Not unlike our previous Poem of the Week, this week’s poem, “The Banal” from Elaine Equi’s 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Ripple Effect takes as its starting point the differences or perceived differences between two words that signify similar things. Equi’s poem scrutinizes the words “everyday” and “banal”.
Let’s quickly consult some dictionary definitions as we proceed. The Cambridge Dictionary defines “everyday” as “ordinary, typical, or usual” with synonyms such as “quotidian”, “unremarkable” and “workaday”. The same dictionary defines “banal” as “boring, ordinary, and not original” with synonyms such as “commonplace” and “trite”.
Both words share the sense of the ordinary. At a glance, however, “everyday” looks neutral or benign, with the worst said about it that it might describe or denote something as “unremarkable”. By contrast, “banal” looks like the more derogatory term, as its definition and synonyms could be taken as dismissive and insulting.
Equi’s poem’s narrator is perhaps being contrarian then, by expressing a preference for “banal” …
“with its murky
agate, mushroom, ochre background music –
its corridor of lurk. One hardly knows where
one stands with/in the banal.”
Whatever your preference – if you even have one – it’s interesting to see where this contemplation of the ordinary goes. Added to that is how a contemplation of the ordinary – its neutral presence, but maybe also its constancy and in a way, comfort – can change as circumstances change, personally and in the world. When circumstances change, especially dramatically, poetry that entertains, amuses, challenges or holds us in good stead might shift in meaning, but still ground us. Somehow, the words and forms of good poetry have both strength and flexibility that move with us and still have significance for us.
At a time other than the present, a poem such as “The Banal” might resonate with our more personal and specific experiences. We might chuckle or be ruefully aware of a minor failing with a phrase like “shitload of artifacts”, for example. When a broader calamity forces many more of us, or all of us, into the same circumstances – feeling fear, isolation, uncertainty – that same poem does not fail or abandon us. Phrases such as:
“one grasps at
the everyday for relief”
scale to the scope of that new, even if perilous situation or condition.
“Any object shines.”
is not just a commercial jingle purveying “fast-acting power”. It simply and powerfully brings comfort.
Equi not only manages this robustness in long established work on the page that we can return to again and again, but in the comparative ephemerality of contemporary social media. Her occasional poetry on Twitter captures strikingly what we are all feeling right now. Take a look and take a breath.