Poetry and standing witness

Whether we read or write poetry regularly or only in that fabled blue moon, many of us go to poems when there’s a need and prose will just not do. Whatever it is about poems – their rhythms, their figures of speech, their intense concentration of meaning and music – they give voice to feelings, whether of love, depression, joy, fear (you name it) like nothing else. “What oft was thought,” Alexander Pope wrote, “but ne’er so well-expressed.” (Not surprisingly, Pope has been misquoted: “What oft was felt but ne’er so well expressed.”) Here for example is “miss rosie,” a poem of tribute by Lucille Clifton (1936-2010), one-time Poet Laureate of Maryland:

when i watch you

wrapped up like garbage

sitting, surrounded by the smell

of too old potato peels


when i watch you

in your old man’s shoes

with the little toe cut out

sitting, waiting for your mind

like next week’s groceries

i say

when i watch you

you wet brown bag of a woman

who used to be the best looking gal in Georgia

i stand up

through your destruction

i stand up

Clifton’s homage bears witness to an old woman beaten down by her life, a woman most of us would avert our eyes from were she sitting in a doorway or standing on a median strip with a cup asking for help. The power of this small poem is more than the sum of its parts: the repetitions of “when i watch you, i say, i stand”; the alliteration; the spare details (“in your old man’s shoe”); the metaphors (“waiting for your mind / like next week’s groceries,” “wet brown bag of a woman”).

Though written in first person, this poem is not about the speaker; it has to do with Lucille’s sense of smallness in the presence of another who, by all social standards, she is seemingly “above.”

“miss rosie” is neither a polemical nor political poem, at least not overtly: I don’t believe Lucille wrote it for that reason – she was seeing a fellow traveler and what she had endured. All she could do, at least in the poem, was stand up in humility and respect. How did miss rosie’s suffering come about? That’s another story or poem.

Poets have long been bearing witness to the social anguish and dignity of ordinary people, the poor, the 99 percent whose lives are often at the bidding (an exact word) of the rich and powerful. Many of you may remember these lines from William Blake’s (1757-1827) Songs of Innocence and Experience:

I wander through each chartered street,

Near where the chartered Thames does flow,

And mark in every face I meet,

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,

In every infant’s cry of fear,

In every voice, in every ban,

The mind-forged manacles I hear:

Blake’s contemporary William Wordsworth (1770-1850) went further, deliberately taking as his subjects people of the lower and middle classes: in successive editions of Lyrical Ballads, he wrote of an old leech gatherer, children, including an idiot boy, a huntsman, a female vagrant, a mad mother. He adapted their language and their diction – not the “elevated diction” that was associated with important poetry – and making serious claims for their speech. Here’s one example, the middle stanza from “Mad Mother.” It may sound tame today but it wasn’t in 1800 – the high literary critics of the day pummeled Wordsworth’s undertaking:

Oh! love me, love me, little boy!

Thou art thy mother’s only joy;

And do not dread the waves below,

When o’er the sea-rock’s edge we go;

The high crag cannot work me harm,

Nor leaping torrents when they howl;

The babe I carry on my arm,

He saves for me my precious soul;

Then happy lie, for blest am I;

Without me my sweet babe would die.

What mattered, he wrote in his Preface, is that “feeling gives importance to the action and situation.” The poem is bearing testimony, giving voice to the mother’s love and affection, mad that by all outward judgment she is.  See her, hear her, the poem implicitly says – she is a suffering human being, who loves just as you.

I began to write that Wordsworth’s poem confers dignity on the mad woman, as he does with so many other characters of seemingly no worth. But that’s not so – he’s not conferring anything. Like Lucille Clifton and so many poets who have followed, he is seeing and hearing them for who they are, human beings like you, even though they may be uneducated, poor, and without means.

Listen to Susan Griffin (b. 1943) in these lines from “Three Poems for Women”:


This is a poem for a woman doing dishes.

