Contrast in poetry

3 posts

Mining the Synergy of Opposites


Contrast. Nothing tells a story quite like it. Consider the juxtaposition of junk car parked next to new Porsche, of grandmother in her wheelchair posing with her 5-year-old granddaughter for pictures, of homeless man sleeping under cardboard against the smooth base of a financial-district skyscraper.

In poetry, contrast can work its magic, too. Past and future. Dream and reality. Invincibility and mortality.

The last works particularly well when examining the one childish outlook we’re least willing to give up—the notion that good times go on forever, that hope is an unsinkable ocean liner, that death comes calling for others with regularity but doesn’t even have us on its to-do list.

Let’s see it at work in three poems:


“Driving into Our New Lives”
Maria Mazziotti Gillan,

Years ago, driving across the mountains
in West Virginia, both of us are so young
we don’t know anything. We are twenty-eight
years old, our children sleeping in the back seat.
With your fresh Ph.D. in your suitcase, we head out
toward Kansas City. We’ve never been anywhere.
We decide to go the long way around
instead of driving due west.

Years ago, driving across mountains; your
hand resting on my knee, the radio playing the folk
music we love, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, or you
singing songs to keep the children entertained.
How could we know what is to come?

We are young. We think we’ll be healthy
and strong forever. We are certain we are invincible
because we love each other, because our children
are smart and beautiful, because we are heading

to a new place, because the stars
in the coal-black West Virginia sky are so thick,
they could be chunks of ice.
How could we know what is to come?


To steal a phrase from George Orwell, it has a “Such, Such Were the Days” feeling to it. Reading it, one senses how the speaker’s perspective has brought wisdom and sadness in equal measure: “How could we know what is to come? / We are young. We think we’ll be healthy / and strong forever.”

And all based on logical (to capital-R Romantic humans) reasons: love, smart and beautiful children, West Virginia stars, and a new home somewhere beyond the headlights.

I’ve used the contrast between happiness / security and some unknown reckoning myself. The alchemy works if you jigger it just right. First, from Lost Sherpa of Happiness, the perspective of innocence in the animal world:


“Sharp-Shinned Hawk & the Song Sparrow”
by Ken Craft

All spring, the punctured sky collapses blue
beneath the shrill knives of their call.
All day, shriek and talon, eye and hunger
from the heat of a red-black gullet.

They circle overhead, dive under liquid
evergreen, glide through currents of hardwood,
trunk and limb. Nestling, fledgling,
songbird—on ground or mid-flight—
leaving only an orphan feather for changeling.

And here I hear the song sparrow sing.
Here in the narrow interstice between stealth and wait.
Her three notes. Her cheerful trill. Her hesitation
at the wood’s held breath.
Then, song again.
To sun or cloud, maybe. Wind or mate.

She sings to the stillness of quiet’s dull edge.
She sings to not knowing that every joy
in life is answered, eventually.


As with the Gillan poem, there is no need to address the future, as it is implied. The future is a hawk in waiting. An indifferent hawk, blindly following instinct’s edicts, which somehow doubles the affront.

And here, from The Indifferent World, a similar scene, only more domestic:


by Ken Craft

Three is the loneliest number on a clock
when the night can’t save you.

No doubt it is the constellated tug,
a conspiracy of stars, the silent, primal

voice that whispers the uselessness,
that grinds greater gears,

that mocks the hubris of careful plans,
set alarms. Every blanketed life around you

sleeps safe and happy and secure
like nothing can touch them, like change

has made its exception, named it you,
and passed finally over the frosted roof.


Contrast. A young family driving toward a life of endless happiness in the West Virginia night. A song sparrow singing blithely while bill and talon bide their time from a branch high above. An insomniac convinced that both change and the future make exceptions.

Readers shake their heads saying, “No, no, no,” while wishing, “Yes, yes, yes” against their better judgment.

That wish is a big part of this brief, lovely journey we call life. I’m not sure where we’d be without it.





How To Make the Old Seem New Again

We keep coming back to contrast. It’s such a wonderful tool, the sharpest and most precise, perhaps, in the writer’s toolbox. Finding examples isn’t difficult and reading them is not only easy but downright pleasant on the eyes.

Consider the minor misery of being a tourist, for instance. Obligated to go here and there, to see this and that, the weight of history or great art or imposing architecture on our shoulders.

