Barack Obama

“No, they’re not listening. They’re all writing poetry for Daniel Scott Tysdal’s contest.”

The current North American political climate teaches us essential lessons about poetry, particularly in terms of how and what political power seeks to know. In their respective relationships to knowledge, Barack Obama and Stephen Harper model the two most basic approaches to the world that we can take in our poetry: we can work to make the strange familiar, or we can work to make the familiar strange. Obama and the NSA encounter the global population as “strange,” as mysterious and threatening in its activities and desires, and they work to make it “familiar” through illegal spying. By contrast, Harper and his crew encounter the “familiar” electorate and environment and work to make both “strange” by destroying, diminishing, and distorting data, their wager being that the less that electorate knows about the land and lives the Harper government rules, the less that government has to do for either.

In contrast to politicians, one way that poets make the familiar strange is by turning the received idea on its head and renewing the clichéd experience. Poets do this by transforming our understanding of our essential identities (e.g., parent, child, lover, teacher, and hero) and ideas (e.g., justice, honesty, evil, and impurity). A great example of this is Phyllis Webb’s “Patience,” in which Webb provides a list of particular, often metaphoric descriptions of what patience is. According to Webb, “it is the prose of tears/ withheld and the aging,/ the history in the heart/ and futures where pain/ is a lucid cargo.” Notice how Webb renews our vision of patience through specific and surprising examples, and how she in turn inspires patience in us through the defamiliarizing quality of her images and line breaks. Webb leads us to be patient readers as we work to tease out her meaning.

One way that poets make the strange familiar is by encountering an experience, entity, object, or idea that challenges, destabilizes, or shatters our everyday ways of knowing. This work is exemplified in forms ranging from the love poem to the elegy, where the “strangeness” of the loved one and lost one, respectively, are given “familiar” poetic form. Seamus Heaney’s “The Grauballe Man” is an example of the strange made familiar in that Heaney struggles to make the strange body of a so-called “bog man” familiar through a series of sensual similes and metaphors. “The grain of his wrists,” for example, “is like bog oak,” while “[h]is hips are the ridge/ and purse of a mussel.” However, it is important to understand that Heaney does not make the strange familiar to erase strangeness. Instead, his poem brings us into contact with the strangeness and mystery of its subject. Heaney confronts us with the moment when the words “body” and “corpse,” as he observes, do not suffice, when this one man is a symbol for other murdered and abandoned bodies, carrying “the actual weight/ of each hooded victim,/ slashed and dumped” from the bog man’s time and, really, up through the centuries to our own era of hooding and slashing and dumping.


The politician poets Obama and Harper, and their poetic predecessors, Webb and Heaney, inspired this month’s Writing Moments. These prompts will spur you to explore how and what and why we know (and don’t know) through poetry.

To enter our second Writing Moment Contest, compose a poem using one of the Writing Moments listed below, and email it (as a .doc or .pdf) to: tiztwm[at]gmail[dot]com. Deadline: Monday, March 31.

There is a prize for Best Poem, Most Ambitious Poem, and a few other surprise categories. Each prize winner will receive a copy of The Writing Moment inscribed by me in the persona of her or his chosen politician, whether real (Obama, Harper) or invented (the House of Cards power couple Frank and Claire Underwood). As you write, remember the inspirational words of an Obama/Underwood mash-up: “Power will not come if you wait for some other person or some other time. You are the one you’ve been waiting for.”

Writing Moments:

  • Write a poem in which you make the familiar strange. You can take on an ideal like patience as Phyllis Webb does, or an abstract idea or everyday identity.

  • Write a poem in which you make the strange familiar. You can take on a specific object like the Grauballe man as Heaney does, or specific shattering or destabilizing experience, entity, or idea.

  • Adopt as your persona a politician (real or fake). Through this political persona, meditate on the power (or lack of power) of poetry. Consider responding to a particular poet or poem. In the case of the latter, you could take Rob Ford as your persona and write his poetic response to last month’s contest winner, Gary Barwin.

  • All this talk of real or fake politicians, of course, raises the point that, in the context of both politics and art, the boundary between real and fake is very fluid. Politicians and works of art are perhaps best understood as realfakes or fakereals. Write a poem that explores the fluidity between the real and the fake in politics, art, or both.

  • “Thanks, Obama!” according to Know Your Meme, “is a sarcastic expression used by critics of President Barack Obama to blame personal troubles and inconveniences on public policies supported or enacted by the administration. The phrase is often used to caption animated GIFs in which the subject appears to be struggling with a rather simple task, satirizing those who scapegoat Obama as the cause of problems for which he has little or no influence.” Write a “Thanks, _____!” poem in which you blame your chosen subject (for example, Poetry, Mother Theresa, Spencer Gordon) for whatever she, he, or it could not possibly be responsible for.

  • In A Glossary of Literary Terms, M.H. Abrams defines the Stephen Harper Technique as “the act of drawing attention to something minor and meaningless (for example, changing the words of the national anthem, promoting the Olympics) to divert attention from something of crucial significance (for example, the destruction of breathable air and the proroguing of parliament).” Write a poem in which you employ the Stephen Harper Technique.

  • For our previous contest, I invited you to write a poem to, about, or from the perspective of Miley Cyrus’ tongue. For this contest, you can write a poem to, about, or from the perspective of Obama’s tongue or Harper’s tongue (or both), interpreting tongue however you see fit.

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