I’ve been reading a lot of poetry lately. It feels somehow that poetry is the perfect antidote to this bananas time: brief yet emotionally satisfying. For just one moment I get to slip into someone else’s experience, be it a queen or a wild iris, and feel those feelings alongside my own unruly ones. When I try to explain my deep love for poetry, I’m often met with blank stares. Poetry can seem daunting and overwhelming, and sometimes it is truly obscure. But a good poem is one that is able to orient a reader to its subject, emotional urgency, and argument without sacrificing beautiful language. The same qualities that are necessary in a good paper.
One of my favorite poems right now is “Minimum Wage” by Matthew Dickman. It begins:
My mother and I are on the front porch lighting each other’s
as if we were on a ten-minute break from our jobs
at being a mother and son, just ten minutes
In these four lines, I, as a reader, already know so much both about the physical reality of this poem and the emotional landscape Dickman has created. With very few words, I can already imagine what this mother and son look like. I know that they are standing on a porch smoking cigarettes. I know that they are both adults, both old enough to be working and smoking. I know that the relationship between the mother and son feels the way working a minimum wage job feels: transactional, exhausting, unrewarding. This poem gives me just enough information to feel the full emotional reality of this relationship. There is nothing extraneous here, no rogue details about other family members or the shape of the cigarette smoke. The poem is about the fraught relationship between this mother and son, and Dickman communicates this in the first four words of the poem by narrowing the focus of the poem to these two characters. When writing a paper, it’s helpful to keep this in mind, to share enough information for the reader to understand why the argument you are making is important without oversharing.
Often in writing center conferences, students tell me that they just don’t have enough space within their page limit to do the kind of orienting work that I feel their paper needs. Truthfully, in my own work I sometimes share this worry: wouldn’t it be better to use my space to make my argument rather than wasting it on background information? But it doesn’t take much space, or many words, to provide a reader with enough information to make sense of your argument. It’s always worth the extra sentence or two to orient a reader to the relevant information that makes your paper relevant and worth reading. Without the first line of “Minimum Wage,” I wouldn’t grasp the emotional reality of this kind of transactional relationship between a mother and son — I wouldn’t be able to imagine these characters as they smoke on their front porch — and without that understanding, this poem wouldn’t make me cry every time I read it.
— Malka Himelhoch, ’21
Dickman, Matthew. “Minimum Wage.” American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, selected by Tracy K. Smith. Graywolf Press, 2017, pp. 56.