It’s enough to make you feel like Atlas saddled with the world against his will. Or to cheer for the little guy who rebels in the great tradition of Mark Twain.

Exhibit A is today’s poem from my good friend (OK, we exchanged all of two e-mails, so good enough) George Bilgere.


Really Eternal City
by George Bilgere

After we’d walked for at least an hour,
heading toward the Vatican
on a broiling August day,
I began thinking about how long
the tour we’d signed up for was going to be,
and how many sacred things would be on view,
and how much complicated information
the guide would tell us about the ancient paintings
and Roman numerals and relics
and tombs and holy knuckle bones.

I knew it would all kind of just melt together
and congeal into one big lumpen mass
of guilt and suffering and miracles
and gloomy old men in sandals.

And as I was thinking this
we were passing through a shady little square
where a couple of bare-breasted marble nymphs
were playing in the fountain,
and there were no tour guides anywhere,
there was no suffering or crucifixions,
nor was there even one important name or date
I would have to try to remember.

And the cheap red wine at the sidewalk ristorante
where we ended up spending the afternoon
instead of going to the Vatican
was wonderful, even miraculous,
as was the spaghetti bolognese.


In the penultimate stanza, the tone begins to shift. It’s like the winter freeze’s first crack under the glory of an unseasonably warm March day. Mercy, then, for “bare-breasted marble nymphs…playing in the fountain.” And mercy for “no suffering or crucifixions” or important names or dates to remember, too.

Instead we see “cheap red wine at the sidewalk ristorante / where we ended up spending the afternoon / instead of going to the Vatican.”

It can’t help but be “wonderful, even miraculous, / as was the spaghetti bolognese.”

It’s a neat reminder that history and art and architecture are undoubtedly wonderful things, but nothing beats the prime pleasures of life: food and wine shared with the one you love.

Of course we knew that already, and of course it’s a most ordinary thought. But put in contrast to the rigors of touring the Vatican, it becomes new again.

Pass the contrast and the parmesan, in other words. Oh. And the bottle, too.

War & Peace in 14 Lines

brian turner

Sometimes I don’t pull books off the shelf to read in the conventional sense. Sometimes I pull them to simply read a page or two, an essay, a single poem. This past weekend, the one we designate to gratitude, I happened to pull Brian Turner’s 2005 book of poems, Here, Bullet.

Opening the book randomly, my eyes fell on page 47 to the poem, “Curfew.” Reading it, I found a study in contrasts–if Tolstoy will forgive me, the stark difference between war and peace.

But the contrast doesn’t work unless you live in a war zone.  As Turner served as an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq, he could see more clearly what folks back home could not. Blinded by peacetime, it’s more difficult to see the beauty in a policeman enjoying the sun, a child helping his mother hang clothes, the faithful going to prayer. See what I mean:


Curfew by Brian Turner
                                               The wrong is not in the religion,
                                                                       The wrong is in us.  — Saier T.

A dusk, bats fly out by the hundreds.
Water snakes glide in the ponding basins
behind the rubbled palaces. The mosques
call their faithful in, welcoming
the moonlight as prayer.

Today, policemen sunbathed on traffic islands
and children helped their mothers
string clothes to the line, a slight breeze
filling them with heat.

There were no bombs, no panic in the streets.
Sgt. Gutierrez didn’t comfort an injured man
who cupped pieces of his friend’s brain
in his hands; instead, today,
white birds rose from the Tigris.


The poem’s effectiveness derives from the shocking imagery of stanza three–specifically the idea of a man holding pieces of his friend’s brain in his hand. Also bombs, panic in the streets–the stuff war zones are made of.

Then, with his reader dismayed, Turner turns back to a peaceful image: “instead, today, / white birds rose from the Tigris.” The transition word “instead” followed by another two-syllable word, “today” (each in rhythm with the other, each slowed by a comma) work perfectly before the idyllic image of white birds rising from the river.

This is what normal looks like. This is what most people fail to observe while normal plays out around them in peacetime. But there’s no taking it for granted in countries torn by war. By contrast, the beauty and the stillness and the ordinariness of what life is supposed to be practically leap out at the observer–in this case the observer, the recorder, the poet.

I closed the book and gave thanks for both poem and peace. And I vowed again to observe the little things that are so immense: dusk, bats, white birds rising for the heavens. War, after all, can visit any country….