The spectrum on which poetry exists is vast, encompassing everything from nursery rhymes to T. S. Eliot’s dazzling, yet over-annotated masterpieces. And that, I believe, is part of what makes poetry so great – the inexhaustible variety of verse that now graces the pool of American literature. However, a poetry class at a high school, I believe, should focus on not only reviving the art of poetry for the upcoming generation, but also to bring eminence to the weirdly beautiful, complex contemporary poetry that is found only in other poets’ bookshelves. These poems deserve as wide a readership as those easily digestible, but by no means inferior, poems that are more mainstream in our culture. Thus, the poems that I believe should be taught in American high school poetry courses reside in that slightly dusty corner of the poetic spectrum. They’re elliptical, disjunctive, and filled with obscure jewels of imagery, and not only weave together multiple viable layers of meaning, but also clearly stand rooted in the era in which they were created. Joseph Lease’s “‘Broken World’ (For James Assatly)”, Mong-Lan’s “Trail”, and Ron Silliman’s “For Larry Eigner, Silent” would broaden students’ capacity of thought and invite them to engage in a challenging analysis and a nationwide debate over issues such as LGBTQ+ rights, immigration, the effects of colonialism, and the strange nature of poetry itself.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the United States seemed to be wrapped in a blanket of turmoil. From the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the Iraq War, Americans began to wake up to the fact that the rest of the world, mainly the Middle East, harbored intense hatred toward the idea of “America.” Steeped in an atmosphere of uncomfortable patriotism, or lack thereof, Lease weaved intertwining layers of meaning within “‘Broken World’ (For James Assatly)”, and created an almost dizzying effect of broadening, yet zooming in on an issue. The poem exists both as a bird’s eye view of the seemingly cracked state of his nation, and as an examination and lament over the fall of a young novelist, James Assatly. The sheer complexity of this poem, resulting from Lease’s experimental combination of verse and prose form, intricate details, and his string of negative phrases, allows for an expansion of the analytic capacity of students.
The poem also deals with homosexuality, as James Assatly was an openly gay novelist who died of AIDS before his supposedly groundbreaking novel Hejira was able to be published. Lease draws from a source of ferocious strength, claiming that, “you are with me / and I shatter / everyone who / hates you”, branding himself as a protector of Assatly and all that he represented. Paired with the rejection of machismo at the beginning of the prose section, when he claimed that he “[hated] the word man”. Thus, Lease’s poem would spark an important, much-needed discussion about the gay rights’ movement among high school students, and his attitude towards the issue reflects the political climate during that time. As American gay rights advocates wearily battled through state-by-state legalizations of gay marriage, the Netherlands, in 2001, became the first nation to legalize gay marriage. Lease’s incensed attitude reflects the shift of the public eye towards the gay rights movement, and the increasing prominence of this issue in modern society.
Mong-Lan’s “Trail” presents an immediate challenge to the reader in the form of its length – an intimidating ten pages – and its elliptical style paired with obscure Asian cultural references. However, once the reader overcomes the barrier of accessibility, the rewards are plentiful and diverse, in the amount of insight one can derive from this conglomeration of verse. In the world of poetry today, the more popular poems are often those that are easiest to internalize, but I believe that the embracing of complexity is an integral part of any high schooler’s literature education – it opens worlds of poetry that would’ve remained untouched. The complexity of Mong-Lan’s language mirrors the heart of her poem – immigration. At the age of five, Mong-Lan accompanied her parents on a migration from Vietnam to the United States, and her entire upbringing was saturated with aspects of both Vietnamese and American culture. Thus, the jumbled, disjunctive nature of her verse reflects the idea of entering a completely new culture all of a sudden, the bombardment of the senses, just as her poem thrusts forth an overwhelming amount of details, such as “this laughing buddha belly” and “i tether jade to the skin of books”. A specific line of the poem that captures the essence of being an immigrant centers around the word “embrace” – she claims that “you are not in my em- / brace”, which reveals the disconnection experienced by such immigrants – they feel alienated by both cultures, belonging to neither. Mong-Lan’s ability to play on words shines through in this section – the “brace” could also refer to bracing oneself for the following line, which refers to the “spinning axis of the earth”.
Mong-Lan also touches on the theme of imperialism, with allusions to “amazonians on bare feet”, and their extinction after “100 years of contact with western / civilization”. At the commencement of the twenty-first century, the idea of imperialism lurked at the back of many people’s minds – the shadows of Spanish conquistadores stampeding Aztec cities became imprinted onto the actions of the United States government in the Middle East, as Americans began to realize that the meddling of the twentieth century would, in fact, lead to horrendous consequences that would illuminate the evils of entering another country with only one’s own agenda in mind. Thus, Mong-Lan’s poetry encompasses one of the main cores of American values – the clashing and mixing of cultures in a country full of immigrants, and the inevitable impact of meddling in other nations’ affairs.
Lastly, Ron Silliman’s “For Larry Eigner, Silent” may seem difficult to approach, but even a quick analysis is rewarding – Silliman’s mastery of subtlety, detail, and various intertwined threads of meaning create a dazzling picture for the reader, even if he hasn’t completely grasped the overall message. Several of his lines are beautiful, such as “a quality of light underneath the streetlamp / is how it dampens color.”
In order to approach this poem without breaking a sweat, the reader should learn about Larry Eigner, a late twentieth century poet known for advocating a “democracy of details” in poetry – allowing the naked details to convey meaning themselves, without the padding of extra language. Eigner suffered from cerebral palsy his entire life, and could barely type with his index finger and thumb. Silliman’s poem can be seen both as the progressive loss of the senses, as well as the value of silence in both poetry and the talkative world in which we live, especially when facing the current era, in which badly conducted interactions are the roots of most modern day horrors. This poem should be experienced by high schoolers everywhere, because of its ability to force students to face a challenge, and embrace the multiple threads of possible meaning.
In order for contemporary poetry to retain its relevance in today’s society, the young of the upcoming generation need to be exposed to the diverse powers of verse – to advance from simply appreciating the clever turns of phrases and rhymes to embracing even obscure, complex word combinations. Poetry, high schoolers will learn, can bring much more than pure pleasure from skimming the phrases – it can spark insightful discussions, broaden one’s scope of thought, and inspire more literature, more acceptance. Thus, the three poems I selected for high schoolers to experience would allow students to both enjoy the reading and challenge themselves, as well as provide nourishment for thought and debate. They don’t shy from length and complexity, and cross the boundaries of accessibility and easiness.