Why I Find Occasional Poems Tricky

Carrboro Town SealAs Carrboro poet laureate, I was invited to read a poem last night at the swearing-in ceremony of Carrboro’s new mayor, Lydia Lavelle, and re-elected alderpersons Jacquelyn Gist, Randee Haven-O’Donnell, and Sammy Slade at Carrboro Town Hall.

It was also suggested that I might write a poem for the occasion. And, while writing something for the event intimidated me, I did write my first occasional poem for the swearing-in.

Before I share the poem, let me comment on why I felt intimidated. As Wordsworth is oft (over?) quoted as saying, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Therein, for me, is the difficulty of the occasional poem—the poet has to anticipate the powerful feelings. The poet doesn’t get to recollect them in tranquility. She’s ideally part of creating the powerful feelings. And, by and large, I do draw on past events that are emotionally interesting and significant to me when I write. So undertaking an occasional poem flipped my usual writing process on its head. That and the strict deadline daunted me.

While I may envy them as poets, I certainly don’t envy Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Alexander, and Richard Blanco the task they each undertook to write a poem for a presidential inauguration. But working on my own occasional poem did give me new appreciation of what each managed to accomplish.

In any case, I feel lucky to live in a town like Carrboro has created and supported the position of a poet laureate and whose mayor values words enough to request an occasional poem.

So here it is, my first occasional poem.

Swearing-In Ceremony

by Celisa Steele

Swear comes from Middle English sweren
and may be akin to the Old Church
Slavic svarŭ, meaning to quarrel.

It doesn’t matter—although it may
help, when quarrels arise, to recall
the Slavic: what you do is ancient,

rooted in words you speak now. Neither
is history worth much tonight, whose
footsteps you follow irrelevant,

dry as etymology. Even
what you say tonight doesn’t matter.
Saying a thing never made it so

as every poet knows. Words are weak
and never change a world. But say them
still—because they should be, must be said

as all poets also know. Then go
do the work, stack action on action,
stone on stone, build the thing sturdy and strong.

Oh! Ken Goldsmith, or What a Poet Wears

I caught Kenneth Goldsmith, poet laureate of the Museum of Modern Art (yes, the MOMA has its own poet laureate, though surely not resident?) on The Colbert Report last night. While a big part of me was happy to see a poet on The Report (what might the Colbert bump do for contemporary poetry?), I was disappointed when Goldsmith’s suggestion to Stephen Colbert that they might spend time reciting poetry played out as the two quoting the lyrics to Oh! Susanna. A fine song and all, wouldn’t a poem have been more appropriate?

Of course, Goldsmith’s attire (boater hat, bright pink suit, and one bright pink and one lime green sock) did sort of beg for a musical number.

They did eventually get around to talking about Goldsmith’s Seven American Deaths and Disasters. Check the clip out below.

Learning What Is Untaught

This post was originally published on the Tagoras blog. I co-founded Tagoras, and, through a combination of independent research and strategic consulting, we help organizations maximize the reach, revenue, and impact of their educational offerings. Although this piece was written for an audience interested in adult learning, I thought Tony Hoagland’s take on implication would interest poets too.



"Volcano" is copyright (c) 2006 Tony Hisgett and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

A poet and a lifelong learner, I attended a two-day workshop in May where poet-teachers Dorianne Laux and Joseph Millar introduced me to Tony Hoagland’s five powers of poetry. Hoagland classifies implication as poetry’s fifth power:

A good writer does not say everything. When Jane Hirschfield says, “It is foolish / to let a young redwood / grow next to a house,” we become true participants in the poem, by hearing what is unsaid. Understatement, inference, innuendo, and suggestion are crucial skills of implication. When Amichai says, “A photo of a volcano on the wall makes people feel safe,” we understand that to study what is said and what is unsaid, and how, is not unimportant.

Implication is how good poets invite the reader into the poem, let her add and infer from her own experiences.

Some Assembly Required

Dan Ariely coined the term “IKEA effect” for the phenomenon—observed in his research in the field of behavioral economics—that “labor enhances affection for its results.” The Swedish company IKEA sells a lot of some-assembly-required products—and has been very successful at it.

I have a bookshelf from IKEA that’s more than a decade old. I still get a kick of residual satisfaction when I walk past it—the memory of an afternoon spent surrounded by socket-head screws, using the packaged Allen wrench to torque them tight.

We value what we add to—the bookshelf we assemble, the poem that lets us decide how a volcano evokes safety.

From Poetry and Behavioral Economics to Andragogy

Malcolm Knowles addressed the role of experience in the andragogical model outlined in The Adult Learner:

[F]or many kinds of learning, the richest resources for learning reside in the adult learners themselves. Hence, the emphasis in adult education is on experiential techniques—techniques that tap into the experience of the learners, such as group discussions, simulation exercises, problem solving activities, case methods, and laboratory methods instead of transmittal techniques.

Hoagland’s implication and Ariely’s IKEA effect are about engagement—engagement that yields richer results. They require the reader or the consumer to do something, to bring her knowledge to bear, just as Knowles argues we must leave space for adult learners to apply their experiences to what they learn.

The Implication for Your Education

Do your education offerings leave room for implication? Do they require some assembly?

If they don’t, see how you can restructure them to require learners to draw on their own rich experiences. Without room for implication, without some assembly required, your education is an unread poem, prefab furniture without personality. If your offerings don’t require anything of the learners, then it’s all too easy for the learners to “put on their dunce hats of dependency” (as Knowles puts it) and tune out.

You can’t teach them everything—you have to leave room for them to learn what is untaught.