2013-2014 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.

  • Paulina Harasimowicz, "The Photo Album" / Seventh Grade / Teacher, Cyn Koukos / Lycee Francais de Chicago
  • Leah Matlin, "Fearless" / Seventh Grade / Teacher, Sarah E. Avallone / Northbrook Junior High School
  • Josie Hicks, "Small Farm on Skyhawk" / Twelfth Grade / Teacher, Danny Wilson / Carbondale Community High School
  • Rabab Isa, "Poetry" / Tenth Grade / Teacher, Tarrie Dullum / Carbondale Community High School

This Thing that Was Still Is: Poetry and Memory

Memory and poetry are nearly coeval, birthed into existence minutes if not seconds apart. A thing happens to happen, emotion bubbles up, or idea flashes its lightning – and soon thereafter comes the urge, the compulsion, surely, to remember that event or feeling or thought in poetry. Words begat the poem of memory, a thing chiseled or brushed or cobbled together of language meant to give the past thing its everlasting presence – its afterlife in our lives.

The ancient Greeks have it right. The Greeks embody memory in the figure of Mnemosyne who gives birth to all the muses and thus to the arts of music, song, and dance. The muses themselves are goddesses of knowledge who remember all that has come to pass, memory at root and tendril of all we wish to make of making art.

Memory’s necessary twin is forgetting. Forgetting is memory’s lover not her adversary. Forgetfulness enriches and completes memory as does any Odd Couple pairing of opposites. The cleanly one needs the messy, the serious one the silly, and so on. The permanence of memory requires the elisions of transience to bring it to the fore. Transience gives shape and beauty to what remains. It lends constancy amid all the goings-away in fashion not unlike those enthralling spires of Monument Valley require centuries’ elisions of wind and water to shape their resolute beauty.

Memory would hold no value for us if we did not also forget. While we of the short attention span are quick to honor those possessing prodigious memory, consider those among us who forget nothing. Literally nothing. These rare humans are gifted, or perhaps afflicted, with hyperthymesia, near total recall of every life moment. Total memory flattens the experiential landscape so utterly that one’s May 14, 2014 breakfast of whole wheat bagel, Jif peanut butter, and cream-dolloped coffee looms as momentous as one’s first kiss. (Katie, I wistfully remember, shared mine.)

We Moderns tend to regard poetic memory as personal memory, enacted and embodied in life experience retold by one person to a listener, a confidant, perhaps even retold to the self as act of auto-organization – This is where I came from, this is what I said, this is how I felt, this is thus who I am.

Still, the ancient bards and scops spoke not their individual musings but rather the collective history of the tribe. They called forth the accumulated culture of a people, their act of carrying-forward giving source and foundation to the then-present communal moment. Their poetic memory was largely shared memory, this “conversation that we are,” as George Gadamer says of history.

This is why so many poems of memory come to us in present as opposed to past tense. The poet wishes the poem to be an experience unto itself not merely a story about experience recollected and retold. The poet’s keenest wish is not so much to preserve the thing in past tense verbal amber like a wasp in resin. The poet’s desire is to make the past present, to give it immediacy by arm-wrestling time to a respectable draw if never to complete submission. This thing that was still is, a poem insists. The poet winks at the reader, seeking the willing suspension of disbelief that animates the soul of art.

Wordsworth, our beloved Romantic, claims the noble source of poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility.” For poems of Romantic ilk, Wordsworth lilts the apposite lyric song. At times, though, memory can be anything but tranquil and comforting. Ask anyone bedeviled by post traumatic stress disorder for whom the persistence of memory is not blessing but rather bodily and mental curse.

Contemporary culture imparts many ways to secure the past moment in present memory, not the least of which is the ubiquitous cell phone camera. Its allure is image not language to be sure. In our day the distinction between word and image is eliding away, especially in the various forms of digital poetry and art where word and image become interchangeable. Seeing is saying. Or is it, showing is saying?

