Is poetry democratic, or is it radically individual?

This argument is a good one, for both sides have a lot to say: language unites us, but what price to simply roll us all into a ball?

And yet what price obscure triviality?

Like all good arguments, to prove there really isn’t an argument at all is what the intelligent try—be accessible and unique: surely that’s possible?

Perhaps it’s not that easy.  Imagine you are at the podium in front of a crowd during the swearing-in of the president of the United States.  How can you possibly go for the surprising and the unique?

A podium in front of millions is surely where poetry goes to die.  Four years ago, Richard Blanco fought against that death with this:

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes tired from work.

This line marches along with a certain poetic solemnity: we like how “one sky” is echoed by “our eyes.”

And what could be more uniting than “one sky” and “tired from work?”  We can relate.

Perhaps this is all poetry is really striving for.  To speak for as many as possible, and to truly speak for as many as possible is all the poet can finally do.

What is the counter-argument?  Write a poem for this person, but not for that person.

Surely the universal is the best?

Connie Voisine, we get the feeling, did not write her line for the podium.  She was probably feeling reflective and calm.

And yet—her line may resonate just as much with the millions.  Why not?

The oleanders are blooming and heavy with hummingbirds.

Though we must concede that if someone knows exactly what oleanders look and smell like, they will like her line more.  Isn’t that true?

Marla Muse: Do you know what an oleander looks like, Tom?

Marla, I pass.

What’s interesting is hummingbirds are not heavy. That’s the poetry, many would say.

But as for oleanders, yes, how much does the audience know?  That matters, of course.

But does that in any way alter the formula?  Write to as many as you can?

Blanco wasn’t taking any chances: “sky,”  “eyes,” “tired,” “work.”

How safe is safe in March Madness?

Marla Muse: Not very safe.

Sky versus oleanders.  Only one can win.







  1. maryangeladouglas said,

    April 15, 2016 at 6:52 pm

    This is a poem by Richard Blanco I like very much. It is a poem to an individual but other people can listen in too so I guess you can call it universal too. Anyway, I like it. It’s on his website.

    Mother Picking Produce

    She scratches the oranges then smells the peel,
    presses an avocado just enough to judge its ripeness,
    polishes the Macintoshes searching for bruises.

    She selects with hands that have thickened, fingers
    that have swollen with history around the white gold
    of a wedding ring she now wears as a widow.

    Unlike the archived photos of young, slender digits
    captive around black and white orange blossoms,
    her spotted hands now reaching into the colors.

    I see all the folklore of her childhood, the fields,
    the fruit she once picked from the very tree,
    the wiry roots she pulled out of the very ground.

    And now, among the collapsed boxes of yucca,
    through crumbling pyramids of golden mangos,
    she moves with the same instinct and skill.

    This is how she survives death and her son,
    on these humble duties that will never change,
    on those habits of living which keep a life a life.

    She holds up red grapes to ask me what I think,
    and what I think is this, a new poem about her–
    the grapes look like dusty rubies in her hands,

    what I say is this: they look sweet, very sweet.

    ©2016 Richard Blanco.

  2. maryangeladouglas said,

    April 15, 2016 at 7:08 pm

    It truly could make a vivid difference if the reader of Connie Voisine’s poem had seen an oleander. I imagined a tree or shrubs in white finery not knowing what it was at all. Then I looked for oleanders on google images and found incredibly bright flowers ranging from a deep rose color to a scarlet, very astonishing colors. To think of hummingbirds heavy among them (with their own jeweled colors) then became brilliantly colored in the mind and a fantastic image.

  3. maryangeladouglas said,

    April 15, 2016 at 9:06 pm


    in a tangle of images blue
    butterflies mimic the sky
    who calls this poetry

    yet we will
    eat ice cream the whole
    summer long

    guarded by the guardian
    trees and fall down scraping
    our knees calling the small

    wounds “strawberries.”
    it is the wind the wind through
    the trees or startling the

    rose bushes makes us gleam
    the way we are to those who love us
    pushing off from the swings

    and hoping
    to see the face
    of familiar stars

    up close in daylight.

    mary angela douglas 15 april 2016

    • maryangeladouglas said,

      April 15, 2016 at 10:59 pm


      it isn’t so much magic as it is, beauty
      she said to herself coming upon the scene suddenly:
      the unexpected snowfalls, the lemon leaf reigning

      then falling at your feet and the sweep of it
      the panorama close at hand.
      how can I let you understand that this is

      something dreamed yet wide awake.
      a flaking of stars; transpositions of where you are
      to where you could never be, had never been.

      and this is mystery and the red rose gathered and
      still rooted in the ground and the lost and found, the when
      of every childhood minute you gazed at the sky

      willing the clouds to stay

      not so much wondering
      as dreaming, why
      can’t they?

      mary angela douglas 15 april 2016

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