“Rape joke”

English Department’s Colloquium Series explores local writers’ top picks in poetry

Maureen O'Reilly, Staff Reporter

The poem appeared on The Awl on July 25 of this year. Just over two months later, it has close to thirty thousand likes on Facebook, plus numerous re-postings, comments and Tweets. Just as poetry seemed to die with Shakespeare in high schools, the Internet blew up for Patricia Lockwood’s piece, shy of 1,300 words. All of this for a poem?

A Regional Poets on Poetry event, hosted last Friday in Clark Hall, brought together three local poets. Each proffered a poem written by someone else that focused on current themes in poetry. Frank Giampietro, the interim director at the Cleveland State University Poetry Center, read Lockwood’s poem. Joy Katz read Brenda Hillman’s “Moaning Action at the Gas Poem,” and David Young selected “Salome’s Dance,” penned by Lee Upton.

To a larger audience, poetry can seem…mystifying. Especially when three poems like these— one concerning the impending environmental doom, another portraying a historical figure using modern colloquialism and Lockwood’s— are paired together. As Kate Dunning, a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department, later pointed out, reading the three poems together teases common themes out.

The intellectual commentary buffered reader comments on Lockwood’s poem, “Rape Joke,” on The Awl. Online, comments ranged from biting declarations that Lockwood’s poem was overrated, to others regarding the piece as a beacon of truth amidst murky cultural boundaries towards rape. Within the lecture hall, talk touched on perspective. Playing with construction, Lockwood slides focus to how violence and victimization fit within social discourse and slips focus away again. The back-and-forth adds metaphorical weight to the poem. The online outburst over “Rape Joke” sharply brought one of the day’s strongest themes into light: What are the social functions of poetry?

Brenda Hillman’s “Moaning Action at the Gas Pump” emphasized subtleties of poetic function on society. Presented by Katz, “Moaning” plays with the notion of humanity’s demise from pending environmental doom. Interestingly, Hillman’s poem lacks an immediate call to arms. Instead, the poem uses daily tasks, like filling the gas tank, and pairs them with oddities, such as moaning while pumping. The moaning throws the offending chore into the spotlight, as the implicit sadness and sexiness contrast with the unglamorous gas pump. This juxtaposition nudges the reader to think about daily ecological impact. During discussion, professor Chris Flint of the English Department called attention to the differences between activist poetry and what he suggested should be called “activatist” poetry. The former bursts with blatant propaganda; the latter, like Hillman’s poem, achieves similar awareness as activist poetry, albeit through more subtle and unique ways.

Over the cheese spread at the reception, Gianpietro said that the reason he chose “Rape Joke” was its accessibility. Using simple language, the poem is “so emotive,” evoking such powerful internal reactions. Accessibility remained a key aspect for discussion; the tangible ideas from “Moaning Action at the Gas Pump” lead to wide discussion, rivalling that of “Rape Joke”.

Poetry is far from being obsolete. Although it rests on the margins of life’s routine activities, the twisting and turning of words still demands social thought and a place in cultural discussion. The well-attended event sprouted from the collaboration of Poetics Working Group and CWRU’s English Department’s Colloquium Series, and was co-sponsored by the Baker Nord Center for the Humanities. The Colloquium Series features events open to the public weekly. More information can be found at the Department of English’s website.