As Karl Shapiro reminds us, poetry has always been as much a way of seeing things as it is a way of saying things. One mode lends itself to the necessary other. Perhaps the popularity of the selfie reflects this whim most clearly, our itch to talk about ourselves by showing ourselves. Ask Mr. Obama about Big Papi’s Boston Red Sox White House victory celebration selfie, or that tart selfie he snapped with giggling David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister (the lovely) Helle Thorning-Schmidt while Michelle looked on wholly unamused. And there’s the related but distinct genre of dinner food photo – the perfectly browned cheese of our homemade pizza, the fresh garden vegetables bubbling in our soup pot, that steak searing on the grill. Do we ever look afterwards at those shots and taste the same gustatory essence we forked down at those dinners? What’s more, do poems of memory enact this rebirth and return this any better or more reliably?

This year’s Poems of Special Merit suggest that poems do indeed serve as verbal versions of Mr. Peabody’s vaunted WABAC machine. The difference here is that these poems revisit moments of common folks’ past lives, unlike the WABAC’s penchant for delivering Sherman and Mr. Peabody to the company of historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin and the Wright Brothers. Seventh-grader Paulina Harasimowicz’s “The Photo Album” combines the allure of visual and poetic imagery in a tribute to her deceased dog. She remembers as much via picture as through language as her dog “slowly ages,” transformed from pup to adulthood in photographic chronology. Implicitly, the poet imagines herself caught in the process of the same evolution. The album offers the poet solace in her loss:

Although Kenya isn’t here at night,

I’ll always have this memorable book.

So whenever I wish I could hold her tight,

I can always take a quick look.

Another seventh-grader, Leah Matlin, offers her own present tense revisitation of past event in “Fearless,” recounting a rafting trip with her father and others. More than anything, the speaker wishes to challenge her physical and emotional limits, hankering to be “the one. / The first one to leap in. / The fearless one.” The poem becomes testament to the speaker’s courage, surprising even to herself, as she endures “icy” water that “numbs” her hands and tests her will to be “the only one / who can be stronger than the water.”

The poem thus becomes the speaker’s imagistic photo album, reminding her both of the trials she endured and of her own determination, memory a guide to her future. This memory informs, shapes, and deepens the speaker’s sense of who she is and what she might become. No wonder the speaker is “the last to leave” after the raft trip has concluded. In the end she steals one final glance to “look back at the water.” The speaker gazes at the scene of her triumph as the poem itself reflects back on an experience that continues to shape her personality. In memory the speaker’s achievement lives on, as she reveals in the poem’s closing line:

the thrill of jumping in still alive in my memory.

One compelling aspect of memory is its immediacy, both in the speed of its arrival and in the richness of its larder. A memory can build from nothingness to poignancy in the time it takes to close a door and start up the car. In “Small Farm on Skyhawk” high school senior Josie Hicks conjures just such a scene in the character of woman methodically shifting truck gears until she’s cruising along at forty-five miles per hour. This illusion of being in “control” at the wheel of her life both appeals to the woman and yet remains somehow unconvincing. For while the woman is trucking ahead into an uncertain future,

Her heart was about three miles behind her,

With him.

On a small farm on Skyhawk,

Hidden by rows of corn

And a cow pasture.

Note the poet’s subtle insertion of the pronoun “him,” the source of the woman’s delight and yearning. Although the woman is no longer with the man, she is accompanied by an abiding sensation equally physical and emotional, as she can “feel exactly / where his arms held her.” Most of us can relate to love’s atmospheric electricity and the counter urge for some distraction to escape its bristling charge. When the woman switches on the radio hoping for diversion, she’s met instead with a crooning reminder of how such relationships linger even as they turn bad. There, a female country star moons

. . . about a past love,

That she can’t seem to forget.

These poetic evocations regard past experiences as decidedly present and durable, something comforting like one’s favorite pair of jeans that the passing of time won’t wear thin in the knees. Poetry offers us hagiographic solace for those lost moments we know we cannot live fully enough even as we inhabit them. Sophomore Rabab Isa intuits this notion in her “Poetry,” defining the ephemeral instant experienced vividly as both the essence of life and of poetry itself:

Poetry:

the way a chocolate truffle

melts slowly on the tongue

I try to savor the taste

but end up swallowing it whole

These are, Isa suggests, just the sort of quotidian events in which poetry discovers the ineffable and redemptive. These are the things “too cheesy to say / out loud.” Nonetheless, we risk confiding these things in poems, our intimacy a challenge and its own reward.

Kevin Stein
Illinois Poet Laureate