A Poem from Nothing but Words : The Column Poem (PAD Prompt #27)

In honor of my daughter’s anthropology qualifying exams, which you can read more about in this Cupertino Poetry Exchange post, I wanted to write her a poem that celebrated anthropology. But, not being an anthropologist, I wasn’t really sure how to go about this. So, of course, I went to Wikipedia. I always start either there or at Stanford’s Green Library. General consumption of information that might be accurate or the deep deep scholarship of the ages. Sometimes you need one, sometimes the other.

So, Wikipedia defines anthropology nicely enough but didn’t give me much inspiration for writing a poem. Then I remembered a prompt/tactic/exercise I’ve taught and that I’ve also been taught by others (probably in the other order). Take a piece of prose (or write your own piece of prose) about a topic. Then circle 5, 7, 15, 31 of the best or most interesting words in the prose. Always an odd number. Don’t ask me why. Then put those words in a line down the center of the page in a single column and write whatever comes to you on both sides of those words. Voila, your poem. Like a column with wings.

I took Wikipedia’s definition of anthropology, picked the words that spoke to me, and came up with this funky, silly, sexy, and rather delightful poem. I doesn’t have much to do with my daughter, except perhaps the last two lines. And it’s got 14 lines, so I didn’t even follow my own advice.

Here’s what the prose looked like and then the messy wing-y column first draft. Finally, the poem (at the top of the post).

Your challenge, if you want to write today, is to write prose, pick your favorite words, and then make your own “column poem.”

Anthropology Poetry

In honor of my daughter, who is this very moment taking her anthropology qualifying exam, I’ve found some anthropology poetry connections.

In this short essay, Robert Peake thinks about how poetry can be a kind of anthropology — the idea of “poet as anthropologist” — in contrast to the recently popular confessional poetry point of view — “poet-as-person-who-confesses.” The author makes the point that poets might be tired of gazing at their navels, and are now more likely to gaze at the navels of others.

“[…] American poets are no less united in the cause … to “extend the imaginative franchise”–with its power to renew our understanding of what it means to be human. It is in this pursuit that poetry and the actual science of anthropology intersect. At the end of postmodernism, having our ideas of objectivity and centrality blasted to bits by the Second World War, we are beginning to pick up the pieces.

But simply gluing them back together is no longer an option. Having examined our own little fragment ad nauseum through confession, we are finally beginning to relate more inquisitively to our own, and the other, shards. In what I hope history will regard as our current period of “late postmodernism” or perhaps “post-postmodernism,” we return in poetry to the one question a Google search can’t answer for us: what is it, this thing called “being human?”

And because I want to give my daughter (to whom I have mailed a copy of this poem) and you, gentle digital reader, a moment to slow down with a poem and consider what it means to be human, here is a wonderful mysterious poem I found, just for you.

By James Galvin

Remember the night you got drunk
and shot the roses?
You were a perfect stranger, Father,
even my bad sister cried.

Some other gravity,
not death or luck,
drew fish out of the sea
and started them panting.

The fish became a man.
The archer’s bow became a violin.
I remember the night you searched the sofa
for change

and wept on the telephone.
Some other gravity,
not time or entropy,
pulled the knife down for centuries.

The archers dropped their bows,
harmless as pine needles in the snow.
The knife became a plow
and entered the earth, Father.

Later it became a boat
and some other things —
It isn’t a dream but it takes a long time,
for the archer’s bow to become a violin.

James Galvin, “Anthropology” from Resurrection Update: Collected Poems 1975-1997. Copyright © 1997 by James Galvin. Copper Canyon Press, http://www.coppercanyonpress.org.

For future exploration:

(In case you came today to get a prompt to write a poem, read this related post.)