Making the Poem Personal

First published in Geppo XLI:4, August–October 2016, page 18. Originally written in January and March of 2015.

                silently falling snow—

                even the slums

                grow beautiful

This poem by Canadian poet Chuck Gallozzi appeared in Acorn #32 in the spring of 2014 (page 42). It’s a lovely evocation of the beauty of snow, and has a feeling of Bashō or Issa. One could easily imagine this poem being written by the masters centuries ago, yet it still rings true today. Even the sounds of the poem help to make it mellifluous—the three “s” sounds, the two “f” sounds, and the hidden and entirely natural rhyme of “snow” and “grow,” an ambush rhyme that helps to make “grow” just the right word for the poem.

        Despite the beauty of this poem, it has a point of view that may be too large. It assesses all slums, as if seen from an omniscient point of view, a stance that takes the poem out of personal experience and moves it into being a conceptual idea. This makes the poem slightly more remote, it seems to me.

        Yet there’s an easy solution. By changing the poem to “even the slum / grows beautiful,” the experience of the slum becomes one slum, here and now, where the observer is actually standing. We can then ask if the person in the poem lives there, or is perhaps just visiting or passing through, which adds an additional element of compassion to the poem, or at least our interpretation of it. This change also removes a potential holier-than-thou attitude. The original poem comes across as “removed” from the slums, as if viewing them as an outsider, assuming that they’re all the same, and thus feels slightly judgmental of the slums—as if disdaining their ugliness that needs the snow to beautify it. But by changing “slums” to “slum,” not only is the experience more immediate and believable (one can be in just one slum at a time), but it also removes a layer of judgment from the poem. This sharpening of focus minimizes the problem of “unearned emotion” that so often occurs when writing of hobos or bag-ladies or other homeless people. Appropriating someone else’s misfortune often creates a predictable emotion in the reader, but it’s mostly unearned. It’s a cheap trick, just as photographing a kitten or puppy doesn’t necessarily make the photograph excellent, no matter how cute the subject is.

        As lovely as the original poem is in this case, I believe it could have been a notch better by taking a more individual, immediate, and intimate rather than omniscient viewpoint. Such attention to detail moves our poems from cerebral judgment to personal experience.