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Split This Rock--On Rant

Because this is the sixth post on the Split This Rock Poetry Festival, the Dresser imagines that her readership, especially those who are infrequent to the Dressing, might be thinking that the Dresser has devolved into rant and ranting, albeit poetic rant. Yes, the Dresser is now into rant. Having run the gantlet of social action teachings of This Rock, the Dresser is prepared now to discuss rant in a way she never imagined and that is because she attended the March 22, 2008, panel discussion on "Poetry, Politics, and the Rant" moderated by Jose Gouveia
with Alicia Ostriker, Martin Espada, and Colorado T. Sky.


Let's get basic before getting bombastic. In the world of poetry, what is rant?

Martin Espada said usually rant is a "put down--as in, oh, that's a rant." RantEspada.jpgThen Espada added a string of descriptors: polemic, rhetoric, didactic, and the ultimate current day insult (if you are a poet) sentimental. To add more wallop to this punch, he said the rant was about "avoidance of content." Continuing, he said the tone of the rant is angry and barely controlled; sometimes it is out of control. Espada's definition of rant (maybe his definition is a rant) includes: strong rhythm, musical qualities, direct and open expression, explicit language, urgency, sometimes lacking a message, sometimes a call to action, sometimes a poem of persuasion.

In her opening remarks, Alicia Ostriker said, "political poets are often accused of preaching to the choir, but that I try to keep in mind what Blake says: 'When I tell any Truth, it is not to convince those who do not know it but to encourage those who do.' All of us tend to fall into discouragement and need all the help we can get to stay hopeful." Ostriker emphasized that the rant is not an exchange of ideas. The rant is a way to find community and overcome loneliness.

Colorado Sky said, "Rants are pathetic. They have to be." He maintained nevertheless that a rant, a form of emotional poetry, must have an ethical foundation. From the "furnace of emotion comes the anvil of the moment."
Sky pointed to Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself." Here are the first three stanzas of section 1 of Whitman's seminal poem that changed the landscape of American poetry.

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself, 
And what I assume you shall assume, 
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul, 
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air, 
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their 
parents the same, 
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin, 
Hoping to cease not till death.

Sky's challenge to the rant writer is "What kind of skid mark are you going to leave on the way out?" After all, he said, "It is not who you are but what you do that will be remembered." Sky also spoke about rants containing objection and affirmation. Here the Dresser began thinking about call and response used in an evangelistic church that goes something like this.

The Preacher: You are all sinners. The Congregation: Amen.
The Preacher: You disrespect your father. The Congregation: Amen.
The Preacher: You patronize your mother. The Congregation: Amen.
The Preacher: Now is the time to confess your sins. The Congregation: Hallelujah!

Is this an exchange of ideas? No, but it is way to find community as Ostriker suggested.


Sky also said he likes when a rant sneaks up on you, such that you don't know the poem is a rant until you are well along in reading it. He referred to William Blake and "Transverse City," a rock song by Warren Zevon. Here are the first two stanzas of Zevon's offbeat song.

Told my little Pollyanna
there's a place for you and me
we'll go down to Transverse City
life is cheap and death is free

Past the condensation silos
past the all-night trauma stand
we'll be there before tomorrow
Pollyanna, take my hand.

He said not all rants are loud and that they can be subtle. Even short. To prove his point, he offered his haiku.

History repeats
Itself. It has to
because people
don't listen.


Espada said political poets are subversives and it is their job to subvert language. He said Pablo Neruda does this in his poem "General Franco in Hell." Espada said this poem is grounded in images and all five senses. The poem is dreamlike and immediate and it avoids the pitfall of vagueness and generalities (the characteristics of a poorly written rant). Here's the first stanza of that potent and ranting poem.

Evil one, neither fire nor hot vinegar
in a nest of volcanic witches, nor devouring ice,
nor the putrid turtle that barking and weeping
with the voice of dead woman scratches your belly
seeking a wedding ring and the toy of a slaughtered child,
will be for you anything but a dark demolished door.

Read the poem in full (the English translation is by Richard Schaaf) set with images on the blog Stregoneria.

