Occasions: When Audience trumps Poet
May and June and July are jammed with occasions.
- Mother’s and Father’s Days ~ May and June
- Memorial and Flag and Independence Days ~ May and June and July
- Graduation and Wedding and many other types of days ~ May and June, typically but also constantly
For poets seeking an audience, these occasions are opportunities to practice crafting poems.
Poetic Occasions: 2 Chief Reminders
1] For a poet writing an occasional poem, the most important remembrance is that the audience controls the writing.
Many new poets write only when their emotions need an outlet. They require the emotion for the inspiration. Professional poets know that poetry occurs constantly. Poetry is for every day, not just for the days when anger or grief rule.
Occasions are excellent opportunities for poetic growth. Logic drives poems that endure, not just the canonical Shakespeares and Rilkes, e.e. cummings and Dickinsons, Poes Whitmans and Dickinsons, and so many more. Logic forms the enduring songs we hear in popular cultures, those songs on the radio, like the Eagles and Dolly Parton, Cold Play and Joni Mitchell, the Dixie Chicks and Sting, U2 and Chris Tomlin, and on and on.
Logic does not mean that poetry becomes lock-step.
Logic does mean that the poet controls the poetic craft.
Occasions go one step more. Occasional poems require poets to stretch their abilities without causing deliberate offense to the audience.
In other words, poets write with other people in mind.
2] The poet also needs to remember the 4 Requirements of Song.
The writing must be heartfelt without being smarmy.
Powerful lines and strong imagery must keep the audience engaged: a listening-only audience will break attention faster than a reading one. Occasional poems are often read aloud.
Rhetorical devices that emphasize points are especially necessary as they help the audience “hear” the ideas through repetition and climactic ordering. These devices “control” the sequence of thought and must be carefully controlled.
Two Poems to Study
Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of the Morning” and Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright” are perfect examples of occasional poems written for presidential inaugurations.
Angelou gives us a free verse poem as sprawling as American cities while Frost’s “The Gift Outright” is tightly focused and structured over its 16 lines. For the audience, this is the difference between a 20-minute speech and a 5-minute one. It’s the Gettysburg Address that we know and love, not the hour-long speech that preceded it which everyone has forgotten.
Angelou’s poem resonates when we can hold it in our hands, peruse it, muse over it. It is a poem for future anthologies.
Frost’s “The Gift Outright” is powerful in the moment yet is then rarely referenced as more than an inaugural poem.
Craft an occasional poem well. It can gain power to reach into the ages.
Intimidated? You can always fall back on a greeting card.
Here is our first poem for Mother’s Day.
Li-Young Lee & the Water of Time
In “I Ask My Mother to Sing”, located here on the Poetry Foundation website, Li-Young Lee presents the connection of the past to present to future.
Go off and read. I’ll wait.
Mothers connect past to present to future for their children in many unconscious ways. They ground their children with who they are (present) and who they come from (past) even as they encourage who they will become (future).
Lee celebrates this ability of his mother and grandmother through their singing. The women’s joy comes across in the second line: “Mother and daughter sing like young girls.” Then Lee sidesteps the typical encounter of a mother-based poem—much as Langston Hughes did with “Mother to Son”, another excellent poem of past to present to future. Lee adds a memory of his departed father, reminding us that these two women who give him such joy will not always be with him.
Just as our mothers will not always be with us. A gentle reminder: Be with them in this now, for time will have its cruel way.
Lee’s second stanza has the readers wishing that they knew this song ::
“I’ve never been in Peking, or the Summer Palace / Nor stood on the great Stone Boat to watch / the rain begin on Kuen Ming Lake, the picnickers / running away in the grass.”
It’s the third stanza, however, that contains the powerful imagery of soothing serenity :: waterlilies become a bamboo fountain, “spilling water into water / then rock back, and fill with more”.
We finish the poem, but it’s not done.
We read the poem, read it again, basking in the soothing imagery and the wistful ideas. Then, in preparation for moving on with our busy lives, we read the title, those few words that we scarcely glanced over in our rush to read the poem.
Lee has done something wonderful with this title. It is a necessary part of his poem. It pours us into the words, just as the waterlilies pour water into water, from the first line to the next and the next and then pour us out of the poem.
Three stanzas, unrhymed, with very little tying the poem together—yet still with a tranquility that draws us back and back, reading the poem a second and a third time, remembering it, connecting it with our lives.