2011 - 2012 IATE Poetry Contest Winners

Here's a list of recipients of Special Merit awards, their schools, and their nominating teachers. Winning poems can be viewed by clicking the students' names.

  • Misty Clerk"The Bed of My Ford" / Twelth Grade / Teacher, Danny Wilson / Carbondale Community High School
  • Tempest Kipp-Evans,"Prelude" / Eleventh Grade / Teacher, Danny Wilson/ Carbondale Community High School
  • Helen Lant, "The Yard Was Lonely" / Teacher, Kim Herron-Titus / Carbondale Community High School

In Things We Trust: Particulars and the Universal

Poems are made of things more than ideas or emotions. Sure, idea and emotion lurk in poems, surprising with their swift rise or precipitous descent. But they come costumed in common things and everyday actions. Rarely do they beguile when they appear before us naked, without disguise. Ideas and emotions need this cloaking, even if we're onto them and know their tricks. They need means of passport and transfer, ways of sneaking up on us from the corner of our eye, their habit of crossing the borders of our unawareness and lifting us to something akin to awakening.

And it is a kind of trick of mind and heart rooted in attention, our trick as much as theirs. By paying attention to the little things, we inhabit the big notions as if by chance or serendipity. We stumble upon them - unexpectedly, we tell ourselves - even though that was our hidden plan all along. We are in on the ruse, in fact sculpting the trick of coming-to-know from the very stuff of our unknowing. It is like the poet who begins her day by saying, "I'll write a letter to my pal," when all along she knows she's actually writing a poem and that the pal to whom she's revealing herself is none other than herself. "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," the Wizard of Oz bellows to Dorothy and her cohorts. We poets do the same, only we are both Wizard and the travelers hoping to make it home to our personal Kansas.

Malebranche says it well, "Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul." In keeping one's eyes open, one sees what one wasn't necessarily looking for - say, Whitman's notion of the universe unveiled in a blade of grass. This is perhaps the thorniest thing for young poets to grasp, the prickliest weed in the writer's flower garden. Abstractions, though alluring, are as hollow and fragile as soap bubbles on summer breeze. Grab one in hopes of taking the idea of beauty home with you and see what happens. Better to keep one's eyes open for the spider's web shining with dew, spun there within a deer's hoof print settled in garden dirt.

Poems that announce themselves as being about love, or war, or social justice clang their bells so clangingly I cover my ears and run from the room. And I do this even though I wish fervently to be moved by poems about love, war, and social justice, even though I wish as well to have written poems of my own that speak to these issues. Still, no uber-rhetoric about a generic "war machine" moves us as much as the small thing truly seen - a soldier's prosthetic arm gently spooning ice cream to his daughter's lips. Which says more and lingers longer within us? I've never liked a poem, or for that matter a poet, that favors supposedly big issues and mistakenly disdains the little.

William Carlos Williams puts it straight out in verse, "No ideas but in things." Williams, a physician - the deliverer of over 2,000 babies into our world as well as the author of countless birthed poems - elaborates this view in his Autobiography, "That is the poet's business. Not to talk in vague categories but to write particularly, as a physician works, upon a patient, upon the thing before him, in the particular to discover the universal" (391). Williams's poems muster the physician's attention to particularity of detail as means to knowledge and awareness, a reified notion of what it is to be a human being alive at this precise moment in this individual place. Health of this variety vibrates inside as well as outside of one's body. The personal holds hands with the communal.

Just this sort of attention one finds in all of this year's winning poems, especially in my choices for 2012 Poems of Special Merit. Misty Clerk's "The Bed of my Ford," for instance, trusts in faithful reproduction of what's found within a locale she knows well. The poem amounts to a catalog of truck bed flotsam, each item ushering in acknowledgement of some loved thing or familial affection. It's a list poem, then, a mode of self-definition via things of the world. These things the speaker has consumed - just as they have consumed her - as she moves through youth to adulthood. By acknowledging these things, the speaker gives a shorthand narrative of her physical and emotional life derived from "[t]wo hammers and a baseball / bat, tissues from last year's cold epidemic." What's compelling is the speaker's deft mixing of tangible things with their intangible emotional corollaries:

...lid to a 44 oz.
drink, obscenities, indecencies,
a pocket knife.

