Not long ago I was fortunate enough to visit the Motown Museum in Detroit, also called Hitsville U.S.A.
|The Motown Museum, Detroit|
At the end of the guided tour through the museum, I got to stand in Studio A where a huge number of the greatest songs of the last half century were recorded (photo below).
These were hits sung by Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandelas, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye…the list goes on and on. So many of these incredibly talented artists were all living in Detroit at the same time in the mid- and late-1960s. That period reminds me of Florence during the Renaissance—Motown Records brought together that sort of concentration of artistic genius all in one place and time.
If you were down to your last dollar, would you buy this record or would you buy a sandwich?
If the answer was the record, they would release it. If the answer was the sandwich, it was back to the studio to continue working.
There is something refreshing and honest about this standard. It cuts through a lot of the pretention and gimickry that often plagues the arts.
I wonder how many poets and writers would be willing to subject their work to a similar metric? As a poet, I think there are all-too-many poems that could never in a million years hope to approach that standard. Are there any poems that could reach that bar?
I think there are some poems that are more nourishing to the soul than a sandwich would be to the body. I have my own list (see below), but that list would be different for each person.
I wonder how often we challenge ourselves to write a poem or other work of literature that would reach that bar, and whether we even should? I do think there are poems that contain such an important life lesson, and/or use language in such a beautiful and succinct way, that I would pick them over a pesto chicken Panini on an empty stomach.
I think few of us attempt to write in a way that is so universal and compelling because we are distracted by our own stories, our experiments with language, and our own preoccupations. There is also the danger of writing in a way that ends up being corny, or sententious, and those are unpardonable sins in contemporary art. We are so obsessed with authenticity and originality. I think we should be more tolerant of writers who err on the side of being preachy or schmaltzy, because they should be given credit for making the attempt at creating a poem that someone would pick over a sandwich. Academic criticism can be unforgiving of a writer such as Mary Oliver, who can go over the top with her Buddhist life-lesson poems collected in walks in the woods, but I salute her for trying to say something deep and universal, even if she only succeeds some of the time.
Here are the poems that come to my mind as reaching the poem-over-sandwich bar:
Yehuda Amichai, “The Precision of Pain”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning “How do I love thee…” (Sonnets from the Portuguese #43)
William Blake “The Tyger”
Chana Bloch “The Joins”
André Breton “Always for the first time” from The Air of the Water
Robert Desnos “No, Love Is Not Dead”
John Donne “No man is an island…” (Meditation XVII)
T.S. Eliot “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Hollow Men”
Faiz Ahmed Faiz “Don’t Ask for Me for That Love Again”
Tess Gallagher “Each Bird Walking”
Federico García Lorca “Sleepwalking Ballad” (or “Somnambule Ballad”) and “Gacela of Unforeseen Love”
Allen Ginsberg “America”
June Jordan “On a New Year’s Eve”
Robert Hass “Meditation at Lagunitas”
Langston Hughes “Mother to Son”
Pablo Neruda “Gentleman without Company”
Mary Oliver “In Blackwater Woods”
Frank Paino “Each Bone of the Body”
Kenneth Rexroth, tanka translated in One Hundred Poems from the Japanese
William Shakespeare “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” (Sonnet 18) “Let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment” (Sonnet 116)
Ntozake Shange “one” (“orange butterflies and aqua sequins”)
William Stafford “Travelling Through the Dark”
Edna St. Vincent Millay “Figs from Thistles: First Fig” (“My candle burns at both ends…”) and “What lips my lips have kissed and where, and why”
Wislawa Szymborska “True Love”
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
W.B. Yeats “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”
Yosano Akiko, various tanka from Midaregami, including “tell me this evening as you gaze eastward…,” “my hands cover my breasts…,” “early evening moon rising over a field of flowers…”
Bill Zavatsky “Live at the Village Vanguard”
Other recent posts about writing topics:
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry?
Poetic Forms: Introduction; The Sonnet, The Sestina, The Ghazal, The Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration