Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Poems to Know: Praise Poems

One thing I get to do on this blog, I guess, is plump for poems that I'd love to see taught more widely in schools, at whatever level. Since I've been grinding my way this morning through Susan Stewart's essay "What Praise Poems are For" in the January, 2005 PMLA , let me make the case for praise poems as a genre, and for a couple of them in particular.

The praise poem--the ode, the homage, etc.--is one of those genres that does work you can actually feel. To praise increases your savoring and satisfaction in things; it cultivates admiration and gratitude, which generally increase your happiness (as "science has shown," etc.) ; indeed, says Pindar, in a line that Stewart quotes, "Joy is the best healer." On a more practical level, the praise poem makes sense to even the most unschooled readers, as a job worth doing. You see something you admire, you write a poem to praise it, and in so doing, you bring forth something in or from yourself that is worthy of the thing that you admire, sharing its qualities of sass or dazzle, flavor or prowess, all of which makes you admirable, too!

One praise poem that is now readily available as a children's book, illustrated and everything--heck, I've even seen it at Target!--is Quincy Troupe's wonderful "Take it to the Hoop, Magic Johnson," originally entitled "Poem for 'Magic.'" (Some of the lineation may be off below, since the blog wipes out indentation, so find it yourself before using, or email me and I'll send you the corrections.) Troupe is, or was (I'm not sure) the Poet Laureate of California, and he's written a number of fun poems in homage to sports and to athletes, in both formal and free verse.
Quincy Troupe, “A Poem for Magic”

take it to the hoop, “magic” johnson,
take the ball dazzling down the open lane
herk & jerk & raise your six-feet, nine-inch frame
into the air sweating screams of your neon name
“magic” johnson, nicknamed “windex” way back
in high school
cause you wiped glass backboards
so clean, where you first juked and shook
wiled your way to glory
a new-style fusion of shake-&-bake
energy, using everything possible, you created your own
space to fly through--any moment now
we expect your wings to spread feathers for that spooky takeoff
of yours--then, shake & glide & ride up in space
till you hammer home a clothes-lining deuce off glass
now, come back down with a reverse hoodoo gem
off the spin & stick in sweet, popping nets clean
from twenty feet, right side

put the ball on the floor again, “magic”
slide the dribble behind your back, ease it deftly
between your bony stork legs, head bobbing everwhichaway
up & down, you see everything on the court
off the high yoyo patter
stop & go dribble
you thread a needle-rope pass sweet home
to kareem cutting through the lane
his skyhook pops the cords
now, lead the fast break, hit worthy on the fly
now, blindside a pinpoint behind-the-back pass for two more
off the fake, looking the other way, you raise off-balance
into electric space
sweating chants of your name
turn, 180 degrees off the move, your legs scissoring space
like a swimmer’s yoyoing motion in deep water
stretching out now toward free flight
you double-pump through human trees
hang in place
slip the ball into your left hand
then deal it like a las vegas card dealer off squared glass
into nets, living up to your singular nickname
so “bad” you cartwheel the crowd toward frenzy
wearing now your electric smile, neon as your name

in victory, we suddenly sense your glorious uplift
your urgent need to be champion
& so we cheer with you, rejoice with you
for this quicksilver, quicksilver,

quicksilver moment of fame
so put the ball on the floor again, “magic”
juke & dazzle, shake & bake down the lane
take the sucker to the hoop, “magic” johnson,
recreate reverse hoodoo gems off the spin
deal alley-oop dunkathon magician passes
now, double-pump, scissor, vamp through space
hang in place
& put it all up in the sucker’s face, “magic” johnson,
& deal the roundball like the juju man that you am
like the sho-nuff shaman that you am, “magic,”
like the sho-nuff spaceman you am

I love the way the ending of this poem captures, in that colloquial "you am," the way that a praise poem elevates its speaker, identifying him or her with whatever has been praised.

Another praise poem worth knowing comes from Lucille Clifton.

Homage to My Hips

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don't fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don't like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!
What's wonderful here is partly the timing (that pause before "move around in," for example), and partly the way the poem starts out about size and motion, in a splendid brag, then shifts gears into political speech ("free," "enslaved") that is confidently sexual at the same time ("don't like to be held back," "do what they want to do," etc.), then shifts from that pairing into a discourse of power (might) which isn't quite enough, so she tries a discourse of enchantment (magic), which is so much fun, so right that enables the speaker to utter her first "i," and thus bring the poem to its delightful close. Listen, too, to the way that "spell" and "spin" bring the poem to a close in sound, as they pick up the "sp" left over from "space" in line 2. And, of course, where the hips were moving around themselves at the start of the poem, by the end they're transmitting that motion to someone else, that spinning man.

Yum, yum, yum. I like to read that poem, be that speaker, and tease my male students with the challenge of what, exactly, they would like to write an homage to.


SarahJane said...

i am very late to this post, but it's inspiring. thanks.

Anna said...

Hey, at the beginning of this you said you thought this should be tought more in schools. I am in the 10th grade, and we are all suppose to be writting Praise Poems in my english class. I actully was online looking for some insperation because I am not quite sure what to 'praise', but my teacher gave us a few examples (including a traditional African Praise poem.), but she also interduced us to, "Homage To My Hips".

I think once I get started I will be pretty pleased with what I come up with. But, there are many amazing praise poems I have found out there, and I think it is a great assignment for my teacher to give.

Anonymous said...

love the hips poem

disa said...
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