It happens all the time. Someone dies, and an aspiring poet pens a verse or two. Sometimes the poet even reads it at the funeral. And sometimes, the media will seize the poetic moment for all the rest of us to witness.
So it didn’t come as a surprise to me that poetry found its way to the funeral of Coretta Scott King this week in Lithonia, Georgia. After all, Maya Angelou was there. But my thoughts don’t dwell on Ms. Angelou.
The poem I remember was read by the Reverend Joseph Lowery. I caught part of the reverend’s verses as I glanced at clips shown on the evening news.
I don’t know who wrote the poem. Credit wasn’t cited, and I haven’t been able to find out the author’s name. In my opinion, the verses illustrate everything that is right and everything that is wrong about poetry in America. And there’s an opportunity of sorts as well.
The poem aimed at a political statement. But that isn’t what bothered me. This is America. You want to use a funeral to stump, it’s fine with me if it’s fine with the family of the deceased.
But it seems to me, considering all the talent in this country, Reverend Lowery might have enlisted some budding bard to craft a real poem in honor of a woman revered by people of all color.
Here’s a line that suggests the artistic level of this poem: “She deplored the terror inflicted by our smart bombs on missions way afar.” While none of us favors inflicting smart bombs on innocents, I can vouch for the fact that there are thousands of liberal poets in this nation who would be happy to pen a poem for an occasion such as this. And I do not believe a single one would have followed the word ‘way’ with the word ‘afar.’
There was a nugget in the poem—“weapons of misdirection.” That might have led to greater things had the poet put a little elbow grease behind his or her pen. But that was the single nugget in the entire piece. Reporters noted the reverend’s reading as “playful.” We're discoursing about smart bombs, poverty, weaponry, and the death of a person integral to changing American culture. “Playful”?
It’s a good thing to mark a person’s greatness with a poem. That act is a practice in myriad cultures dating to ancient times. But thoughts strung together with forced rhyme, ragged rhythm, and passion do not constitute a poem.
Next time someone famous and beloved is publicly praised, hire a poet. I can vouch for the fact that poets can always use a little extra cash. And, I’d advise reporters who cite poetry to read more of it. That way, you’ll know a real poem when you see one.
The audience gave the poem a standing ovation. In truth, they were applauding the politics. Anyone who applauded that poem never read a real one.
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