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The Myth Of The Wussy Poet

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While introducing Hillary Clinton at a rally in Youngstown, Ohio last week, Tom Buffenbarger, President of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, launched the following vitriolic attack on Barack Obama's toughness:

"Give me a break! I've got news for all the latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust fund babies crowding in to hear him speak! This guy won't last a round against the Republican attack machine. He's a poet, not a fighter."

"A poet, not a fighter?" I, for one, would be happy to step outside with the pasty, out-of-shape union exec and show him that the terms aren't mutually exclusive.

I'm going to put a few of things aside--1) Buffenbarger's smearing of Obama supporters; 2) the hilarious inference that Clinton is somehow "blue-collar"; and 3) the incongruity of a man who looks like James Lipton after a two-week drinking binge talking about toughness. Instead I'm going to focus on defending poetry.

It's not a hard defense to make. While the misconception of the "wussy" poet is common in America, I know from internationals I've talked to that it's a decidedly American misconception, a manifestation of the tired idea that men should only express their feelings while drunk or during football games lest they appear, you know, weak. Sure. Were Wilfred Owen and history's long litany of soldier poets weak? Is Iraq war vet Bryan Turner, who just published Here, Bullet, a book of poems about the war, not tough enough? Tell him he's not a fighter.

Mr. Buffenbarger would do well to read Ohio's own James Wright, an Army veteran from a steel town outside of Pittsburgh called Martins Ferry. His father was a factory worker, and his poetry encapsulates the lives of working class Ohioans Buffenbarger is supposed to represent. Here's one of Wright's best from his book The Branch Will Not Break:

Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio

In the Shreve High football stadium,

I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,

And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,

And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,

Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.

Their women cluck like starved pullets,

Dying for love.


Their sons grow suicidally beautiful

At the beginning of October,

And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.

That's the voice of a fighter: someone seeking the sublime in people who never receive such treatment. I posted the poem on my blog a few months back and got the following anonymous response:

"For anyone growing up in the Ohio Valley - the Valley that threatens to die so often - this is a remarkable poem that simply portrays life... It's incredible that this exists and isn't better recognized or awarded for capturing life as it was, or might still be...."

Here's an excerpt from another of Wright's poems called The Sumac in Ohio--it's about real toughness:

"Before June begins, the sap and coal smoke and soot from Wheeling steel, wafted down the Ohio by some curious gentleness in the Appalachians, will gather all over the trunk. The skin will turn aside hatchets and knife blades. You cannot even carve a girl's name on the sumac. It is viciously determined to live and die alone, and you can go straight to hell."

In the LA Times' endorsement of Obama, they wrote, "In the language of metaphor, Clinton is an essay, solid and reasoned; Obama is a poem, lyric and filled with possibility." You can certainly argue against those points. But I have no doubt that a poet, no matter what he/she chooses to drink, drive or wear, could speak for Buffenbarger's union members a lot better than he has. The next time he speaks, he'd be smart to just quote one.