Remembering New London

On March 18, 1937, 293 children, teachers and visitors were killed as the "richest rural school in the world" at New London, Texas, exploded from the ignition of natural gas, which had seeped up from the ground and accumulated in the walls.

Even as we sat in our third-wing last classroom peering out at the mantis-like structures plunging into the soil, gritty and black, rising again with jaws drenched in the thrilling crude, those fifteen minutes mattered to us more; then the bell would scatter us in our separate braids across the hills and town, by stores and the small graveyard, and other familiar paths we'd take to the shanties our parents held breath to burn when the oil coins came, when the Depression knots rode out on Spindletop.

And crosslegged we sat, safe in our structure of concrete and steel, learning America's story, visions of capitol and chaos. And we were scattered, in a rapid Pentecost, a baptism of fire and sanding riding a ball that lifted us, snatching breath and sense, blending us in a symphony of screams, battered desks, rattling books and death riding the wave of its quickened harvest, dropping all back down, limbless and lifeless.

Grimy roughnecks dropping ringing tools came running at the first rustle of the world, awakened by their loss, to prop up the night when parents would fight over unclaimed limbs, a night of mortal importance lasting with us all this time, who were lifted somehow, vague, unhurt, placed out from the wreck and left alone.

Who can deduce what we have learned in the hundreds of pains that have transpired since so many lives there were erased? Even now I can see that blackboard, blown a hundred yards to rest against a tree:

Oil and natural gas are East Texas' greatest natural assets. Without them this school would not be here, and none of us would be here learning our lessons.

Let's summarize the elements of craft that go into an occasion poem:

• An Appropriate Title. In occasion poems, the title should help set the scene. You'll learn more about titles in chapter eleven, but for now you should think about the importance of describing the site of a public tragedy. By titling it "Remembering New London" instead of "New London," Jones also forebodes that he will recall this event through an invented persona —a person, not the poet, whose voice we hear on the page.

• A Descriptive Epigraph. In occasion poems, an epigraph also is important — even if only a date — to ground the reader in time or convey information that will overshadow, forebode or otherwise color the reader's perception of events. In occasion poems about public tragedy, this often is an excerpt from a history book or newspaper account.

• Research. Several types of occasion poems document historic events, end-of-state and birth-of-state proclamations, or public tragedies. Usually, research is required to set the scene or re-create it. Going through Jones's poem, you can see the fruits of his research in such images and phrases as "third-wing," "fifteen minutes," "bell," "hills," "shanties," "roughnecks" and "fight" (over unclaimed limbs). Research augments his personal knowledge about the terrain and helps him reconstruct the disaster.

• An Appropriate Ending. Perhaps more than any other category of verse, occasion poems require either a sense of resolution or a sense of milieu because the writer is marking a moment, incident or event in time. A sense of resolution produces a closed ending: The reader leaves the work feeling satisfied. A sense of milieu produces an open ending: The reader leaves the work feeling a lingering presence. In Jones's poem, which employs an open ending, the contents of the sign against the tree not only articulate the epiphany in an ironic way but serve as an epitaph for the children who lost their lives at New London. We' re left with their presence, as if we were still at the scene. (A closed ending might have stated what the narrator learned upon viewing the sign, resolving our concern.)

In any case, you can sense that Jones had a personal stake in writing about such an occasion. "I used to pass through New London on my way home when my parents lived in Dekalb," he recalls. "There's a big monument now where the old school used to be." Eventually, Jones decided to write about the blast because it was so tragic. "Tragedy," he notes, "is a great occasion for poetry."

He spent hours researching the event before writing about it. "I found it was full of irony," he says. "For instance, right after the blast, Adolf Hitler sent a wire to President Roosevelt expressing profound condolences about the explosion —even as Hitler himself was planning to send millions of Jews to the gas chamber throughout Europe. It also was Walter Cronkite's first big story out of Houston. And there really were parents spotted in the schoolgrounds fighting over unclaimed limbs. The blackboard was spotted against a tree with that message on it. Another blackboard nearby read 'Good things come to those who wait.' "

Jones feels that, before you write occasional verse, it is essential to have some sort of personal stake in the topic. For example, in "Remembering New London," he had heard about the blast from people who lived in the area in which he grew up. Perhaps he could envision himself in that setting, as his invented persona implies. Certainly, he knew about the benefits and drawbacks of living in an area of Texas known for its natural resources. The personal element in conceiving ideas for such poems is important, but that didn't stop Jones from researching the incident. While the personal element ensures a measure of passion, interest or commitment to an occasion, added knowledge through research often enhances the work so the personal can appeal to the public.

When sketching ideas for occasion poems, ask yourself these basic questions:

1. Do I have a personal stake in the poem? (If not, consider another idea or research the original one until you do.)

2. How, if at all, can research enhance the personal so that my poem will have public appeal? (The amount of research will vary with the topic, with little involved in recalling a moment and more in recreating historic or public events.)

3. What is the theme? (To balance the personal impulse to write such a poem, make the theme —or underlying message of the piece — broad or universal so it appeals to a wider audience.)

4. What is the epiphany or peak experience? (Again, the more universal the truth, the greater the appeal.)

5. What ending best marks the occasion in time? (Options: Fix the occasion with a closed ending that resolves issues, or suggest a milieu with an open ending, leaving a lingering presence.)

By now, you may have noticed that one of the most popular types of occasion poems has been missing from our discussion of the genre. The human elegy, commemorating someone's life, is so important (and universal) that I have reserved a separate section to describe it.

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