However, Espada said, shifting to another version of rant, rants can also be curses. He cited his own poem, "For the Jim Crow Mexican Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts Where My Cousin Esteban Was Forbidden to Wait Tables Because He Wears Dreadlocks." And he noted that when the title of a poem is excessively long, it is a sure sign of a rant. Here's the first stanza of Espada's poem.

I have noticed that the hostess in peasant dress,

the wait staff and the boss

share the complexion of a flour tortilla.

I have spooked the servers at my table

by trilling the word burrito.

I am aware of your T-shirt solidarity

with the refugees of the Americas,

since they steam in your kitchen.

I know my cousin Esteban the sculptor

rolled tortillas in your kitchen with the fingertips

of ancestral Puerto Rican cigarmakers.

I understand he wanted to be a waiter,

but you proclaimed his black dreadlocks unclean,

so he hissed in Spanish

and his apron collapsed on the floor.


Ostriker says that a great rant has a comic thread and the rant is driven by love not hate. She pointed to Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." Here's an excerpt from the opening lines of section I of the poem.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
.......madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
.......looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
.......connection to the starry dynamo in the machin-
.......ery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
.......up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
.......cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
.......contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and
.......saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tene-
.......ment roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes
.......hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy
.......among the scholars of war,

For Ostriker there is a relationship between rant and chant--the gutter and the temple. The Dresser notes Ginsberg was a master of this and Ostriker is one of his biggest advocates.

Another poet Ostriker cited as one who could walk the talk between rant and chant was June Jordan. Here are some excerpts from her poem "The Bombing of Baghdad."

All who believed some must die
they were already dead
And all who believe only they possess
human being and therefore human rights
they no longer stood among the possibly humane...
And all who believed that waging war in anything
besides terrorist activity...
And all who believed that holocaust means something
that happens only to white people


Sky reminded those attending this panel that "screaming and yelling does not make good form." He questioned how does a poet channel anger into art? Is it possible to revise a rant? Hell yes was his answer. Still Espada questioned whether rant is really a separate poetic form. He offered that Macbeth's soliloquy (written by William Shakespeare) that begins "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" could be defined as a rant but to what purpose?

Other tips on writing a rant from this group:
--Fact check your rant.
--Keep in mind the rant is about the subject and not the poet--therefore a rant should be humble.
--Celebrate anger not hatred.

Toward the end of the formal discussion, the conversation turned back to Espada's declaration that rant was often devoid of content. And why is this? Because what's hip these days is language poetry, but language poetry seemed to have no role in Split This Rock. So here the Dresser will close with the joke Alicia Ostriker told in answer to this open-ended question about the role of language poetry and the rant at This Rock.

What do you get when you cross a Mafioso with a language poet?
Answer: An offer you can't understand.

The Dresser thinks the floodgates will open here at the Dressing and language poets will deluge the Dresser with rants intermingling Sicilian shadows and broken rocks. Maybe these poems will reprise Demosthenes speaking with stones in his mouth or Jumping Jack Flash making a fat black skid mark across a white page. Let them rip. So yeah, the Dresser is into rant.

And now the Dresser has completed her six-part odyssey of Split This Rock that ranges from yoga to rant. She leaves the subject of rant with these images of the audience who came to hear about this form of poetry.


Comments (5)

Another "AHA" moment, reading Alenier.

chella courington:

i appreciate this review of the rant panel & want to read/study it more. i too have been guilty of using the word "rant" solely as a pejorative while the presenters show me that it is a positive & effective poetics. thanks, chella

melissa tuckey:

Thanks Karren for your thoughtful reportage-- I am so glad to have this record of the conversation & the poems discussed. I appreciated the ways in which this panel expanded our ideas of the rant-- I also appreciated what Alicia Ostriker said about how the rant comes from love not hate-- rants that come from hate are poison.

alvaro Ibanez:

Great Karen, Thank you!! Best wishes much love

Sehr gute Seite. Ich habe es zu den Favoriten.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 28, 2008 7:12 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Split This Rock--The Historical & the Moving.

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