Monday, March 08, 2004

A Test of Poetry





Swamp Formalism


for Donald Rumsfield


As if they were not men,
amphibious, gill-like, with
wings, as if they were
sunning on the rocks, in a
new day, with their flickered
lizard tongues, as if they were
tiny and biting and black,
as if I was a hero or they were,
as if the they and these us that
arrived, out of the same blue
ground bogs, as if from my
bog that I saw the sun and
swam up to the surface, as if
the surface was shining, like a
lizard to embrace, as if the
random pain of lizard heads
on sticks were prettier to eat,
as if I didn’t kill the plants, the
water, and the air, as if the
fruit and the sheep were all
diamond shaped and melted,
allowing in the sun, underground,
crowned, in shadows, in the
main dust, from the self same
main dust spring.








It could be when you gave me a book of quiet thoughts the moths had already eaten through, the section on the luxury of growing old completely illegible & the purpose of turning a page more umbilical cord than ignition, I should have realized radio was the first form to conceal its function. A crude sort of Hamletism, I know, but there’s a shovelful of fresh dirt under every condemned building & waiting til you’re married to grow a moustache won’t help the hooves parade across the quicksand or the tides to harness anything except how small a boat can make you feel when you’ve lived like a brick-&-mortar neighbor to every nearby enemy. So there’s disservice in reputation, but at the end of the daybreak the radio’s already gone back to its native land.






Word Worn


even your doggerel-scratch
has a beat to it

and the heart condenses into rain
if I take the time to listen

in the firmament a fake
come-hither solitude

still takes my breath away
or is it just another star advancing

as atoms thrown
into a dervish spin closer

stretch out an index
to an indifferent twinkle


the first line writes the poem
but you can’t get it back

here and there signals sent
one digit to the next

in time life gives in
to affirmations

family outings birthdays bent
round the clock

but the sky doesn’t stare back
the town is not tucked inside the valley

nor do hills roll except in words
these luminous beacons of indiscretion







Unlike the scattered seamount, unlike the ridges, unlike the bed of the sea, unlike a typical volcanic cone. Unlike winddriven currents, unlike the continental mass, unlike a submarine canyon, unlike the several hundred upper fathoms. Unlike harbors, unlike capes, unlike towering shapes, unlike black rock. Unlike subterranean fires, unlike deep unrest. Unlike islands, unlike fog. Unlike lava.


Unlike the birth of an island. Unlike the planetary currents, unlike the epicenter. Unlike icy water, unlike partial thaw, unlike tidal movements, unlike the sky. Unlike raw productivity.




Even now



Җ         Җ         Җ




Larry Fagin & I were walking up Second Avenue a few minutes before midnight on Wednesday, finally zigzagging over by the Police Academy so that we came up to Gramercy Park from due south, talking about the question of naming & context, of anonymity & content. Names, Larry was insisting, were the biggest aesthetic cop-out of all. Or something to that effect. We know so much about whether or not we’re going to like a poem or not based entirely on the name we see attached to it. Names flood the text with an overlay of extraneous information that it is not possible to ignore. You could take a poem by anybody – Richard Roundy, say – attach the words “John Ashbery” to it & send it to the New Yorker confident that its astute editors would love it & wish to rush it to publication. Attach the real name to the same text, and that poem would never get past the initial screening. Yet, in absolute terms, that poem might well be far more interesting for the fact that Richard Roundy, an excellent but not yet famous poet, wrote it than it would have been as part of Ashbery’s oeuvre. 


What do you know about a poem if you don’t know who wrote it? Every element of time, place, gender, all manner of basic dimensions now have to be inferred entirely from the text itself. Actually, this is not that radically different from the experience one has when one first reads work in a magazine by a poet of whom one has not previously been aware. The name is there, but so what? All one really knows is that this S.S. Gardens or Ern Malley or Araki Yasusada has written something that the editors of this or that publication happen to like well enough to publish.* That, in and of itself is something. We always already know many of the ways in which any poem in Ploughshares will bore us to tears even before we read it while one in Kiosk will not. Indeed, in what I’m doing here, you will already have formed some judgments of your own, simply because I was the one who placed the above four poems on my blog.


So here’s my test: write & tell me what you think, what you learn, by reading any one or more of the above poems. The only clue I will give you is that none of these poets has been mentioned by name in today’s blog. I’d prefer it, obviously, that if you happen to already know who wrote this or that poem, that you not focus on that work. Tell me not just what you can discern about the poem, what works, what maybe seems problematic. And absolutely tell me what you can make out of the lurking poet behind the text as well. Such as – what gender are they? You can send really short responses by means of the comment box** below, but anything that is more than 400 characters long – this paragraph is already well over that – you should email to If you write about it in your own blog, send me the link. Let me know whether or not I can use your name – my goal here is not to embarrass anyone, but rather to look at how permeable the borders of the text truly are, as just how much of the world does (or does not) filter in. I’ll write about each of these poems & their poets later this week – not before Wednesday – but I think it makes more sense right now just to leave you with these texts.


* & indeed this is precisely the trick behind any literary persona.


** Any comment that actually identifies one of the poets will be deleted!