Diary of a Poet

Politics, Theme and Poetry


January 2018 at the Women’s March.

In October, I was happily writing a poem about gardening, when it took a sudden turn and revealed its true topic: the calamity of immigrant children held in cages at the US/Mexico Border. That day, I posted “For some reason my nature poems keep turning into political poems” to my Facebook page.

In her essay “On Theme,” from Madness, Rack and Honey, Mary Ruefle writes, “theme is always an extrapolation, a projection, an extension of an original idea, if such a thing as an original idea exists…sometimes we seem to extrapolate so strangely that it is the supposedly known source itself that becomes unknown, becomes unrecognizably distorted and weird.” When I finished the poem about the immigrant children in cages, gardening – the idea I’d started out with – was still part of the poem, but utterly submersed.

I’ve never set out to write a deliberately political poem. Like most of my poems, the political ones start the same as the non-political poems: with a fragment of conversation, an experience, something I came across while reading, a dream, or an idea that showed up in my brain. For example, my poem “telegenic” began when I heard the phrase “Dead children are telegenic” on a radio broadcast about the 2014 attack on Gaza. A short time later, I had a conversation with an Iraq war veteran. Those two experiences inspired the poem:



A family’s shoes arranged by size, smallest first. The bones of a child’s foot. I write a poem for a man named Mark. He sits on the street and weeps. He’s seen the shoes, seen them filling up with blood. This summer grinds on. We congratulate ourselves, as if we didn’t know one piece of land is worth more than another, one child’s life is worth more than another’s. Death is telegenic and dead children most of all. Explosions branch through the ear and jaw but quiet, please, this game requires the world’s silence. Mark rakes the little bones together, collects the shoes in heaps all over the city. At night when they burn the fires smoke and sputter and then go out, smallest first.

First published in New Verse News, 11/4/14 

The video is at Vimeo.

“As a maker of poems, a poet is always engaged in battle, though the opponents may be unclear, the stakes unknowable, and the victories and defeats felt far away, in different domains, by people other than himself,” writes David Orr in “The Political,” an essay from his book Beautiful & Pointless, a Guide to Modern Poetry.

Politics has intruded on my consciousness in a whole new way. I see politics in everything, including gardening, an activity that involves being outside and observing the changing climate, which politicians seem incapable of addressing in spite of clear evidence based in scientific research.

It’s a hard time to stay focused, indeed.

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