April 12, 2016

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Source Poems: "On Moral Leadership as a Political Dilemma"

For National Poetry Month 2014, I have invited 17 authors and poets to guest post about source poems. In this series of essays, each writer will describe a single poem's significance in his or her life.

Today's guest blogger is poet, physicist, and Little Patuxent Review's online editor, Dylan Bargteil.

Dylan Bargteil
It was a stroke of luck that I ever heard of June Jordan.

As I began studying poetry in college, I was introduced to Yeats, Owen, Bishop, Larkin, William Carlos Williams, and many others. In fact, I nearly chose to write this piece on "To A Poor Old Woman" which has left an indelible and obvious mark on much of my writing.

June Jordan is not part of this canon, and I am not well-read enough to have ventured very far in any particular direction, along either paths paved or unexplored. Fortunately I spent the last spring break I would ever have volunteering at the Split This Rock poetry festival in Washington DC, which was celebrating the life and work of June Jordan. During one of the readings, the organizers played this poem.

On Moral Leadership as a Political Dilemma
by June Jordan

Watergate, 1973

I don’t know why but
I cannot tell alie

I chopped down the cherry tree
I did
I did that
I chopped down the cherry tree

and to tell you the truth
that was only in the morning

which left a whole day and part
of an evening (until suppertime)
to continue doing what I like to do
about cherry trees

which is
to chop them down
then pick the cherries
and roll them into a cherry-pie circle
and then
stomp the cherries
stomp them
jumping up and down

hard and heavy
jumping up to stomp them
so the flesh leaks and the juice
runs loose
and then I get to pick at the pits
or else I pick up the cherry pits
(depending on my mood)
and then
I fill my mouth completely full
of cherry pits
and run over to the river
the Potomac
where I spit
the cherry pits
47 to 65 cherry pits spit
into the Potomac
at one spit

Read the rest at Poem of the Week.

It was political. It was playful. It was funny. The language was lyrical and the voice melodic. It delighted me. At first I went looking for more recordings of her reading just to hear her voice again, but as I engaged more with the language and content of the poems her work began to do something more important than delight me. It challenged me.

When I am writing, I think very hard about how the language turns in my mind and on my tongue. I choose words that signal physical sensations, engaging all of my senses. I try to exercise control over the context in which the language appears -- how line breaks and neighboring words interact to create new tactile sensations when reading or new sounds and rhythms.

"On Moral Leadership as a Political Dilemma" revealed to me where my writing had atrophied, much as a recent attempt at punting [What is punting?] revealed which muscles I had been neglecting during exercise. While all my attention to language imbued my poems with strong mood, they were lacking in tone. 

June's speakers refuse to hide any feelings on the topic at hand. The speaker in "On Moral Leadership as a Political Dilemma" delivers with satisfied and confident delight, and June's language, line breaks, and reading all skillfully bolster that tone without sacrificing other technical aspects of the poem.

For me, emotional distance between myself and the speaker and emotional distance between the speaker and what is written was always safe and made it easy to focus my language. I was envious of poets whose speakers had strong, distinct voices (I would never mistake Anis Mojgani for another poet), but often those poets I encountered were part of a slam scene that remains somewhat stigmatized in academia. Hearing a voice as strong as that in "On Moral Leadership..." being celebrated rather than degraded was liberating.

That said, that poem teaches lessons I still struggle to learn. Old habits die hard, and not only am I attached to my approach to writing, but I am also attached to the sense that injecting too much of myself or even an imagined speaker into the poem is somehow melodramatic. In these times I try to remember the other lesson that "On Moral Leadership..." led me towards, which is that the personal is political, and if the speaker in my poem needs to stage a protest it is my duty to give that character a safe space to do so.

June Jordan
Dylan Bargteil is currently a beer brewer, pizza maker, editor, poet, songwriter, and physics PhD student. He currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. For information about what Dylan has been and done, visit ''. 

Previous posts in this series:


Diane Mayr said...

"the personal is political, and if the speaker in my poem needs to stage a protest it is my duty to give that character a safe space to do so."

We all need to remember this and allow our speaker to say what needs to be said.

Linda B said...

I enjoyed contemplating your idea that injecting too much of the personal might somehow be too melodramatic, yet most of us are drawn to those voices more than others. Maybe it takes a leap of faith to make the change in our own writing, or like you, a poem?

Anonymous said...

I think you're right, Linda, that it takes a leap of faith. To some degree, any time we share our writing we make ourselves vulnerable. And obviously any time we share something personal, even if it's what's personal to a fictional character and not our immediate selves, we make ourselves vulnerable. You have the risk the rejection and the judgment to commit to making yourself vulnerable.

For my own writing, I am usually concerned about issues of sincerity and authenticity (which our current culture seems to put a great premium on), feeling unsure about whether the personal would be accepted or rejected as being a hack act.

Thank you, Linda and Diane both, for your kind comments.

Liz Steinglass said...

I find political poetry by far the most difficult to write.