This Old Poem #3:
June Jordan’s April 10, 1999
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/6/02

  In this 3rd installment I am gonna be ripping into 1 of the premier poetasters of the last 3 or 4 decades: June Jordan. Less than a month ago JJ gifted the world of poetry with her death. My anger at this person has less to do with her terrible writing as it does with her relentless politicizing & bastardizing of all things poetic.
  Despite decades of lambasting ‘The Establishment’ JJ was always eager to accept the honors & remuneration of ‘Da Man’. Typical of this game-player’s hypocrisy is this blurb/bio posted on several websites:


  June Jordan was born in New York City in 1936. Her books of poetry include Kissing God Goodbye: Poems, 1991-1997 (Anchor Books, 1997), Haruko/Love Poems (1994), Naming Our Destiny: New and Selected Poems (1989), Living Room (1985), Passion (1980), and Things That I Do in the Dark (1977). She is also the author of children's books, plays, a novel, and Poetry for the People: A Blueprint for the Revolution (1995), a guide to writing, teaching and publishing poetry. Her collections of political essays include Affirmative Acts: Political Essays (1998) and Technical Difficulties (1994). Basic Books published her memoir, Soldier: A Poet's Childhood, in 2000.

  Jordan has received a Rockefeller Foundation grant, the National Association of Black Journalists Award, and fellowships from the Massachusetts Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She taught at the University of California, Berkeley, where she founded Poetry for the People. June Jordan died of breast cancer on June 14, 2002, in Berkeley, California.


  Wow, what a rebel! Before I get on to the ‘poem’ in question let me give you a brief taste of some of the utter drivel this woman foisted upon the world in her 6+ decades. This stanza is from Jim Crow: The Sequel


And a great rejoicing rose like a spirit
fresh and happy on the soon-to-be-the-
integrated-and-most-uppity ballroom floor
of these United
And Black folks everywhere dressed up in
African-American pride
and optimism.
From the littlest to the elders
we shined our shoes and brushed our hair
and got good and ready for
"equality as a fact." But
three decades later, and come to find out
we never got invited to the party
we never got included in "the people"
we never got no kind of affirmative action
worth more than a spit in the wind.


  Okay, the enjambment is terrible. Is there any bit of music? No. This is a poorly broken up screed masquerading as poetry. But this stanza is pure lyric compared to this later  stanza:


Forty-six percent of the American labor
force is constituted by White men but White
men occupy 95 percent of all senior
management positions!
And as a wise Black man
recently observed
"This supposedly beleaguered minority
(White males are about one-third of the
population) makes up 80 percent of the
Congress, four-fifths of tenured university
faculty, nine-tenths of the Senate
and 92 percent of the Forbes 400."


  I hear the retorts now- ‘But it’s all true!’ Perhaps, but what the hell does that have to do with poetry? Ah- here cometh the rub! In her 1995 book/rationale for doggerel JJ gave this tripartite definition for poetry (page 36):


a. Poetry: A medium for telling the truth.

b. Poetry: The achievement of maximum impact with a minimal number of words.

c. Poetry: Utmost precision in the use of language, hence, density and intensity of expression.


  If you don’t realize she was a lost cause after point a please- go read more of that type of crap on the Web- please leave Cosmoetica! For the rest of you b & c seem reasonable points, right? They are- however vague. But, here’s the crux- she never practiced what she preached. In fact, JJ was so schizoid that later on on that & the following page she adds these gems of poetic wisdom, in fact a technical checklist that includes strong descriptive verbs, vivid & singular diction, resonant details, avoiding abstractions & generalities, defensible &/or compelling line breaks, alliteration, assonance, rhyme, & leaving out most punctuation. Now, most of these injunctions are without much thought- however- apply her own stanzas to the 2 preceding stanzas. How many times have you read poems by poets who violated their own so-called dicta?
  Now let’s get on to JJ’s poem itself. Bear in mind all of her own injunctions for I shall use them against her- & my own saner critical skills. You will see this is a terrible poem, & utterly generic- it could have been written by any of 1000s of PC Elitist workshoppers. That this poem garnered JJ great fame a few years back is incredible. It was read on PBS’s ‘Newshour’ in condemnation of the Balkans War. Therefore I attack it for its renown, moreso than its being ‘old’.


April 10, 1999

The enemies proliferate
by air
by land
they bomb the cities
they burn the earth
they force the families into miles and miles of violent exile

30 or 40 or 80,000 refugees
just before this
or who knows where
they disappear

the woman cannot find her brother
the man cannot recall the point of all
     the papers somebody took
     away from him
the rains fall to purify the river
the darkness does not slow the trembling
     message of the tanks

Hundreds of houses on fire and still
  the enemies do not seek and find
     the enemies

only the ones without water
only the ones without bread
only the ones without guns

There is international TV
There is no news

The enemies proliferate
The homeless multiply
And I
I watch I wait

I am already far
and away
too late

too late

  Let’s take her points a, b, & c. Point a- is this true? No. It’s a poem. Strike 1. Point b- maximum impact, minimum word use. Have you not read this poem 100s of times before, save for a change of a word here or there? Minimal word use- read on. Point c- let’s not even go there; &, hey, stop your laughing- it’s not polite! Let’s hit some of her other injunctions. Strong descriptive verbs: is there even 1? Why? The very triteness of the context makes it nearly impossible. Vivid & singular diction: perhaps the hyphen in ‘check-point’? I’m being serious…. Resonant details: Again, impossible in a generic poem. Avoiding abstractions & generalities: Granted, such a prosaic work has to avoid abstraction- but it means, de facto, that the poem will be general- aka generic. Defensible &/or compelling line breaks: This poem is the rare JJ poem that has defensible enjambment- but not a 1 is ‘compelling’- no line break whets you to read on. Alliteration, assonance, rhyme: Stanza 2 ends with the near rhyme of where/disappear- hardly an argument for the poem’s musicality. Dropping punctuation: A fuckin’ home run!
  Obviously, however, JJ ignores virtually all of her own criteria. How about TOP’s? Obviously this is so bad a poem it is nearly irretrievable from the junk heap. Instead of going line-by-line & dissecting this tripe I will give it the rewrite & explicate what should be obvious to you, dear readers.

April 10, 1999

the enemies by air by land

miles and miles of violent exile

30 or 40 or 80,000 refugees

the woman cannot find her brother

the man cannot recall the point

hundreds of houses on fire and still

there is international TV news
I watch I wait

  Without adding to this dreck it is hard to merely carve an individuated voice from what is there. 8 lines as their own stanzas give the
sensation of someone gasping- the viewer or the speaker? Gone are most of the clichés & trite melodrama. The 1st 3 lines set the scene. The middle 2 lines set up the wisp of an individual drama. Line 5 also adds a little philosophy with a touch of the poignant. Line 6’s end word ‘still takes on a duplicity missing in the original. Did anyone say ‘compelling’? Then the last 2 lines end with the pullout- the de facto curtain that frames the drama. Then the ‘I’ in the last line takes on a deeper impact, especially sans the original ending which totally ‘tells’ what this line aptly ‘shows’. Is the revision a good poem? Not really. But it is passable, if not really publishable. Remember, I do not want to add too much of myself into these TOP rewrites, only maximize what is there. Were this poem to come to the UPG I would strip it to what I have & say there is the core poem. Now add & thicken the broth with some things only you, the individual poet, could write. This is something old dead JJ never understood. You, however, still have hope, so let the worms have at her, while you enjoy learning what makes up good poetry!

Final Score (0-100):

June Jordan’s April 10, 1999: 40 (or less)
TOP’s April 10, 1999: 65

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