I spend a lot of time talking to the students I work with at Manchester Metropolitan University about form as freedom rather than constraint. I explain to them that, often, when I’m attempting a new poem these days, I have to actively resist the temptation to write with end-rhymes if I want to challenge my ‘default’ approach to a subject. Rhyme for me has become a means of both limiting what I can say (thus making the new poem seem less daunting) and pushing me towards more unusual phrases or expressions. I know other poets who have the same preference for particular forms – for example, using the sonnet as a kind of ‘net’ to catch an argument. For all my love of rhyme and half-rhyme (sometimes sporadic, sometimes more regimented), I struggle with forms like the sestina and the villanelle, admiring examples like Maurice Riordan’s ‘The January Birds’ which seem to wear their restrictions lightly.
I was fascinated, then, to read The Golden Shovel, an anthology which introduced me to a new form which opens up a dialogue with other texts, embedding them in the structure of the poem. The Golden Shovel Anthology is edited by Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar and Patricia Smith and celebrates the life and work of poet and civil rights icon Gwendolyn Brooks through a dynamic new poetic form (the ‘Golden Shovel’ of the title), created by National Book Award–winner Terrance Hayes.
So, what’s a Golden Shovel? It’s a piece where the last words of each line are, in order, words from a line or lines taken from a Brooks poem. The poems are, in a way, secretly encoded to enable both a horizontal reading of the new poem and vertical reading down the right-hand margin of Brooks’s original. Terence Hayes’ original piece in the form takes words from Brooks’ famous ‘We Real Cool’ and ‘The Golden Shovel’ is, of course, a reference to the ‘Seven at the Golden Shovel’ in the Brooks poem. Hayes’ poem is in two parts and he uses line breaks to startling effect in the second part:
….Light can be straight-
ened by its shadow. What we
break is what we hold. A sing-
ular blue note. An outcry sin-
ged exiting the throat….
The poem is brilliantly unsettling, the repeated words made new: breaking up ‘singed’ puts an emphasis on ‘sing’ and the whole poem has a haunted music in it.
An array of writers from around the world —including Pulitzer Prize winners, T. S. Eliot Prize winners, National Book Award winners, and National Poet Laureates— have written poems for the anthology: Rita Dove, Billy Collins, Nikki Giovani, Sharon Olds and Mark Doty to name but a few. There are also poems by novelists like David Guterson, author of Snow Falling on Cedars.
The UK is well-represented too, with poems from Andrew Motion, Malika Booker, Philip Gross, John Burnside, Jacob Polley and many more. Clare Pollard’s ‘Boy Breaking Glass, Peckham’ is a controlled-explosion of a poem, packed with condensed expressions: ‘….His CV is / shit, seriously; he’s new-trainered, old-eyed…’. Inua Ellams’ ‘No apps for sunlight’ is a collision of the timeless and the contemporary (‘each river-shimmering / and each groggy wrist reaching for pale screens each morning…’) which seems apt to the dialogic nature of the project. Moniza Alvi’s ‘I still don’t know’ presents the self as a ‘bright slice’, identity as something falling, changing, and it does all this in eight spare lines. Raymond Antrobus’ poem ‘The Artist’ is even shorter, commenting on the nature of articulacy: ‘there are good reasons to tweezer each / word that you give a body…’ Each poet’s response to the brief of The Golden Shovel is a provocation, a conversation-starter, but the poems by the writers I recognised felt unmistakably theirs too – Kim Addonizzio’s ‘Queen of the Game’ is a brilliant blues poem:
….I can fool a man
across a room into thinking he’s inside me. What
the blues taught me is pleasure won’t abide….
There’s something characteristically bittersweet about John Burnside’s ‘A Peek at the Back’, it’s evocation of women who are ‘out in the dark, but no-one can ever say where’, of ‘a life that remains to be told, like a death, or a rose.’
The Golden Shovel is a unique way of honouring Gwendolyn Brooks and her contribution to literature, but the form itself suggests exciting possibilities for writers.