Response Poetry Instead
Recently, during a gloom and doom scroll on social media, I spent more time than I care to admit reading the comments of a friend’s Facebook post. The original post pointed out an injustice-turned-policy that was infuriating and nauseating and harkened to The Handmaid’s Tale, and like everything on social media, the more “hot” the issue is, the more menacing the commenters got. So naturally, I read the comments, and this is how I found about about response poetry.
Instead of arguing back, one commenter wrote a poem in response to what others were saying, and I want to write that what happened next is that everyone in that thread wrote in poetic ways, and now all the problems of the entire world are resolved, thanks be to Poetry! You know though, that this did not happen. What did happen is this: I paused long enough for the concept of response poetry to seep its way into my brain and for my imagination to fire up: What if we responded to those we are arguing with through poetry? What would happen?
I decided to try my hand at response poetry, and I chose Dave Malone’s “Recalling Light” from his book of poems Tornado Drill. Dave and I, we are not arguing. We are actually very good friends, thanks in part to our buddy William Shakespeare, and as a matter of fact, he and I talk almost on a weekly basis. Had we been in the same school classroom, we would’ve spent a lot of time in detention due to how much we chatter and creatively egg each other on.
The point of response poetry is to tell the other person, I hear you. I am taking to heart what you are saying. Your words affect me. And then you say, Here’s what I came up with in response to what you wrote.
Here is Dave’s Poem:
It is the light I think
I recall. Was it church
or vacation Bible school,
the desks like pews,
when the sun’s morning rays
ached to rest on shoulders
while the teacher dimmed
at the front, barely perceptible
like God. I remember now
the gospel the instructor ignored –
how the cypress floor danced
with golden dust in its hair
On a literal level, Dave is remembering where light landed, where he thinks he remembers the light landed in a church growing up. Figuratively, Dave is showing the difficulty in grasping issues of faith. He writes, he “thinks,” he remembers the light, he tells us his Sunday School teacher is “dimmed” and “barely perceptible, like God.” These phrases suggest doubt (although I find it hopeful to name what one doubts).
He leaves us with an image — sunbeams (dust) dancing with the floor. This is the gospel the instructor forgot. Two observations: a synonym for gospel is “truth,” or “faith,” and a cypress tree is spiritually significant. It suggests healing, uprightness, and faith. Here are the hints where truth lies. It’s interesting too that “think” begins the poem, but suggests doubt, and “forgetting” ends the poem, but Dave gives a palpable image of those things we believe but cannot see.
I wanted to do something with a word like “cypress” for my poem, and I learned that a myrtle tree is a slow growing fragrant tree, that is always green and has a strong root system. I learned that even when it’s cut to a stump, its roots cause it to sprout again. This gave me an idea for a grounding image.
Here’s the poem I came up with:
The parsley dipped into saltwater
is supposed to remind me of something
I eat it and remember the ocean
how my mom pointed to the horizon:
“See where the sky meets the sea?”
I told her yes.
“That’s as far as you can go,”
she laughed and squeezed my shoulders.
Now, the girl next to me
says that the myrtle tree in the corner
needs more light
She doesn’t know
how strong its roots
that it can be cut to a stump
Try It: Response Poetry
This week, write a response poem. You can write from another person’s poem, or if you’re feeling particularly bold (and gracious), write a response poem to someone you might be arguing with (triple points if it’s on social media)