Friday, March 1, 2013

March 2013 Poetry Challenge: Poverty

This picture shows the stone bridge mentioned in the poem by Peter Ludwin.

The world’s great spiritual leaders—Buddha, Isaiah, Jesus, Mohammed—for Instance, have taken a special interest in those who are poor, and have entreated their followers to be generous to the needy. Poets can handle the issue of poverty in many ways. There is a risk of moving past sentiment into sentimentality, of going into the opposite direction, into insensitivity. The form a poem regarding poverty takes depends on how the poet encounters it, and the poet’s ability (or inability) to identify with those who are poor.

I was raised in a family which was on the line between “lower middle class” and “upper lower class” (to use the language learned in schoo). There was an obvious “pecking order” in elementary school, and I was aware I was close to the bottom. One year, a child who was much more economically deprived than I joined my class. I was immediately aware that I got picked on less as she was picked on more. I felt relieved—and guilty for feeling relieved.

My first encounter with extreme poverty came when I was on the debate team at American University in Washington,D.C. We participated in a tournament in New York City on a bitterly cold weekend. One experience I had that weekend has had a life-long impact on me. It was years after the experience that I wrote the following poem:

Feet on the Subway

His coat was ragged
as his face. His worn hat
and threadbare gloves
could not protect him
from the icy cold racing
through the wind tunnels
of New York City.
Probably he panhandled
coins to ride the subway.
My eyes were drawn
from his drawn face,
his recessed eyes,
to the skin of his ankles
stretched tight and red,
his puffy feet, pressed
into loafers, the newspaper
stuffing visible through
large holes in the soles.
I shivered less from the cold
than the coldness
with which I stared.
I reached my station,
rose and left the subway car.
I took his feet with me.
Look, the swollen ankles,
the newspaper-stuffed shoes
are still stored
just behind
my eyes.

~ Wilda Morris

This poem, which was first published on the website of the Evanston. Illinois, Public Library, and has been republished several times, focuses on the impact of the experience on the narrator.

While I was in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico, earlier this year, I purchased a copy of Atención, a local bilingual newspaper. It included a poem by Rick Roberts. His poem focuses on the interaction between the narrator and a woman who sits on the sidewalk begging for coins:

For a Peso

  As I was walking the streets of San Miguel
I saw a twisted old woman half sitting,
           half lying on the sidewalk,
 I stopped to drop a peso In her basket.

      As I bent down, she looked up,
her eyes probing mine, pulling me
              into her very being.

Did I see the mother she had once been,
 her children now scattered and lost to
  Had she once been someone’s bride,
          some young man’s passion?

   Had her body always been broken,
or  had she run with her friends laughing
                    in the sun?
   Had she ever been carefree, giggling,
   sharing her dreams and her longings?

  Had she held the hands of her brothers
                  and sisters
     as they skipped across the plaza?
In her long life had she ever felt safe,
          sheltered, and wholly loved?

           Then I saw in those eyes
   that she had been all those things.
               Was all those things.
                  Is all those things.

       As I finally released the coin
       into her basket, she smiled
  the sweetest smile, said “gracias.”
Then released me to my passing self.

~ Rick Roberts

From For a Peso, by Rick Roberts. Also published in Atención, January 4, 2012, page 17. Used by permission of the author.

Peter Ludwin who goes to San Miguel de Allende every winter, developed some degree of relationship to a street vendor named Carmela. Carmela was not destitute as the man on the New York Subway or the woman described by Rick Roberts, but her economic means were obviously limited. Perhaps I have a bias in favor of this poem because I stayed in the same posada in San Miguel, and also purchased gorditas from Carmela. I’m also impressed by the way Ludwin broadens the focus of the poem to include historical and socio-economic factors. The images and metaphors in this poem are also strong. Unlike the two poems above, this poem is addressed to its subject.


Every winter when I return to San Miguel
I find you in the same spot
under the little stone bridge: Carmela,
the gordita woman, a mestiza crone

one step removed from the shriveled Indian
begging in a doorway like a starving bird.
For thirty years you’ve made empanadas
filled with cheese and hot chilies
on your comal, hand dipped in a bucket

of tainted water I ignore. What are you
if not the chime of the tolling bell?
Mexico’s true constant, a blue feather
waltzing with dust? Revolutions, coups,

cartels—they come and they go, rank winds
that sear the eyebrows and ravish unsuspecting nuns.
You remain, the lines and folds of your skin
the paths of ruined armies, of obsidian blades
and Spanish bayonets kicked up by a plowing mule.

Once, coming down from the Andes,
an old man asked me What is your faith?
I knew what he wanted: that identity card like
American Express. Inconceivable

I would ever leave home without it.
A casualty, that faith, like so many others
in the course of learning to stand naked.
More reliable those simple things that anchor
the common rhyme: a rooster, a bougainvillea.

And you, gordita woman?
I believe in you as others believe
in Exxon or the New York Times,
the way I used to believe in the Lone Ranger,

a masked redeemer unscarred by doubt,
a range rider whose shirts never creased.
What I see is what I get. Digging for change,
you feed me in places neither of us
has drawn on our worn, tattered maps.

~ Peter Ludwin

From Rumors of Fallible Gods (Rockford MI: Presa Press, 2013), pp. 36-37. Used by permission of the author.

About the poets:

Rick Roberts lived in Camano Island, Washington, for twelve years before moving to Mexico. He found his poetic voice in San Miguel de Allende, near the age of 69.  He believes both truth and music are the essential elements that bring power to words. One without the other leaves us feeling, somehow, incomplete.” (NOTE: The poet named Rick Roberts who has a website is a different Rick Roberts).

Peter Ludwin is a folk musician as well as a poet. He regularly participates in the San Miguel Poetry Week (see ). He has received prestigious awards, including a Literary Fellowship from Artist Trust, second prize in the 2007-2008 Anna Davidson Rosenberg Awards, and two Pushcart Prize nominations. His poems have occurred in numerous journals, including Nimrod, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Comstock Review.

More Poets on Poverty:
Hayden Carruth, “Notes on Poverty” -
Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “Poverty and Wealth” -

Poetry Challenge for March 2013: Poverty

For the March challenge, write a poem about your encounter with poverty (your own or someone else’s) or, more broadly, about poverty as a social issues. No poems that belittle those in poverty will be considered.

How to Submit Your Poem
Please put your name at the bottom of the poem (note the format used above). Poems published in books or on the Internet (including Facebook and other on-line social networks) are not eligible. If your poem has been published in a periodical, please include publication data. Poems submitted after the March 15 deadline will not be considered.

If the judge or judges for the month do not believe any poem submitted is quite good enough, no winner will be declared. Decisions of the judges are final.

Send your poem to wildamorris[at]ameritech[dot]net (substitute the @ sign for “at” and a . for [dot]). Put "February Poetry Challenge" in the subject line of your email. If you want a bio published with your poem should it be a winner, please include put a brief bio below your poem. Submission of a poem gives permission for the poem to be posted on the blog if it is a winner. The deadline is March 15, 2013 (Central Daylight Time). Copyright on poems is retained by their authors. 

© 2013 Wilda Morris