On September 5, 2014, NPR ran an essay by critic Juan Vidal titled, “Where Have All the Poets Gone?” which questioned whether American poets still produce political work, and suggested that “literary [political] provocation in America is . . . at a low.” Because I find this assessment of contemporary American letters to be very incomplete, I wanted to take the opportunity to create a dialogue on the subject by curating a series of compelling political poems from contemporary American poets. I christened this series “Political Punch” as an affectionate reflection on the cocktail of poets who decided to honor me with their participation in my little Infoxicated Corner; it was intended to celebrate the glorious mix of poetics, voices, and life experiences all being shaken and stirred into a sense of community and conversation, being distilled into burning gulps of experience for the reader. Leaving aside all the boozed-up metaphors, it was also intended to celebrate my experience of American letters, in all their willingness and ability to pack a political punch.
Today’s poem, Mark Irwin’s “West Point,” is drawn from his time as a cadet; its complicated, nuanced relationship to the American military industrial complex sets it apart from most poems on the subject. It locates, understands, and honors the beauty in ritual and the costume of uniform, the honor in strength and courage, and the innocence of young people who choose to live out ideals of defending their home country. It seems to me a rare kind of political poem that casts the people who make up the military in a natural, even somewhat beautiful, light – and simultaneously acknowledges the futile, deep, irreparable wounds that humans have continued (and, history suggests, will continue) to inflict upon one other through the atrocities of war.
What makes the green grass grow
round that granite fortress above the Hudson
where cadets march, passing in review, flashing
sabers over the plain’s grass so green
round those barracks haunted by ghosts,
the boys the marching men remembering a kiss. What makes
the wind oh so many flags and rifles touched
by cotton gloves, rifles and flags so clean
over that plain where grey cadets
march over the green, their buttons and brass
buckles flashing. What makes each grave a city without wind
floating on the green grass forever?
Mark Irwin’s seventh collection of poetry, Large White House Speaking, just appeared from New Issues in spring of 2013, and his American Urn: New & Selected Poems (1987- 2013) will be published in the fall of 2014. Recognition for his work includes The Nation / Discovery Award, two Colorado Book Awards, and fellowships from the Fulbright, Lilly, NEA, and Wurlitzer Foundations. He teaches in the Ph.D. in Creative Writing & Literature Program at the University of Southern California and he lives in Los Angeles and Colorado.