No doubt that knife is capable of inflicting less damage than the "indecencies" to which she alludes. So, as the list wends its way down the page, the reader infers not only joyful elements of the speaker's life but also a fuzzy narrative connecting her "[b]roken phone charger" and "last week's crush," two things that no longer work for her. By the time the poem arrives at its celestial closer, she has evoked the stuff of a life lived. That life is made of things as various as "homemade taco soup," her grandparent's smile, and the mattress laid out in the truck's bed - a moment of intimacy beneath starry sky.

Likewise, Tempest Kipp-Evans's "Prelude" reflects the foggy-mirrored moment just after awakening, the world outside tiptoeing slowly down the stairwell within one's half-asleep self. Note how the poet's use of the second person "you" enables her to fashion a poem at once deeply personal and oddly universal. The "you" addressed in the poem embodies both the speaker's half-asleep self - a stranger to herself - and the reader's universal you. Kipp-Evans's speaker demonstrates attention to detail and fondness for lists of the sort one finds in Clerk's poem. Here, the "mourning dove" sings her mournful song perched on "power lines" outside the "misty windows." The speaker's attentiveness to things is a form of power in itself, as are these items in their preternatural thingness. "Like the smell of an old book," the sunlit "yellow" morning entices the speaker to leave her blanket's warmth and "investigate" a fresh world.

Gradually, in the languid fashion one slips the bonds of the dream-self, this speaker assumes her worldly-self, ready to take in what she may. Echoing the dove's singing, the speaker assumes her daily being, lurching toward what "song" the world may offer:

You take shape here
in this strange prompted silence.
Not yet ready to speak, but eager to
listen, as a lone man listens for a
faraway note in a street
to lead him in the direction of song.

Sometimes this cataloging of self and thing occurs when the poet withdraws herself wholly from the scene and serves merely as observer. The self is present paradoxically in absence. Its presence is felt only in the poet's disembodied act of attention. Helen Lant's "The Yard Was Lonely" offers such example. A bland backyard locale featuring only a child's "little blue playhouse" becomes sequentially knotty as it is populated from without. The there-but not-there poet details this scene via the seasonal interaction of things: a flower, a bush, and that "little blue playhouse."

First, the wind brings a flower seed that roots, grows, and blooms upon the playhouse, its "willowy vines creeping up the walls / And delicate blue flowers / Blooming with the sun." Then, the "spiny" seed of a bush is blown into the yard and nestles next to the flower and playhouse. Over time, the flower ignites the yard with its showy blossoms while the bush grows "thick and coarse," unable to add its own "joy" to the backyard scene.

By now, the reader perceives the sense of a parable playing out in a seasonal array. While the lovely flower seems to have "captured" the sky and "bloomed on the vines / Of cirrus clouds," the bush languishes in shade. When winter sends the flower's seeds into others' lives, indeed as far away as "Pennsylvania," the bush stays hunkered down, decidedly not showy but loyal. Eventually, after the flashy flower has died off, the bush presents the solemn gift of its one purple blossom. Its arrival surprises as does a miracle, something blessedly unexpected and redemptive. It is a miracle the poem's absent speaker celebrates demurely with the prayer of her attention.

The meticulously detailed narrative instigates a flurry of questions within the reader. Where is the child for whom this playhouse was once a joy? Why does one feel loneliness in the midst of such fulgent beauty? One wonders, too, about the things unsaid here. Who might the gaudy flower symbolize in the disembodied speaker's mind? Who, then, the stubborn unlovely bush that goes overlooked by most?

The poet's litany of natural things generates a parallel emotional realm of unspoken human aloneness. Childhood happiness appears as fleeting as faded blooms. Even the playhouse itself suffers cracks and worn paint, intimating that the fabric of youthful innocence has been frost-stung and suddenly rent. But none of that is spoken out loud to the accompaniment of the clanging band of big ideas. It resides within the narrative of things given careful consideration. When at the poem's close the dowdy bush offers up one bloom, the story delivers its tacit emotional climax. Readers are left to fill between the poem's lines.

This is the realm of things as agent of idea and emotion. This is the realm where looking outside the self actually inverts the eye inward. This, the realm where a small thing given the dignity of one's attention looms surprisingly large, communal, and universal.

Work Cited

Williams, William Carlos. The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1951.

- Kevin Stein, Illinois Poet Laureate