural group. And they invite you to break down barriers by making "the other" part of your inner experience.
To read a poem well begins with imagining the experience its words create. The poet's "point of view" it is literally just that: a place from which to see the world. Understanding what the poet sees from that perspective comes later. If we see and are moved by what we see, we begin to understand. Agreeing with the poet is another matter, and the best poets will demand an opinion, but leave you to make up your own mind. In that way, it is possible to read these poems and respond to them deeply regardless of your political views.
You see, in the classroom, teachers give us great poems and grade us on how well we understand them. But outside the classroom, it is the readers who must judge poems (a radical concept!) and themselves. You are the only one who knows if you have been moved or not. You decide whether the poem is powerful or dressed-up propaganda, whether the politics it espouses are realistic or desirable, whether the poet has the moral authority to call your actions and beliefs into question.
"Poetry, like bread, is for everyone." It's a sentiment that few students in the United States would find true. Poetry here is more like cake - a sweet luxury - or like caviar, an acquired taste of the well-to-do. Yet, in some areas of the world, poetry still has the nutritional urgency and universality of bread. In the recently liberated countries of Eastern Europe and Latin America, poets have become elected leaders. In countries still under the yoke of oppression, poets are jailed, tortured, and even killed for what they write. When large numbers of people read poetry, learn it by heart and pass it on, it can become dangerous to any government whose power depends on crushing the human spirit. Even a love poem, if it reflects people's dreams and aspirations or evokes a common history, can make a despot uneasy.
The radical content of the poems in Poetry Like Bread, and the radical philosophy that allows them to be both beautiful and accessible, make the anthology a perfect way to read poetry without teachers, without specialized knowledge, without accepted cultural values. All you need are the intellectual curiosity to encounter unfamiliar facts and the imaginative curiosity to walk in another's shoes, to experience the world for a little while with different eyes and ears and thoughts. If you are lucky, your reading will strengthen your convictions, or challenge you to rethink and change them. This is poetry; the rest is academic.
* * * * * * * * * *
Hugh Blumenfeld is a poet and singer-songwriter who has spent the last three years touring internationally and making recordings of his work. Four collections of his songs, The Strong In Spirit (1988), Barehanded (1993), Mozart's Money (1996), and Rocket Science (1998) are all available on the independent Prime-CD label in New York. His work has also appeared on a number of CD compilations including On A Winter's Night, The Postcrypt, and Fast Folk Musical Magazine,and has been published in Sing Out! magazine, Broadside, and The Best of Contemporary Folk (Cherry Lane). In 2002, his song "Raphael" was included on the Folkways/Smithsonian compilation Fast Folk: A Community of Songwriters.
Dr. Blumenfeld attended M.I.T., the University of Chicago,
and N.Y.U., where he received his Ph.D. in Poetics - a program founded to explore
ways of increasing poetry's relevance and appeal for a wider audience. After
teaching writing, literature and interdisciplinary topics at N.Y.U., Bard College,
and Brooklyn College, he taught for two years as a professor of English at Eastern
Connecticut State University. He was a managing editor of Fast Folk Musical
Magazine for seven of its fifteen years, has contributed essays and reviews
to the Boston Book Review, and is editor of the online folk music resource
The Ballad Tree. This is his first collaboration
with the Curbstone Press.
© 1998, 2000 Hugh Blumenfeld / Curbstone Press