Denise Duhamel: State of Poetry, an Antidote to the Breezy Vapidity of Pop Culture

by Jaquelyn Malone

The following statement is by Denise Duhamel, who participated in the panel on the State of Poetry at this is year’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival:  

"Poetry mustn’t try to compete with the sound bites of politics or the breezy vapidity of pop culture, but rather it should serve as an antidote for it. Poetry brings with it freshness and delight, a sweeping out of the mind. In the nineteenth century, long before television and Facebook and our many other distractions, Stephen Mallarme wrote, “It is the job of poetry to clean up our word-clogged reality by creating silences around things."

Denise’s poetry is an example of her belief about current poetry but not in the way you might assume. For example she doesn’t avoid pop culture – in fact she has an entire book about Barbie (Kinky). And talk about taking on breezy vapidity!  You’ll never look at Barbie the same way again. As an example, check out her “Buddhist Barbie.” How often do you get poetry that is insightful and makes you laugh out loud?

Here are what others say about her work:

Thomas Fink in Rattle says of her: “Denise Duhamel has always lavished her poetry with the immediacy, relevance, incongruity, and humor of sociopolitical circumstances and eruptions.”

Karla Huston observed on the Poetry Foundation site, “Her poems speak with a wild irreverence. […] Duhamel experiments with form and subject, creating poetry that challenges the reader's notion of what poetry should be. She presents what poetry could be as she fully engages pop culture, the joys and horrors of it, while maintaining the ability to poke fun at our foibles—and make us think.”

And now take a moment to treat yourself to this witty 21st Century poet. What a fresh voice smacking around not just our contemporary culture but the human sense of self. This poet shakes up the state of poetry a little!


I just didn’t get it—
even with the teacher holding an orange (the earth) in one hand
and a lemon (the moon) in the other,
her favorite student (the sun) standing behind her with a flashlight.

I just couldn’t grasp it—
this whole citrus universe, these bumpy planets revolving so slowly
no one could even see themselves moving.
I used to think if I could only concentrate hard enough
I could be the one person to feel what no one else could,

sense a small tug from the ground, a sky shift, the earth changing gears.
Even though I was only one mini-speck on a speck,
even though I was merely a pinprick in one goosebump on the orange,
I was sure then I was the most specially perceptive, perceptively sensitive.

I was sure then my mother was the only mother to snap,
“The world doesn’t revolve around you!”
The earth was fragile and mostly water,
just the way the orange was mostly water if you peeled it,
just the way I was mostly water if you peeled me.
Looking back on that third grade science demonstration,
I can understand why some people gave up on fame or religion or cures—
especially people who have an understanding
of the excruciating crawl of the world,
who have a well-developed sense of spatial reasoning
and the tininess that it is to be one of us.
But not me—even now I wouldn’t mind being god, the force

who spins the planets the way I spin a globe, a basketball, a yoyo.
I wouldn’t mind being that teacher who chooses the fruit,
or that favorite kid who gives the moon its glow.         

Denise Duhamel, “Ego” from Queen for a Day