Day 20 In Memoriam

Occasional poems are poems written for a specific occasion, such as state events like a presidential inaugural, or even a national tragedy, such as September 11. For example, "The Names," is a poem by poet laureate of the United States Billy Collins, read during a special joint session of Congress to commemorate the tragedy. People‘s Poetry Gathering produced "Twin Word Towers," a collaborative memorial project. USA Today collects several September 11 memorial poems.

Other poems may offer a comment on a social issue by focusing on an event or object associated with a issue of social importance. Note the following poem, previously used on the AP Literature exam, which focuses on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and what it represents.

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Facing It by Yusef Komunyakaa

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn't,
dammit: No tears.
I'm stone. I'm flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way-the stone lets me go.
I turn that way-I'm inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman's trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

 

Born in Bogalusa, Louisiana in 1947, Yusef Komunyakaa was the first black man to win a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1994). A Vietnam veteran, he did not write about the war until more than a decade after returning to theUnited States. He has published nine books of poetry and teaches at Princeton University. You can read and hear more of his poetry at The Internet Poetry Archive. You can also download a two-page handout on his work from Bill Moyer's Fooling with Words.

“I am interested in how beauty and terror are in the same frame -- that you can place them side by side and that they create a certain kind of tension.” -- Yusef Komunyakaa

Your Turn: Select a place that in some way memorials a place important to you. Use it to focus your own poem. You will be examining the context of the memorial's setting, any actual text that appears at the site, and the sub-text embodied in the site itself. For example, "The Art of Honoring the Dead" focuses on the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial through an interview with its architect Maya Lin.

Consider both concrete literal description and symbolic interpretation of those details, perhaps using a local place of interest such as the Murrah Bombing Memorial, or the Survivor Tree.

  • Examine your memorial, making a sketch of the physical layout.
  • What are the exact physical materials -- copper, granite, concrete, water, oak, ivy, lavender?
  • Even an empty space is important.
  • Materials have symbolic meanings.
  • Do you hear anything?
  • Is there somewhere you could sit, think, reflect, write?
  • Every single detail of your memorial was carefully planned.
  • Consider the effect of your memorial and how that effect was created?

If you would like more guidance for this assignment, download my brochure on How to Read a Memorial, developed as my project for my National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar, studying the Dark Years in France for five weeks.

Listen to Komunyakaa read this poem.

Back to Poem-a-Day.