Hand Weights & Newspapers

By Kimiko Hahn on 5.11.10

Young writers—as well as random people who come up to me after a reading—often want to know the tricks of the trade. And there are a few that I learned as an undergrad (show don’t tell; every item on a list needs to be equally extraordinary; etc.). In general I frustrate the person by simply badgering her or him to read more poetry, both classic and contemporary.

But the truth is I do have my own “tricks.” This feels like a good moment to share one in particular.

When I taught workshops in the past, I used to bring in a volume of Emily Dickinson, a hand weight, and a newspaper. The first was obviously in the “go read poetry” category. The hand weight was there to remind students to take care of their bodies (since even the deskbound have bodies). And the third was meant to inspire them to read the newspaper.


Edward Schildhauer Relaxing at a Desk. Photo by Wisconsin Historical Images.

I realize that the latter might sound terribly old-fashioned: read the news printed on paper? So my updated advice for our cyber-age is to somehow get the news. As William Carlos Williams noted in “Asphodel”:

                                            It is difficult
                      to get the news from poems
                                             yet men die miserably every day
                                                           for lack
                       of what is found there.

Yes, the quote is out of context, but I think Williams would forgive me since he was also concerned with world events and catastrophe. I believe that writers especially need the news because, for one, we deal with language and ideas. Second, the world outside expands the inner life of the writer. Third, I believe that influences from diverse spheres, personal and public, make for potentially more complex material. Not complicated, but complex!

What do I read and what do I find? I am a very slow reader, and on Sundays, faced with umpteen sections of the New York Times, I try to get through the Week in Review and, later over lunch, the first section and something from the Book Review. (If I’m feeling frisky, I’ll look at real estate classifieds for “fun” or a Guy Trebay piece on fashion.) During the week I read over whatever jumps out at me—especially in Tuesday’s Science section. I also pick up the Daily News for the comics and horoscope and a different take on events. Plus I relish its fuggedaboudit-tone. And on Fridays I pick up the Wall Street Journal, fancying that it might offer an alternate view; at the very least, I like to check out their Weekend section.

I am not suggesting that a writer has to write about the news. Of course no one has to write social or political poems. (Although I do encourage my students to write a piece using “outside material”—just as I encourage them to write a tanka or a sonnet.) My interest is in language and ideas. And I have always found inspiration in newspapers. Also, I know I would not be the poet—or the person—I have become without the news in its many forms, including television news that ranges from PBS to Comedy Central.

For me, personally, the news extends the range of song. The news colors the song. And the news even influences the form of that song—whether sonnet or collage. The material itself triggers deep emotional material in much the way a smell evokes a childhood memory. I certainly would not wish to dismiss or disregard this kind of rich dimension. (Apparently, even Emily Dickinson kept up with the news—especially sensational crimes and disasters.) On the other hand, I admit that reading the news, on paper or online, will not necessarily produce more radiant poetry. Still, it will make one’s life richer—and that is a step in a potentially radiant direction. And it will make each person more of a citizen of this fragile planet.

And why wouldn’t a writer wish to learn about current events? Honestly, I can’t stand the person (poet or otherwise) who claims, “The news is too depressing!” Or, “I don’t have the time!” Or, “The news has nothing to do with me!” Those excuses are so pathetic that I find I don’t have time for people with such an attitude. When she or he is my student, well then, it’s my task to engage them. What is not fascinating about the New York Times, Friday, May 7, 2010:

They trade bomb makers and people around. It’s becoming a witches’ brew.”—senior U.S. intelligence official in “Pakastani Taliban Are Said to Expand Alliances”

If you see Joseph Laubinger on your doorstep, start packing.

As Homeowner Dreams Die, He’s the Undertaker

[American] Group Backs Ritual ‘Nick’ as Female Circumcision Option

That marsh is really our pantry.”—New Orleans chef

Fish Sells Out as [Oil Spill] Threat Creeps Closer

After a recent conference out of town, I came home to discover that “over 300 people in northwest China” had perished in an earthquake. Not only was I shocked at the scope of the tragedy, I was also disappointed in myself. How did I not hear that? It felt shameful not to know. (Later reports placed the death toll at 2200.)

To completely rephrase Williams, men and women risk their lives to bring us news. On page A10: “Abducted Kurdish Writer Is Found Dead in Iraq.” He gave his life so we might have the events of the day. What better way to honor this death, than to read the news.

topics: Columnists

2 Comments

Jessie Carty said on 5.12.10 at 2:09pm:

I really like Kimiko’s argument for keeping up on current events, besides the obvious it is good to know what is going on but because there is something to be said for being about to respond to the world through poetry.

Kimiko Hahn's avatar

Kimiko Hahn said on 5.17.10 at 11:30am:

I wonder if anyone read in today’s WEEK IN REVIEW the Op-Ed piece by Rick Moranis, “Something Else“? If so, maybe we could generate a few more couplets here?

You start!