The Three That Speak to Us: “Do Unto Others,” “Country Western Singer,” “Dead Critics Society”

Daniel Johnson’s “Do Unto Others,” Alan Shapiro’s “Country Western Singer,” and Mike Dockins’ “Dead Critics Society” are three of the greatest, most thought-provoking poems featured in Best American Poetry’s 2007 edition. Nick and I read each poem in the volume looking for underlying themes, tone shifts, creative new ways of conveying messages, and other characteristics to narrow down the competition to seven poems. From these seven, we agreed that these three poems are the ones that epitomize what “contemporary poetry” means. Next year’s class should certainly read at least one of these.

Daniel Johnson’s “Do Unto Others” is a whimsical yet powerful poem about a young boy’s inner thoughts while listening to a pastor’s sermon in church. The poem is essentially his answer to the question in the first line, “How many rocks would I stack on my brother’s chest?” (Johnson). The striking idea in this poem is that not only is the speaker responding by thinking about stacking rocks on his brother’s chest (a question that most people would reply to with “none”), but he also draws out a list of reasons why he would do such a thing to a loved one. He could be jealous of his brother because of the free-spirited life that he lives, while the speaker feels constantly trapped by trying to keep up with him and make himself feel more self-confident. The other mysterious quality about Johnson’s poem is the last two lines. Each line is the same four words which are types of sedimentary rock: “limestone, shale, sandstone, flint” (Johnson). This has a greater purpose than just sounding nice when read aloud. Each rock represents the jealousy or envy the speaker feels for his brother as he tries to cover up his heart and spirit. However, it creates a sense of complexity because it is difficult to understand the true message behind the rock-stacking. There is certainly a mystery to Johnson’s choices of rocks, his repetition, and his choice to leave the last line in its own stanza as if to be the one thing the reader should remember about this poem.

Alan Shapiro’s “Country Western Singer” could be the best poem in this edition of Best American Poetry solely because of its language. Although rhyme schemes are now an unpopular poetry strategy, Shapiro uses it remarkably, with the last stanza of this poem being some of the most powerful lines both Nick and I have ever read. A middle-aged average Joe living a content life, drinking beer and enjoying his time on earth suddenly turns into a dying man lying on a hospital bed watching the IV drip as life fades to black. The tone shift in this poem is so clear and smooth that a reader might not even realize what is happening on the first read. Comparing the first and last stanzas, this man’s life goes from serenity to tragedy, with blood in his mouth replacing the inviting taste of wine, and the realization that he is not going to live to see another minute of life. Shapiro brings power and emotion into his words that Nick and I agreed has not been contested by any of the other great poems. “Country Western Singer” is on a different level of brilliance.

Mike Dockin’s poem “Dead Critics Society” was the most controversial of the three that we chose because of the poet’s approach. At first glance, the poem looks more like a paragraph than a poem. However, once a reader gets into it, he or she will realize that the language is very poetic and exceeds that of other poem’s in the volume. With a combination of impressive vocabulary, metaphorical messages, and an experimental format, “Dead Critics Society” presents itself as a poem worth reading. The poem is about the life of a cynical adult who has lived long enough to see all of the bad things in the world. Despite this, the speaker in the poem enjoys what he does (writing poetry) and  accepts life for what it is: that life is whatever one makes it out to be. The idea that life is up to one’s own interpretation bodes well with the poem’s format because the paragraph approach is very unorthodox when compared to traditional poetry.  However, it supplies the reader with a creative new pace to reading a complicated piece of writing. We believe that poems in the future will feature more of this type of casual approach. Perhaps this poem could be seen as a benchmark for a new writing strategy. Poetry is all about experimenting with language, feelings, ideas and writing in general, and Mike Dockins nailed it with this poem.

Do Unto Others,” “Country Western Singer,” and “Dead Critics Society” are our three picks for the Best American Poetry anthology, and in a sea of impressive poems we hope that these will stand out as ones worth reading. Our goal is not to advertise these poems as good, but to encourage people to read them as a way of opening their minds to new things and new ways to approach life through the art of poetry.

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