Social Realism

Edited and with an Introduction by M. Kei
As I write this, Andy Williams is singing the great Civil War carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Most readers will not be familiar with the carol in its original form; the two verses relating to the American Civil War are usually dropped.

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will toward men.

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good will toward men.

Tanka, as currently written in English today, rarely addresses ‘large topics’ like war and the various ills of society. The ills of individuals—cancer, broken hearts, and the loss of a beloved home—are amply covered, but tanka’s focus on the personal seems to exclude the communal.

I have sometimes heard it said that tanka are too small to address such large topics; tanka must content itself with addressing the local and the personal; that to attempt any larger topic must necessarily degenerate into triteness and genericness. Yet poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow has given us seven verses of five lines each on the subject of a topic of immense proportions: the American Civil War. The two verses quoted above resemble tanka; they are five lines featuring two short and three long, and totaling thirty-two syllables.

Why do we, whether it is Christmas carols or tanka, eschew that which looms large enough to overwhelm us as it overwhelms cities, nations, and entire peoples? The carol—with its customary omitted verses—gives us a clue; we are uneasy and unwilling to admit the agonies of the world. How much easier to nurse our own injuries than to care for the injuries of the world! What can one of us do in the face of a hurricane, war, or earthquake? What can we do, especially within the confines of one small poem, about alcoholism, child abuse, discrimination, insanity, crime, the economy, or anything else?

What might we achieve if only we would dare it? That was the challenge I sent to poets when I issued the call for submission for tanka on the theme of social realism. I didn’t want tanka on the themes I love, I wanted tanka on the themes that none of us love. Perhaps it was because the agony of Japan was fresh in our mind, perhaps it was because London erupted in riots, or maybe it was because we saw ordinary people topple dictators in Africa.

Cynics opined that I would never find enough quality poems on the theme to fill out the requisite twenty-five tanka. They were convinced that tanka is all mist and cherry blossoms and despaired of it ever amounting to more than a dilettante’s toy. However, in the last four years I have been editor of Atlas Poetica, I have seen a great deal of tanka not in the mold of butterflies and blossoms, and I was determined to make the effort. At first submissions were slow, and although I received some excellent pieces, I began to wonder if the skeptics were right. Then, as the deadline neared, submissions picked up and I receive a flood of excellent work. I had a hard time picking pieces for the special feature, so I accepted a number of items for publication in the next issue of the journal.

Yet if tanka are large enough to encompass disaster, are they large enough to encompass Hope, the biggest subject of them all? I think they are; I have come to see each tanka as a star that undoes the despair of night. And so, I offer one extra poem, a poem not on the theme of Social Realism, but on the theme of hope:

under a dark moon
I have come to see
that every star
is the night’s undoing

Claire Everett, previously published in Blithe Spirit 21:3, September 2011.

Each time the poet takes up his or her pen, she raises a lantern in the night and the carol rings forth anew, “The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men!”

1) Amelia Fielden

a robot voice
is all I can get now
on your phone . . .
where are you, where are you
under water, under concrete?

Japanese tsunami, March 2011

2) Autumn Noelle Hall

changing the bar’s name
to Silver Tongue Devil
he sells the town
on claims he’ll class up the joint—
the acronym says it all

3) Bruce England

My hat on a nail
means this outhouse is occupied
no door, no roof
up above my desert pit
the Milky Way glitter

4) Carol Raisfeld

in what seems to be
a lifetime
of hiding the truth . . . now
in tuxedos, we marry

5) Chen-ou Liu

the priest claims
all creatures are naked
in God’s eyes . . .
an elusive smile
on his daughter’s crimson lips

6) Claire Everett

you could not go on
but I had to, without you—
for nineteen weeks and four days
you filled my womb with light

7) Earl Moore

lonely night
cavern of darkness
still moonlight
beams highlight the path
to fifty trapped miners

8) Esin Goldman

as we slip through
the barbed wire . . .
lines of rust across
the lines of our hands

9) Gary Severance

scarred door ajar
a pregnant child
akimbo on her bed
life’s sweet expression
death’s punctured veins

10) Gerry Jacobson

blessed are those
who talk to themselves
on Sydney buses
they shall be watched
from the corner of all eyes

11) Guy Simser

when the union guy’s
off-site, I caulk sewer pipe
a fifteen year old
with law-breaker’s pride
and fitful nights of sleep

12) Helen Buckingham

past the strip club
beneath the neon drizzle
an abandoned umbrella
shimmers red
as the night closes in

Previously appeared in Little Purple Universes: The Literary Factory, 2011

13) Ignatius Fay

homeless woman
cartful of cat food
my daughters
are slow to comprehend
she has no cat

14) Jacob Kobina Ayiah Mensah

evening newspaper
blood of a child stains my hands

15) John Daleiden

trees heavy with pears
these houses left vacant
after foreclosure
she lines up with two hundred
others seeking fifty jobs

16) Leslie Ihde

homeless youths
sleeping in a doorway
the dog with them
is having
a great adventure

17) M. Burgh

Missing three fingers,
The old woman
Stares at the schoolbooks
She’s bought because
Her factory’s shut

18) Marilyn Hazelton

within the music
of Vietnamese women
asking?? answering??
the manicurist takes my hand
her nails unpolished, cracked

19) Mel Goldberg

I auction
the hospital bed
on which my father died
someone offers
a hundred dollars

20) Neal Whitman

a young man and his dog
both sleeping on a park bench
with one buck in his hat—
an old hand saunters past
and lifts . . . hat and bill

21) Owen Bullock

when last
I was in Christchurch
the café
where we were supposed to meet
was at the bottom of a hole

22) Radhey Shiam

a low caste lady devotee
is beaten by the priest
as she dared enter
the temple courtyard along
with high caste ladies

23) Rodney Williams

cheapest rail fare
from paris to madrid
waking drowsy from ether
backpack gutted by blades

24) Tracy Davidson

a shaft of sunlight
catches the sharp edge
of the sword
the blood-splattered blade
calls to me

25) William Cullen, Jr.

when the INS
came for the old gardener
he hugged the scarecrow
saying goodbye to his friend
who kept silent all these years

© 2012