Pilot Light
A Journal of 21st Century Poetics and Criticism
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“Nothing more personal / than headlines”: Peter Gizzi’s The Outernationale and the Political Poem
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Before discussing more about the poem, I want to return briefly to David Wojahn’s essay, “Maggie’s Farm No More: The Fate of Political Poetry,” in which he states that a political poem should “combine social engagement with personal authenticity, yet…not proceed from predetermined definitions of the social or the personal” (26). Only three sections into the opening poem, one sees how Gizzi works above and beyond this idea of what Wojahn feels a political poem should do. Part of this seems to be a result of Gizzi’s openness to what a poem’s purpose is and the way in which Gizzi’s poem controls the emotional situation. I’m not arguing that Gizzi does not direct the poem, but rather that he does not begin a poem knowing where it will go. The shape, the direction, and the tone of this poem allow the grammatical construction to push the poem forward, which actually does fit into Wojahn’s definition, but the resulting poem also does something different than the two examples that Wojahn includes in his essay, especially the Lawrence Joseph poem. In fact, “A Panic That Can Still Come Upon Me” is a poem that can be read as more about perception than about political matters—but the concept of the political resides underneath the tone and content of the poem. I see a sense of “social engagement” and “personal authenticity,” but Gizzi’s work functions in a way that both engages with the political and also allows the poem to act as a lyrical exploration of what perception can be. Something Wojahn fails to comment on is the intention a writer has when sitting down to write a poem and the two examples he specifically references seem to suggest that the concept of the political was there long before the poets wrote the first words of their respective poem. Gizzi’s poems work much differently because of his openness to the subject, which allows reality and imagination to function both in opposition and in conjunction with one another.

In the final section of Gizzi’s poem, the speaker asks, “why shouldn’t I come in from the cold” and considers a “monument” as well as “the grass and the plate it grows on.” This intersection of nature and the political, a monument perhaps to the dead from a war gone by, takes this poem away from being simply a post-modern exploration of perception and allows the themes in it to become more Romantic in nature--an important difference from other poets and poems engaging with politics. In fact, the poem ends with finality, a response to the subordinate “If” from the first section:

                if I wanted to go all over a word
                and live inside its name, so be it

                There is my body and the idea of my body
                the surf breaking and the picture of a wave

Wojahn might ask how exactly these lines can be considered political, but in the context of the poem, the speaker has moved away from personal guilt by accepting reality. The thought of a wave becomes as real as the wave, recalling the “Apache fire” and “burning fuel” from earlier in the poem. These images are constant realities, even if they might be occurring thousands of miles away on the other side of the world.


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