The Visual Delight of Poetry

By Nora Cornell • December 1, 202

Danez Smith is a poet who understands aesthetics. All poets do, on some level –poetry is built on descriptions and images, using “created beauty” to translate ideas. But Smith takes it to a new level, especially in their written work. Poems in both Homie and Don’t Call Us Dead tumble across the page, zig-zag along jagged edges, or seem to collapse in on themselves in a puddle.

It’s as if Smith sees themself as a visual artist in addition to a written one. And, in fact, on the April episode of the fiction/non/fiction podcast, they talk about writing “not just [for] the image, the syntax, the sound, … but writing for people to read visually, approaching the page as a canvas,” and giving a piece of poetry the same space as a painting in a museum, for people to approach and just admire its presence on the page.

I love this approach to poetry, but of course a poem’s value is not just in its form but also in its content. In my opinion, Smith’s “my president” takes both of these elements and wraps them together perfectly, so that both form and content elevate the other to new heights. No one stanza is justified exactly the same way as another, so that as the descriptions shrink and the list of presidents goes on, it feels that the whole community has made itself known on the page. The poem is woven through itself the way a neighborhood is, and the consistent use of ampersands both adds to Smith’s unique voice and seamlessly connects each line with the one before it. I could spend a whole afternoon playing connect-the-dots with this poem.

“My president” is also an incredibly timely poem, but its playful visual form coupled with the list of people Smith has chosen to “elect” almost de-escalates the content, taking power away from the politicians invoked by the title and re-centering it with regular people – the people Smith knows and calls friends. It is, in my mind, an ode to America through the proper lens: the lens of community and joy. The joy lives in young boys and Rhianna and mothers and Shonda Rhimes and bus drivers and aunties and everyone else who makes up this “mighty anthem” whose names we should all sing.

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