As a poet and a teacher of poetry, I find myself perennially challenged to write—and even further challenged as I guide my students to write—poems that are as aesthetically complex as they are socially relevant. On the one hand, when I am paying too much attention to formal innovation, I worry that my poems run the risk of becoming gimmicks, little show-offs somersaulting and back-bending as if to say, Who cares what I mean? Look what I can do! On the other hand, when I am concentrating too much on the poem as conduit for particular, often political messages, I worry that I will be forced to sacrifice craft in favor of prosaic sloganeering, or worse: outright didacticism.
This brings me to an age-old problem: how do we successfully balance form and content in the making of a work of art? Kim Bridgford’s Bully Pulpit offers one masterful and well-rounded response.
When I first heard the book’s title in casual conversation, I was drawn to it because of the promising attention to both content and form. The pairing of the words “bully” and “pulpit” strikes an aural spark. Their immediate power comes from the assonance of the “ul” sound that unites them. Then, there is the matter of meaning. The word bully points to a subject of special social relevance in an era of hate crimes and anti-bullying legislation. When I hear this word, it shoots like a conceptual arrow in multiple directions through my mind, pointing toward LGBT rights, toward gun control, toward immigration reform. There are so many incarnations of the bully and the bullied in our society that the multi-valence of this word suits our present cultural moment like few others.
Theodore Roosevelt coined the term “bully pulpit” in reference to his own position in the White House. He meant to suggest that the presidential office was a powerful place from which to advocate for agendas of change and reform. Over time, however, our connotations with the word “bully” have shifted. We hear the word less as “good” or “advantageous” (as in the outmoded expression, “Bully for you!”) and more as “tormentor of the weak.” So while a bully pulpit is understood to mean an influential position from which to speak and be heard, the phrase resonates with readers on many levels. What changes and reforms are the speakers from our current bully pulpits seeking?How should we respond when we find bullies in our bully pulpits these days? Perhaps Bridgford is also implying that the arts themselves have always been a necessary bully pulpit from which to address social issues—notably, imbalances of power. Her book boldly assumes this role.
Bully Pulpit is both remarkably instructive to readers of question and conscience and highly teachable in a classroom of aspiring poets. The poet-speaker, through a mixture of inhabited persona and third-person narrative poems, explores contemporary, historical, and fictional power dynamics within a variety of contexts. These contexts are indicated in the book’s five section titles: PUBLIC, PRIVATE, MYTHOLOGICAL, MOVIES & LITERATURE, and MYTHICAL WOMEN.
In the first poem of the collection, “Before Jumping Off the Bridge,” Bridgford writes in the voice of Tyler Clementi, a boy who was cyber bullied to his death. She, as he, begins: “I loved to play the violin, to hear/ The notes before I felt them in my hands.” Immediately, as a reader, I have access to this boy’s individuality, and with it, his humanity. Unlike a news story, I am not directed to concentrate on the who-what-where-when-why of his circumstances so much as on the complex and fraught nature of his emotional life. The poem ends with this couplet: “It’s the music I jump into, and the mouthing/ Of love. You know, how a kiss dissolves to nothing.”
Bridgford’s linkage of the boy’s love of music in the first stanza with his suicide by leaping off the George Washington Bridge in the last highlights the power of sound and image—the way formal choices can deepen the resonance of factual content. We know as readers of the poem that many youths are bullied and choose suicide as a means of escape, but now we have a metaphor to help us more viscerally understand the kind of hopelessness a boy like Tyler Clementi must have felt when he ended his life—“how a kiss dissolves to nothing.” This is a poem of social action that is also aesthetically crafted. A closer inspection of the poem reveals that it is a sonnet: three quatrains and a couplet, a blend of straight rhyme and slant rhyme at the end of those ten-syllabled lines. In the deft hands of a neo-formalist like Kim Bridgford, the reader’s experience of the aesthetic possibilities of the sonnet grow, and simultaneously, her awareness and outrage at the consequences of our bully culture.
Toward the middle of the book, a villanelle called “Brokenness” explores the gendered dimensions of bullying more broadly. The poem begins with the recurring line, “Men like a little brokenness in women.” Of course this is not all men, but a poetic examination of a historical trend in sexual politics that still holds sway today. The poem observes, “Discrimination usually is subtle,” and focuses particularly on women in academic contexts: “Do not invite them to be keynote then;/ Some adjunct work will fill the time meanwhile./ The hard-knock life will make them seem more human.”
Repeated four times, as is standard for the villanelle, “Men like a little brokenness in women” echoes and reinforces the many examples of powerful men keeping potentially powerful women in their place that populate the poem. The line is summative, memorable, a poetic shorthand for the social impasse we have reached regarding gendered relations in this country. When I think of “broken,” my first association is glass, and when I think of men and women in relation to glass, my first association is the glass ceiling. The glass ceiling, as a cultural concept, allows me to read the line with a double meaning in mind. Prosodically, as I am listening to its sound and rhythm, I understand the line to mean that men like to see women’s flaws, their vulnerability, the qualities that “make them seem more human.” Conceptually, when I am thinking of the glass ceiling, I understand the line to mean that men like women to have broken through the glass ceiling a bit, but not too much—a little is acceptable, but a lot—full shatter—is a true threat to the patriarchal firmament.
The final section on mythical women may be my favorite in the book. I relished the diligent and witty anachronism of “Juliet on Facebook,” the long-delayed literary gratification of “Ophelia Gives Hamlet a Piece of her Mind” and “Penelope Sets the Record Straight.” The final poem in the book is called “Leda,” and here again, Bridgford assumes the voice of her poem’s subject. I am struck by Leda’s legitimate ire, the way she embodies the Foucauldian ideal of speaking truth to power: “You liked the way you shamed and sullied good.” The poet’s diction here also reminds us how “sullied” and “bullied” differ by only one letter—that sullying bodies and reputations is what bullies do.
The poem turns after this line as the second stanza begins. Leda asserts, “But listen to me now: I’m done. I’m human,/ Sick of all the things gods do to women,/ Your narcissism clear, your shifting weathers,/ The sudden suffocation by your feathers.” The rhyme scheme heightens the intensity of the message. The psychological concept of “narcissism” is balanced by a visceral engagement of the reader’s senses, triggered by an active image like “suffocation by your feathers.” Bridgford is making us think about content, power dynamics, bullying, while also making us feel through the mythic life of the girl raped by the god disguised as a swan.
The final couplet of the poem, which is also the final couplet of the book, reads as rallying cry against physical, gendered, and political forms of oppression. This couplet also strikes an important balance with the final image of the first poem in the book, that “kiss [that] dissolves to nothing.” Where Tyler Clementi ended his life in hopelessness, Leda’s final resolution is one of hope, of the power we have to change ourselves, and through such personal transformations, the larger system that binds us: “On earth, we find it different, Zeus./ Look: all the ropes you tied me with are loose.” Bridgford’s artfully thoughtful (and thoughtfully artful) poems have helped to loosen them.