This is a poem for a woman doing dishes.

It must be repeated.

It must be repeated,

again and again . . .


And this is another poem for a woman

cleaning the floor

who cannot hear at all.

Let us have a moment of silence

for the woman who cleans the floor.


And here is one more

for the woman at home

with children  . . .

The simplest conversational language here – no metaphors, no similes, no sentimentalizing: Griffin has taken the language we speak every day and through repetition and simplicity has called us to stand up and take notice. It’s not easy to say why this poem is so compelling. I think of a remark by the English poet Philip Larkin, general as it is: “I have no theories about poetry at all,” he writes, “but I do think that most fascinating effects are got by playing off the rhythm and language of speech against the rhythm and language of poetry.”

Perhaps no contemporary poet has made the workingman and woman the subject of so many poems as Philip Levine, the new Poet Laureate of the United State. Born in Detroit in 1928, growing up and working in factories himself from the time he was a young teenager, until he left Detroit in his mid-20s and headed west. Levine’s poems are largely story-telling narratives – though he taught at Fresno State in California for 25 years, many of his poems go back to his first 25 years on the streets of Detroit: you can learn all you didn’t know you wanted to about life in the city from the 1930s to the 50s, about Levine’s immigrant grandparents, his mother and father, his sons, his friendships, and especially life in the factories. Here he is, writing of himself, in “Growth”:

In the soap factory where I worked

when I was fourteen, I spoke to

no one and only one man spoke

to me and then to command me

to wheel the little cars of damp chips

into the ovens . . . .

Numbers of poems in his National Book Award winning volume What Work Is are about the salaried: assembly line and factory workers, fire fighters, a butcher, tree trimmer, men and women who are up and out each morning, many to repetitive boring work. If the poems don’t have the lyricism of Robert Frost’s or Lucille Clifton’s, they possess the grit and details that you rarely hear in today’s poetry, e.g., carboys of hydrochloric acid, plumbing, pig iron, plating, brass tubes, time clocks. They compel your admiration by bearing witness to the ordinary men and women going to work day in and day out, when there is work to do:  “We stand in the rain in a long line/ / waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work. / You know what work is – if you’re / old enough to read this you know what work is . . . This is about waiting, / shifting from one foot to another . . .” (“What Work Is”) And in “Coming Closer”:

Take this quiet woman, she has been

standing before a polishing wheel

for over three hours, and she lacks

twenty minutes before she can take

a lunch break . . .

Or in “Every Blessed Day”: “he knows / the faces on the bus, some / going to work and some coming back, / but each sealed in its hunger / for a different life, a lost life . . . . he gets off / at the familiar corner, crosses / the emptying parking lots / toward Chevy Gear & Axle #3. / In a few minutes he will hold / his time card above a clock, / and he can drop it in / and hear the moment crunching / down . . .”

Levine’s poems are intensely detailed narratives with a knowledge and empathy that comes from having worked like those he writes of: “these are the children of Flint, their fathers / work at the spark plug factory or truck / bottled water in 5 gallon sea-blue jugs / to the widows of the suburbs.”  The children will become “the men and women of Flint or Paradise, / the majors of a minor town, and I / will be gone into smoke or memory, / so I bow to them here and whisper / all I know, all I will never know.”

What a fortuitous coincidence that Philip Levine has become our country’s Poet Laureate at a time that the Occupy movement has been spreading throughout the country, bringing together young and older Americans, including some who are crossing political allegiances. They are standing up, they are saying, look at us, listen to our stories, we are all in this life together: this is a time for breaking bread and speaking with each other, not as adversaries and strangers, but as the brothers and sisters we are, all of us the children of immigrants at one time or another who came to this country with the promise of that America held out to all her citizens. It is time we all work together towards fulfilling those ideals.

About the Author

Merrill Leffler
Merrill Leffler is the Poet Laureate of Takoma Park, Maryland.