Completely Subjective: Alan Sullivan’s “Divide and Conquer”

Alan Sullivan was born in 1948 and was raised in New York. In his later late life, he attended Trinity College in Connecticut. Since then, he has resided in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Florida. He composed an assortment of pieces, including a science fiction novels, Elixir and The Pearls of Poritrin, and even a sailing memoir, Cruising with Catullus. In the midst of all these other forms of writing, Alan was also recognized for his poetry, most famously  “Divide and Conquer” , which was selected for the 2008 volume of Best American Poetry.  Alan Sullivan wrote “Divide and Conquer” after being diagnosed with leukemia, reflecting on his battle with cancer. He dedicated this villanelle to his trusted doctor, Terry Hamblin, who called his description of cancer “clinically accurate to such a degree that he could hardly believe a layman had composed it.”

I found this poem after taking ten minutes of class to search through the 2008 volume of Best American Poetry. Originally, I was looking for a poem with a title I could relate to— “The Dead From Iraq” by David Young,  “Snoring” by Mark Jarman, and even “The Water Cooler” by Paul Muldoon were among those. However, I should have know that you cannot judge a poem based on its title: I could not relate to the content. Finally, I came across a poem that both flowed beautifully and intrigued me as I read it. I read over it several times in order to truly feel the poet’s word-choice and decipher some of the vocabulary. I had to pull out my phone to look up a few words: teeming, awry, and elude.

“Divide and Conquer” was my first time encountering a villanelle, “a nineteen-line poem with two rhymes throughout, consisting of five tercets and a quatrain, with the first and third lines of the opening tercet recurring alternately at the end of the other tercets and with both repeated at the close of the concluding quatrain.”  Personally, I enjoyed it because of the rhyme throughout— a device many contemporary poets have started to avoid in their writings.

In my first reading, I assumed Alan Sullivan had a personal connection with someone who was battling a terminal disease, but after further research realized that Sullivan himself was suffering from leukemia. This strengthens the poem’s meaning in my eyes, because only those who are fighting a disease know how it truly feels to go through the treatment and deal with the side effects.  The poem’s central ideas can be summarized in the first and second line: “The cells that will not die /  divide too well and so they multiply.”

While further researching the poem, I came across leukemia patients recording blogs for every day of their treatment, many of whom connected Sullivan’s poetry to their own circumstances. This is important because it shows that the poem has had an impact on peoples’ lives. One of the main reasons I chose to write about this poem was its focus on cancer, a pressing contemporary issue. Although millions of dollars are donated to research every year, cancer remains an issue that our generation and many more to come will have to continue to deal with. Though I personally have not lost anyone to cancer, its effect on the world is immense.  I hope that one day a future generation will not have to worry about cancer.


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