Life in Public

What Sparks Poetry is a new, serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems. In the newest series, Life in Public, we ask our editors to examine how poetry speaks to different aspects of public experience.

What does it mean to say that a poet is, as C. D. Wright has put it, “one with others”? What is poetry’s place in the public sphere today, of all times? How has life in that sphere been expressed in poems? Is all published poetry public speech? What is a private poem? What is occasional poetry? What is political poetry?

With questions such as these in mind, we asked each of our editors to select a poem written by another poet that addresses an aspect of public experience—that celebrates, historicizes, memorializes, critiques, questions, or subtly references its public element—and to write about what interests and inspires them about that poem.

We are excited to present to you the resulting sixteen meditations on the private and the public, and how the intersection of these states sometimes results in poetry.

Sandra Lim on Self-Interrogation

This untitled poem by the Peruvian poet César Vallejo nakedly asks what art is for in the face of so much suffering. His lifelong political and social commitment to the poor and working class is ever apparent in his poetry and critical works. But this poem has always struck me for the loud note of practical sadness in its self-criticism and self-questioning; it’s both dire and implacable about the subject of helplessness before the pain of others. The interrogating couplets establish a taut connection between exterior and interior injury and trouble. The form also achieves bluntness and a kind of emotional raggedness for all its strictness of patterning. What’s high and low in life or art is confused in the self-lacerating questions: “Someone cleans a rifle in his kitchen / How dare one speak about the beyond?” 

I don’t read this poem and think of the practical relevance or irrelevance of poetry, but I do get the sense of being both cursed and culpable from the way Vallejo renders conscious (and consciousness of) suffering. It may seem strange to say that the poem feels like a chance to notice when it expresses so much restless melancholy, but the speaker’s honesty with his doubts keeps his sense of compassion from hardening into self-congratulation. That is, the poem never seems to settle the matter of poetry’s reach in public life; what animates the lyric is the energy of the discrepancy between the outer world of public realities and the inner world of thought and feeling.

Writing Prompt

Write a poem in couplets in which you address yourself. Pick a subject about which you have a lot of doubts. Do the couplets help harness or disrupt the sense of uncertainty in your poem? Can you achieve an openness in the poem’s skepticism? Let an element of repetition reflect an idling or urgency of mind in your work.

Share This Post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

Print This Post

Share on print
Sandra Lim

Sandra Lim

Sandra Lim is the author of The Wilderness (W.W. Norton, 2014) and Loveliest Grotesque (Kore Press, 2006). Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including The Baffler, VOLT, Literary Imagination, jubilat, and The New York Times. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, the Jentel Foundation, and the Getty Research Institute. She is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.