News Poetry and a Splash of Chesterton

I missed this story the other day, but once a month All Things Considered on NPR will bring in a new poet to, well, poeticize some news. This month’s Newspoet was Tracy K. Smith, who zeroed in on a particular story: “Nigerian southerners leaving the north to escape violence.” Smith says, “I find that it’s easiest to get into a poem if I can find a particular subjective point of view.”

Her poem, which I really encourage you to listen to her read aloud, follows:

History is in a hurry. It moves like a woman
Corralling her children onto a crowded bus.

History spits Go, go, go, lurching at the horizon,
Hammering the driver’s headrest with her fist.

Nothing else moves. The flies settle in place
Watching with their million eyes, never bored.

The crows strike their bargain with the breeze.
They cluck and caw at the women in their frenzy,

The ones who suck their teeth, whose skirts
Are bathed in mud. But history is not a woman,

And it is not the crowd forming in a square.
It is not the bright swarm of voices chanting No

 And Now, or even the rapt silence of a room
Where a film of history is right now being screened.

Perhaps history is the bus that will only wait so long
Before cranking its engine and barreling down

The road. Maybe it is the voice coming in
Through the radio like a long distance call.

Or the child in the crook of his mother’s arm
Who believes history must sleep inside a tomb,

Or the belly of a bomb.

The interview, or at least the concept of the interview, about finding poetry in the daily news, reminds me of a bit from G. K. Chesterton’s collection Tremendous Trifles (from which his oft-repeated phrase originates, “The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.”:

I suppose every one must have reflected on how priemal and how poetical are the things that one carries in one’s pocket; the pocket-knife, for instance, the type of all human tools, the infant of the sword.

Once I planned to write a book of poems entirely about the things in my pockets. But I found it would be too long; and the age of the great epics is past.

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