Poetry, often something we uphold for its beauty and its dalliances with love and nature, sometimes has a reputation to downhold as well. In poetry, Tony Hoagland tells us, meanness can work. That’s right, vinegar instead of honey for your readers. As any misbehaving child will tell you, negative attention can be as good as positive.
Hoagland serves up some examples in the final chapter of his book of essays, Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft (but not Ken Craft). It shouldn’t surprise us. Have we not learned that the pen is mightier than the sword? Have we not realized the power of words as weapons?
Certainly as kids we quickly learn the lie in the little ditty, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” What bull. Words will always hurt us! If they didn’t, we wouldn’t feel the need to protect ourselves with silly little chants in hopes of magically feeling better.
For starters, Hoagland gives us the plain simple plain of William Carlos Williams–a poem that will red wheelbarrow right over your heart, if you love grandmas.
The Last Words of My English Grandmother
There were some dirty plates
and a glass of milk
beside her on a small table
near the rank, disheveled bed—
Wrinkled and nearly blind
she lay and snored
rousing with anger in her tones
to cry for food,
Gimme something to eat—
They’re starving me—
I’m all right I won’t go
to the hospital. No, no, no
Give me something to eat
Let me take you
to the hospital, I said
and after you are well
you can do as you please.
She smiled, Yes
you do what you please first
then I can do what I please—
Oh, oh, oh! she cried
as the ambulance men lifted
her to the stretcher—
Is this what you call
making me comfortable?
By now her mind was clear—
Oh you think you’re smart
you young people,
she said, but I’ll tell you
you don’t know anything.
Then we started.
On the way
we passed a long row
of elms. She looked at them
awhile out of
the ambulance window and said,
What are all those
fuzzy-looking things out there?
Trees? Well, I’m tired
of them and rolled her head away.
Ouch. But it hits you in the not-so-sweet spot. Grandparents aren’t always paid to behave like the sweet old grandparents of yore. Sometimes they grow gruffer with time. Sometimes our final memories of them are best overlooked and forgotten. And sometimes that becomes an impossibility. Instead, it becomes a poem.
Or what about Louise Gluck’s “Circe’s Power,” wherein she pulls a Jonathan Swift and looks at the whole damn human race as pig-like. Thus does Circe’s act become more metaphor than magic:
I never turned anyone into a pig.
Some people are pigs; I make them
Look like pigs.
I’m sick of your world
That lets the outside disguise the inside. Your men weren’t bad men;
Did that to them. As pigs,
Under the care of
Me and my ladies, they
Sweetened right up.
Then I reversed the spell, showing you my goodness
As well as my power. I saw
We could be happy here,
As men and women are
When their needs are simple. In the same breath,
I foresaw your departure,
Your men with my help braving
The crying and pounding sea. You think
A few tears upset me? My friend,
Every sorceress is
A pragmatist at heart; nobody sees essence who can’t
Face limitation. If I wanted only to hold you
I could hold you prisoner.
And one more from Tony H., this one to the tune of “Mommy Dearest.” It’s Stephanie Brown’s poem, “Mommy Is a Scary Narcissist,” which includes the scary word, blepharoplasty (plastic surgery of the eyelids, thank you).
C’mon, I shouldn’t need to mention blepharoplasty.
Her mauled face is a part of the shared horizon.
I don’t need to mention the lift, the tuck, the lipo.
The smile-ever-smiling is a part of the position.
This is Mommy’s supposition:
Sexy. Sexy. Sexy. Everlasting and in high-tonus stance
Belong to dads, men, boyfriends, bartenders, chance.
Mommy looks good when she prays in the chapel.
(ferns, lush foliage, candles, rose petals, and flattering paints)
Harder than the other mommies. No one stays.
(She looks into the baptismal font deeply, passionately, and
Mommy tries to love, Mommy tries to get a job.
Not very hard, the outside world knows that, but Mommy
Enough already? Ready to cry, “Uncle?” If the world is driving you nuts, you have two creative choices: one, you can write escapist poems for people who want to escape to Pollyanna poesy, or two, you can write with vim and vitriol. Let it all out. Get even. Poetically, of course. Some readers out there just might appreciate it and thank you from the hidden dark and sinister of their hearts.