“It is difficult,” William Carlos Williams wrote, “to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” This could be the motto of Poets Respond, a web feature developed by the Studio City-based poetry journal Rattle.
Since June, Rattle has asked poets to submit poems “written within the last week about a public event that occurred within the last week.” The result is something of a scrapbook in verse, rewiring the vicissitudes of the news cycle into something more elusive and personal.
For Rattle’s editors, the motivation is simple: “On average, poems in Rattle are published six months after they were submitted,” they acknowledge. “Then they appear online six months after that. Real poetry is timeless, of course … but this is the age of information. … One reason poetry lags behind other forms of contemporary media might be this delay — how can poetry be part of the conversation when it enters so late?”
How indeed? A look at Poets Respond suggests some clues. The most recent installment, posted Sunday, is Mark Smith-Soto’s “Streamers,” about the birds who burst into flame over a Mojave Desert solar energy plant.
“I caught this morning, mourning, sight,” he begins the poem, “of you who flew into sky / you thought your own / and caught the sun down / to the marrow bones, tender embers / scorched there, sputter-guttered there —”
The imagery is sharp, specific; the play of language elegant. And there is something, too, about the immediacy, the idea of poetry existing, or moving, in real time, poetry as reaction or consequence.
This should hardly be surprising, since the best poetry, that which lingers with us, is intimately connected to the world. Think of Whitman, Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, Wanda Coleman: There is a fire, an engagement, to their words. The image of the poet as removed, somehow, from daily life, is pernicious, one of the ways by which poetry gets marginalized.
Among the selections in Poets Respond are poems addressing Ferguson and the execution of James Foley, Gaza, Ebola and Robin Williams’ suicide. These are stories many of us are discussing, which roots the work in its moment, and, as such, directly into the fiber of our lives.
“I think about the toothbrushes, tucked in their travel packs / like snug children,” writes Megan Collins in “How I Fathom the Crash,” which imagines Malaysia Airlines flight 17, shot down over Ukraine. “I think about the pairs of underwear, / counted to match the number of days away. I wonder / what books the passengers were reading, if the authors / ever considered their words might turn to kindling, or if / it’s true what people say — that stories survive us all.”
What makes the poem resonant is its attention to the little details, the preparations every one of us make when we leave home.
This, of course, is what poetry offers, what it has always offered: a way of seeing at the most personal level, of revealing what we didn’t know we know. Internal, external — it all unfolds in real time, which is, Poets Respond insistently reminds us, the only time we have.