New Poem: 'American Art'

In this week's New Yorker magazine Louis Menand writes about poetry: Why do people write and read it, and what difference does it make? There's a lot of this going around. If you have been in the literary game for about 40 years like me, you notice there's a lot of self-checking in the media by poets and commentators. At the same time there seems to be as much poetry as I've seen since the 1970s, by which I mean new poetry and public poetry events. People are forever asking themselves, some people I should say, What's poetry got to do with anything? And then they begin talking about the meaning of existence and foundations of culture, fitting in poets from Ancient Rome to Harlem in New York City. The article references Claudia Rankine's recent book Citizen: An American Lyric, in which she writes about race, society, and perception. The book has sold 200,000 copies.

Menand, whose writing I admire, finally comes down to this: "I started out as a poet, too, ... but I got the same painful pleasure out of writing prose---the pleasure of trying to put the right words in the right order. And I took away from my experience with poetry something else. I understood that the reason people write poems is the reason people write. They have something to say."

The following is a new poem, just a day or so old. With my wife and two friends this past Sunday I visited the Addison Gallery of American Art on the campus of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. Afterwards, I had something to say about what we saw. 

 

American Art

 

We were up to the Addison Gallery in Andover, Mass.,

Enjoying some famous Homer seascapes in the collection,

The black-and-yellow log cabin canvas by alum Frank Stella,

And a small Louise Nevelson with halved stair spindles,

As well as the model ships in the crypt, the lot of them

Like doll houses for men, precise and climate-controlled

In their jumbo cases, craftworks by retired captains,

The mother ships built in East Boston or Newburyport,

Running the lanes from Liverpool to East America

Or down to Venezuela and back through the Antilles—

Before we stepped left into the library of blonde wood

Whose walls held photo-documents of the nation’s

Race war of the mid-twentieth century, pictures by Gordon Parks,

James Karales, Ernest C. Withers, Stephen Shames: a young

John Lewis getting in the way just as he urges we do;

Black men in suits with Allah placards; a pained Reverend King

Waiting to speak at the memorial for four girls murdered

At the bombed 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham;

One African American soldier on his way to Vietnam;

And an image of a white woman in a dress outside a diner

Who is scolding a bunch of white men busy tormenting

Human rights defenders sitting in the street, a drama

Photographer Danny Lyon saw only once in those years,

According to his Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement.

When the men taunting her said, “Why don’t you marry one?”

She sat on the ground with the volunteer freedom fighters.

 

---Paul Marion (c) 2017