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Illinois Poet's Forum - Past Forums

Joanne Diaz

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

By Joanne Diaz

In ancient Roman times, the forum was the center of public life. For over a thousand years, the Roman Forum was built, destroyed, rebuilt, and repurposed depending on the needs of its citizens. The forum variously functioned as a place of worship, declamation, celebration, mercantile exchange, and even cattle grazing. Temples were dedicated to both gods and men; soldiers returned in formal processions to celebrate military victories; and orators pontificated onthe nature of just rule. In the forum, people from various backgrounds and socio-economic strata could commingle, exchange ideas and goods, and define themselves as Roman, however diverse,multilingual, and multiethnic they might have been. Even in the years after the fall of the Roman Empire, the forum had some use. Long after the relics of the old regime were neglected,craftsmen used the forum as a place to work on and recycle old building materials.¹

I like thinking about how the forum connected individuals in a powerful, wide-ranging network of merchants, laborers, litigants, emperors, and even consumers. In doing so, it occurs to me that the forum is a perfect metaphor for the kind of poems I admire most: poems that are dense with both information and insight, that engage with multiple voices, that feature long, loud lines in which poets argue with themselves and rarely offer easy explanations for complex feelings. My favorite poets are less interested in universal truth claims and stable symbols than in connections, conversations, chance encounters, political engagement—and even confrontation.

Natasha Sajé and other critics have examined how lyrical, metaphor-driven poetry has dominated contemporary American poetry for years, in part because it feels timeless and universal.² However, there have always been poets who are more interested in connecting history and politics to personal concerns, in crossing many geographies and time periods, and using a variety of rhetorical strategies to explore charged emotional material. In recent decades, many poets have deployed these strategies to great effect, including Frank O’Hara, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Denise Duhamel, Lucia Perillo, Barbara Hamby, and David Kirby, just to name a few. Metonymy privileges chance encounters, friction at the border between two seemingly unlike things, argumentation, and above all, conversation. Of course, all poems, regardless of form, structure, or rhetorical position, are always in conversation with other poems: as intellectual and emotional engagements, as arguments, or as acts of theft.³ But these longer-lined, politically engaged poems foreground the importance of conversation as a process that creates insight.

The conversations themselves can be thrilling, and the meanings of the words are thrilling, too. Like archaeologists, we can think about the excavation of the various meanings of words in our
conversations and how they are transmitted and transformed over time. Resources like Oxford English Dictionary (www.oed.com) and Douglas Harper’s Online Etymology Dictionary (http://www.etymonline.com) allow us to unearth the layers of meaning embedded in every word we use. If we imagine ourselves as archaeologists, we presuppose that there will always be layers to excavate, materials to recycle and reconsider, and stories to listen to and reinvent. In this way, our poems, just like the ancient Roman Forum, can offer energetic, exciting conversations. What a wonderful balm to soothe the loneliness of the human condition and the challenge of writing a
good poem.

 


¹ For more on this fascinating history, see Albert J. Ammerman, “Forum in Rome.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, ed. Michael Gagarin (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2010).

² “Metonymy, the Neglected (but Necessary) Trope.”American Poetry Review 38.1(January/February 2009), 47-50.

³For more on this idea, see Conversation Pieces: Poems that Talk to Other Poems, edited by
Kurt Brown and Harold Schechter (NY: Everyman, 2007).