I am a Ph.D. student in a political science program, and I’ve been getting more and more annoyed. Most of the major voices in the field want to pin human behavior down to a series of standardized, quantifiable measures. Not only is this approach terribly boring to read, but it totally ignores the complexity of the individual or society. Is there any way I can use poetry in my work in order to fight these trends?
— P.N., Madison, Wisconsin
There is definitely a way to fight those trends with poetry, P.N., and when you publish your compelling dissertation, I want to read it. The first thing you need to do is discover a poet from the area or areas of the world you research, particularly one who is not endorsed by the state, and do some good old-fashioned literary analysis.
For example, if you are focused on, say, Bangladesh, you might want to study Taslima Nasrin’s book of poetry The Game in Reverse. Nasrin, a doctor, writer, and advocate for human rights, was forced into exile in 1990 after her newspaper articles and poems on women’s rights inspired several protests (many fundamentalist groups have issued fatwas on her head). She has never been allowed to return to her country, even to attend her mother’s funeral or care for her ailing father. The Game in Reverse suffers some inadequacies due to the translation from Bengali to English (though the translator, Carolyn Wright, deserves much acclaim), but the complexities of the individual and society are captured especially well in “Self Portrait”:
I wish I could walk all through the city
in the middle of the night,
sitting down anywhere alone to cry.
Many contemporary poets are writing about foreign places, peoples, and societies, and maybe it would be easier to locate a poem in the English tradition. I recently attended a panel discussion at a writer’s conference on using the lyric mode to capture global injustices. In order to not be completely self-serving, to not use the suffering of others completely to your advantage, most poets on the panel agreed that you must abstain from abject judgment, presenting the situation as objectively and honestly as you can. If your work focuses on Thailand, for example, you could analyze “Upriver from Hoi An” by Andrew Kaufman, who was on that panel.
One god can hear a thousand miles,
an older boy labored in English,
One god can see a thousand miles.
Together they guard the temple.
Now there were forty children,
and some adults watching, shyly. Then
Huynh Le Phuong, who was beautiful,
asked me to her home for tea,
and as we walked boys grabbed my arms,
pulled hard as they could, pulled
the hairs and laughed,
and she told me, They like you,
they never before touch American man, and tried
to smile. I walked with my hands above my head
so they could not reach them. At her home
her father placed a thermos of tea
before me and another by the photos
of her mother and brother and grandparents,
so they would not become thirsty or sick
in the next world. You like
Vietnamese girls? she wanted to know.
Do you fall for me? Will you take me
to the Himalayas? The big, big mountains? When you go
back to New York, will you remember me?
Will you write a poem for me, just for me,
and send it?
So, P.N., put your formidable researching skills to better use and research one or several poems that demonstrate individual and societal complexities. Or simply go to U.S. Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan. I know, she’s endorsed by the state, but I think her poems can help your work — they can at least offer a refreshing alternative to those dry academic papers you’re reading, especially “The Fabric of Life,” which realizes that nothing we have learned can, as you say, “pin human behavior down:”
It is very stretchy.
We know that, even if
many details remain
sketchy. It is complexly
woven. That much too
has pretty well been
proven. We are loath
to continue our lessons
which consist of slaps
as sharp and dispersed
as bee stings from
a smashed nest
when any strand snaps—
hurts working far past
the locus of rupture,
far beyond anything
we would have said
• 16 March 2009