Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Johnston's Poem Wins Phi Kappa Phi Forum Competition

The invitation for poems on American pride resulted in, approximately enough, a diverse set of compositions, ranging from the fixed forms of sonnets and villanelles to expansive, neo-Whitmanic free verse to concrete poems, one even shaped as the USA.

Subjects included, among many others, immigration, Pearl Harbor, the space shuttle, and the concept of E Pluribus Unum, the Latin Motto ("out of many, one") on U.S. currency. Nearly three times as many poets entered this contest than for our inaugural spring 2009 competition on theme of origins.
The winning poem, a formal work in rhymed, iambic pentameter quatrains, "What's Underneath," by Arnold Johnston, is a powerfully subtle and evocative response to this call of American pride.
Avoiding the too-easy twin poles of jingoism and vitriol, the poet captures our collective failings as well as our shared strengths - as Americans and as human beings. Our love of country as home begins but does not end in geographic space, this "earthen bed, the pillow made of stone," the poet notes; yet we "never tire/ of raising cages, walls."
Johnston warns us against believeing in our own happy-ever-after "diversions," whether contemporary or classic. The Emerald City is not our final destination. We can't always keep the wolf at bay, and Johnston urges us to be at least vigilant of the one in ourselves as we are of the one at the door.
Ultimately, "What's Underneath" is a sober and clear-eyed engagement of the American Dream, not the dismissal of it; Johnston reminds us that our freedom is "the power of choice," and that great privilege demands great responsibility, with no consideration given to borders or walls.

Written by: Sandra Meek, poetry editor of Poetic Pause from the Phi Kappa Phi Forum

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