Bettering American Poetry, Volume 2
eds. Akbar, Clark, dodd, Espinoza, King, Leung, Rankine, Ramirez, Wasson
Bettering Books, 288 pp. (2017)
As a minority, life in America feels fundamentally broken. Maybe it is broken in two. On the one hand, there’s the founding rhetoric, the Bill of Rights, and the various things directly inspired by their spirit. You could say the culmination of this regime is the Fourteenth Amendment, the explicit promise of equal protection, or perhaps the Voting Rights Act. And on the other hand, there’s actually living in America. Dealing with distrust; finding no remedy for grave injustices; coming to terms with being bullied (and always being seen as a target for bullying); being excluded to the point of invisibility; living in fear of a system which speaks your aspirations but does not allow you a say, let alone encourage leadership. There are happy exceptions to what I’ve outlined, obviously. There are plenty who have sacrificed for me, going out of their way to make sure I could get ahead. Some of them did this out of a sense of duty attributable to our laws and culture, enabling me to actually live. I’m hoping to work for those who will invest in me, and I’m reasonably sure that’s doable. Then again, a little more acknowledgement of my humanity can go a long way in making my life better.
Bettering American Poetry, Volume 2 demonstrates how complicated acknowledgement of humanity can be. Its featured poems range over a wide variety of concerns—racism, activism, sexuality, alienation, sexism, acceptance, ambition, bullying, colonialism, possession, loneliness, emptiness—and I can understand finding its documentation of terrors faced in public and private overwhelming. This is a very good collection of very good poems—it unnerves, disturbs, demands engagement. I want to do justice to every voice heard, those of the poets and for whom they speak, but I myself feel inadequate to that task.
I believe a fruitful approach to discussing this anthology can begin with considering what the editors would like for it. What if Bettering American Poetry were adopted by a number of classrooms? Many of the poems can easily become part of a critical discussion of personal trauma and current events. Moments in the classroom informed by such discussion are of vital importance, as students not only engage the world at hand, but see themselves and their peers each reflected differently in it. Those moments which have stayed with me longest have been “earned,” so to speak, built from a set of concerns and voices you would not immediately think go together, lingered over and allowed to frustrate students, finally reaching a “Eureka!” moment (whether in the classroom or years later). I can see myself assigning poems from this anthology along with texts featured in a more typical curriculum to show these all-too-human concerns global and timeless.
One idea for an assignment that comes readily to mind has to do with the problem of patriarchy. Pretty Hawk, telling her story in Rachel Jamison Webster’s “Ghost Dance, Lakota Territory,” explains the immense peril of having something of value in the face of an empowered, hostile majority:
I do not miss being watched like being eaten. The way it robs you of your eyes. When I was young, I was very beautiful, I am told. People seemed to fear me and want me. If something was rare—a tree, a stone, a woman—the whites just wanted to take it and own it. But it took me a long time, it took me my life, to understand this…. I did not know who I was other than someone who was wanted, so I wanted.
Beauty does not just entail the danger of being possessed. It is a power—it can win fear, excite desire. Precisely because it is a mixture of power and danger, it makes understanding difficult. “It took me my life” to understand a most necessary truth, one needed for survival, and this lack of understanding had consequences for identity formation. “I did not know who I was other than someone who was wanted.” Pretty Hawk has wisdom to offer us, as she has endured exploitation and can explain how it affected her. Would it benefit students to see the logic of the sort of person who would actively want to oppress another, in contrast to Pretty Hawk? I could try pairing this poem with Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” where a psychopath with far too much status and wealth confesses to murdering his wife on account of his paranoia. If students start talking about how class divisions can enable such cruel, arbitrary behavior, how power and order without explicit ends can actively endanger the well-being of others, I’d consider that a potentially valuable experience.
However, as I have learned from experience, discussion of class, patriarchy, and imperialism can feel remote to many students directly afflicted by them. Exploring what it means to “find your own voice” is not a cliché. If I go through the myriad ways I myself have been silenced directly or indirectly, put in a position to not trust my own voice, you’ll wonder how it is possible I am writing anything at all. When I turn to Lena Khalaf Tuffaha’s “Altered States,” devoted to the “light in our language”—that of Arabic in the poem—I wonder about how every atom of tradition could be a space for breath, an opportunity for self-expression:
In Miss Sahar’s class we learned the science
of language, we learned to read and transmogrify.
We would tear apart
A root, break down compound structures,
force a gaping vowel into the center
of what was before us,
a space for breath to escape,
to make our words.
Finding possibility within the space of a language feels like the highest sort of beauty. It lends itself to a vision of numerous individuals expressing themselves through something intimately shared. Still, many of us could see traditional structures as anything but liberating; I often think of them as a double-edged sword. One has to work with them to free oneself and others, and yet too harsh a rejection of the colonizer can slip into a denial that one would ever be tyrannical. Yeats’ “Easter 1916″—”Too long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart”—and Seamus Heaney’s collection North deal with this fundamental tension, too. The scope of Yeats’ poem is more epic than intimate; Heaney in North dwells on ritualized violence. Tuffaha shares an intricate, personal memory of learning in a classroom, from a teacher remembered. I should think sensitivity to the differences in tone in Tuffaha’s, Yeats’, and Heaney’s works yields sensitivity to how very similar questions can actually be very different.
The personal is political, but saying this solves nothing, as it only introduces the problem. I imagine students starting to make stronger claims about their realizations and moral stances as the semester wears on. I hope they won’t lose themselves in rhetorical flourishes but continue the necessary work of mapping the complicated emotional ground all of us tread. When I eventually assign Chrysanthemum Tran’s “On (Not) Forgiving My Mother,” I do not want the raw power of their words to be diluted, even as I want to talk about ideas in Freud and Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy:
I try to give
this body meaning,
a means to transcend
I try to forgive my mother,
even if it really means
And I'm certain
there is no word for that.
Shaping the body is a basic political act, whether it involves putting Spartan boys in military camps or wearing shoes that purposely constrict one’s feet. Developing an awareness of how people are dealing with and fighting for their own identity goes hand-in-hand with understanding how we see ourselves in our own families as well as the strange mixture of law and piety believed necessary for governance. Our parents don’t just shape us with expectations, as their expectations for us are loaded with expectations they have about themselves. Already there is a very complicated, almost impossible to untangle emotional dance at play within the private sphere. When one considers Antigone, where a ruling family is torn apart by claims to rule which simultaneously invoke piety and the necessity of secular sovereignty, I would hope one thinks about how Antigone changes in the play. At first, defiant and fiercely composed, later, seemingly raving with wild movements and unkempt appearance. How, perhaps, the holy is superimposed upon a human being believing herself in collapse. I do not think I need to say much more about an age where the repeated invocation of “law and order” is convenient, all-too-effective political rhetoric.