Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Poetry Safety Net

francine j. harris won the Page Clayton Poetry Prize this year. Her poem, published in the Michigan Quarterly Review, is called “what you’d find buried in the dirt under charles f. kettering sr. high school (detroit, michigan).” What francine finds is disturbing: blood, condoms, broken fragments of high-school life and dreams. The poem is gritty and beautiful at the same time. Its beauty lies not in rendering a world we would hope to visit, but in the way it brings us into us the lives lived there. High school can be a tough; charles f. kettering high was very tough.

Page Clayton (not long out of
high school herself)
Page Clayton was my mother. The prize in her name is something Meg and I support to keep her memory alive in a way we think she would have liked, by encouraging young poets. Mom loved Emily Dickinson, another writer who gave us beautiful and disturbing poetry. I think Mom would have liked francine’s poem too. More than most, Mom retained until her death an ability to feel the struggles and frustrations of young people coming of age. Her gift was more than just empathy; it was something close to actually experiencing herself a small part of their pain.

I worry about kids like those in charles f. kettering high. The political landscape today is brutal. It’s hard to get funding for education or health care or almost anything kids need, even contraception. Every dollar is a fight. And even when there is funding, it’s hard to get it to the folks who need it. Government bureaucracies are thickets. Mothers with children who need medicine or education assistance can be too overwhelmed with the day-to-day struggle even to know help might be available.

The human spirit is amazing, though. And ultimately, it is that spirit that carries us forward. Food, education and health care are necessary, but they are not sufficient. There are stories every year of young men and women who transcend enervating environments to accomplish great things. Sometimes you want to ask: How did they do that? How did they persevere under such daunting conditions?

francine harris is the answer. Not her, literally, but what she represents. Sometimes we take wrong turns from which there is no way back. But sometimes we strike out on the right path and just keep going. We owe those journeys of courage and optimism to the spark that makes us human. For reminding us that that spark lives even among blood and discarded condoms, we owe a debt to poets like francine harris and to publications that bring us their work, like the Michigan Quarterly Review.


  1. Beautiful poem, beautiful post. Both do your beautiful mom justice.

  2. Lovely post. A thank you to Meg at SheWrites for spotlighting it for us.