What Can We Steal From Andrea Cohen’s “The Committee Weighs In”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Committee Weighs In,” poem
Author: Andrea Cohen
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The poem appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of The Threepenny Review.  You can find it here or in the print version of the journal. The poem was republished by the very cool site As It Ought to Be, a very cool cultural commentary site that understands poetry can help people understand what is happening around them.  You may also read the poem here.

Bonuses: Ms. Cohen compiled a list of places where you can find her other work.  It’s right hereHere is Ms. Cohen’s page on the web site of the Poetry Foundation.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Avoiding Treacle

Discussion:
This brief and powerful poem is told in the first person.  The narrator (whether or not it happens to be Ms. Cohen herself) plays a game with her mother.  The two fantasize about the narrator winning a Nobel Prize.  In the last line, the reader learns the mother is dead; the narrator is simply engaging in fantasy.

Well, I’m not sure how to feel about it, but I’ve never gotten inspiration or emotional comfort from the same kind of things that most people enjoy.  I have Facebook friends about whom I care a great deal who will share those sugary-sweet images that are intended to make you feel good.

Does this do anything for me?  Nah.  I’m not judging!  I care about those folks deeply and I would never begrudge someone a thing that makes them happy, particularly when that thing doesn’t hurt anyone else.  Works like Ms. Cohen’s poem, however, DO make me feel better in the same way that image helps some of my friends.  What is the difference?

Treacly things often avoid nuance.  The world is beautiful because the world is beautiful.  And how do I know the world is beautiful?  Because the world is beautiful, natch.  Unfortunately, human emotions are complicated; there’s no such thing as pure joy or pure anger.

Treacly things avoid subtext.  Think about the poems you wrote when you were fifteen.  I’ll make up an example of what I wrote when I was fifteen:

The world is dark because no one loves me

The sky is a dark blanket that exists above me.

No girls will talk to me because they don’t understand.

I should just go and find a different land.

Phew!  I like to think I was better than that, but you get the point.  Works with subtext invite you to use more of your heart and brain to understand the emotional truth that the writer is trying to communicate.  Ms. Cohen’s poem is powerful because it’s not simply a poem about a mother who has passed.  (My condolences if it’s a true story!)  She is dealing with several meaningful issues instead of just one:

  • The way people cope with sadness
  • The method by which people mediate their ambitions
  • How folks can preserve the vital lie that they are important
  • The real meaning of what it is to be a parent…even after one is dead

The poem ends with a little blowdart to the heart.  Through the title and first seven lines, we assume that the poet’s mother is alive.  That last line: “pretends she isn’t dead,” not only finishes the thought in Ms. Cohen’s poem, but delivers the little twist.  Ms. Cohen used lineation in her poem to make that last line all the more devastating.  Imagine if the penultimate line began with “pretend.”  The reader would lose a fraction of a second of suspense and would have more time to cope with the twist.

What Should We Steal?

  • Pass up treacle in favor of complicated truth.  You and your readers will truly feel better by confronting the complicated, messy real world instead of a simple and fantastic irreality.
  • Arrange the words, paragraphs and spaces in your work to maximize the effect you wish to get across.  You can’t control everything in terms of how your work will be displayed, but you can do your best to manipulate the physical method by which your reader absorbs what you’ve written.

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One Comment

  • Hi Ken – I’m learning so much about poetry from you (you’re going to get flooded with pingbacks on Tuesday when my Pushcart poetry post goes up).

    I loved this poem, but I realized I was thinking of it as microflash. Why is it a poem instead of prose, other than the arrangement of words?

    The thing that struck me was the use of “she pretends” instead of “I pretend” – that amped up the immersion in the fantasy.

    As for schmaltz, I agree. I love my cat, and I’m very capable of “awwww”- ing when she curls up half on her back with her paw over her face, or of telling every cat in the vet’s office “hi sweetie” but I don’t get the whole cute cat thing. When I was a depressed teen (and I still write all those things you listed… the “character in a hole” thing, no wonder I was such a crappy fiction writer) my parents kept telling me it was because I listened to depressing music. It was depressing music that provided the most comfort, because it wasn’t just me.

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