A long time ago, my dad asked me if I wanted to write poetry for a living when I grew up. I responded, terribly sarcastically I’m sure, by asking what poet he could name who made a living writing poetry (there being a writing vs. teaching distinction about being a poetry professor). He said “Paul Simon.” I retorted that Paul Simon was paid to sing. But my dad was right about the poetry of his lyrics, of course.

Song lyrics to poems — horses to zebras, leopards to lions. Most fall pretty flat alone on the page without music, but not all — take for example the lyrics of Tom WaitsLeonard CohenBob Dylan, and Paul Simon. (Hmm, 3 out of those 4 are gravelly-voiced. Cause and effect?)

Tom Waits is brilliant (the Grammys are a terrible indicator of excellence; they’ve only given him two). My favorite of his songs, lyrics-wise, is “Burma Shave” from Foreign Affairs (though just the line “How do the angels get to sleep / When the devil leaves the porch light on?” from “Mr. Siegel” is a close second).

“Burma Shave” begins “Licorice tattoo turned a gun metal blue / Scrawled across the shoulders of a dying town.” Continue reading “Lyrics”

The Lichtenberg Figures

Ben Lerner‘s 2003 Hayden Carruth Award-winning collection The Lichtenberg Figures is one of those that illuminates, for me, the difference between well-written and good.

The poems, all untitled, are almost all 14 lines, nominally sonnets. Like a lot of other folks these days, Lerner uses collage, repetition, puns, mash-ups of language (erudite & slang, high-falutin’ & jargon, academic & plain), juxtaposition, and rapid shifts throughout.

For instance,

The thinkable goes sobbing door-to-door
in search of predicates accessible by foot.
But sense is much shorter in person
and retreats from chamber to antechamber to text.

How then to restructure a premise like a promise?

Continue reading “The Lichtenberg Figures”

Still Life With A Bridle

Zbigniew Herbert‘s 1993 book of essays Still Life With a Bridle: Essays and Apocryphas (translated by John Carpenter and Bodgana Carpenter) is a wonderfully intelligent collection focused on Holland in the 17th century, the art and mores of its golden age.

I happen to like Dutch art of the 17th century but I suspect these essays would be enjoyable even if you’re not overly familiar with the era — Herbert’s writings reveal such a curious, knowledgeable intelligence (without pretension) and keen attention to the absurd. Topics range from Tulipomania to painter bios to specific paintings to the foibles of humans in any age.

About the Dutch plan to navigate to China via a polar route:

On June 5 one of the deck hands shouted that he saw a flock of huge white swans on the horizon. These were actually mountains of ice. The sailor’s mistake indicates not so much a poetic imagination as a poor knowledge of polar hell.

Continue reading “Still Life With A Bridle”

The Thorn Merchant’s Family

In screenplays, characters are introduced with a 1-2 sentence description, something short but vivid enough to paint a picture. For instance, from the Out of Sight screenplay, “a guard, PUPKO (“PUP”), heavy-set, dumb as dirt.” Or from Pulp Fiction, ” LANCE, late 20s, is a young man with a wild and woolly appearance that goes hand-in-hand with his wild and woolly personality.”

Yusef Komunyakaa‘s poem “The Thorn Merchant” begins,

There are teeth marks
on everything he loves.

What a character intro! The poem is entirely a character description, slowly and beautifully building a portrait of a trafficker of harm. The language is a taut mix of straightforward images (“The ink on contracts disappears,” “Another stool pigeon leans/over a wrought-iron balcony,” “shadow of a crow over a lake”) and language that imparts more tone than explicable information. “There are teeth marks/on everything he loves” isn’t too (forgive me) thorny — things dogs have chewed, things rats have gnawed, or even a pencil that has been absentmindedly chewed. But what about “In the brain’s shooting gallery/he goes down real slow.” What does that mean?Continue reading “The Thorn Merchant’s Family”

Christmas Reading

It’s nearly Christmas, which means it’s time for annual traditions, which means I’m reading Kristy’s Queer Christmas by Olive Thorne Miller again (published in 1904, so of course before the word queer’s later 20th century definition expansion).

There’s apparently a reprint available now, with a horrible cover. The original hardback is much prettier, and many thanks to my mother for tracking down a copy for me years & years ago. (She wasn’t going to give me her copy…)

It begins:

The way Kristy came to have a queer Christmas at all, was this: she had been very ill at her grandmother’s, and though she tried her best, and the good doctor tried his best, she could not get well enough to go home for Christmas.

This was a great grief, of course, for all the girls were having fine times in town, Christmas trees and all sorts of festive doings, and Kristy thought so much about it all and felt so bad about it that the doctor began to shake his head again.

So Mamma told Kristy that she might plan anything she liked, to celebrate the day, and if it were possible, she should have her way.

This was a capital idea of Mamma’s…

Continue reading “Christmas Reading”

Triggering Books

My favorite ‘about writing’ book, which I re-read every 1-2 years, is Richard Hugo‘s Triggering Town. I think it’s possible that the world can be divided into writers whose favorite is Triggering Town, and writers who favor Anne Lamott‘s books (which I’ve picked up a couple times but never gotten far with, for whatever reason).

I often turn to Triggering Town when I’ve finished (well, ‘finished’ — I write at a fairly Bishopian pace, which is to say it takes years, most of the time, to really finish a poem) or at least paused on all the poems I had going. Hugo is so honest about the silliness of writing at all, and the realities of a writing life, abjectly honest, but reassuring too in his insistence on the essentialness of it. I shouldn’t have ever started marking passages I liked — almost the whole book’s underlined now.

Hugo says broad things like, “You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings everything” and “You have to be silly to write poems at all” and also gives nuts-and-bolts tidbits, for instance,

A student may love the sound of Yeats’s “Stumbling upon the blood dark track once more” and not know that the single-syllable word with a hard consonant ending is a unit of power in English, and that’s one reason “blood dark track” goes off like rifle shots.

The only part of the book that seems dated now (it was published in 1979)Continue reading “Triggering Books”


Writers love to quote other writers about writing, particularly about the whys and hows of it — it’s kind of a thing. Joy Williams, at a symposium at Connecticut College with Tobias Wolff and Galway Kinnell years ago, even had a whole Rolodex with her, an actual Rolodex she brought with her to the podium so she could correctly quote other people when answering questions after the reading.

I’m no different of course. Some favorites:

I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat.

A.E. Housman

It’s silly to suggest the writing of poetry as something ethereal, a sort of soul-crashing emotional experience that wrings you. I have no fancy ideas about poetry. It doesn’t come to you on the wings of a dove. It’s something you work hard at.

Louise Bogan

A poem is about something the way a cat is about a house.

Allen Grossman (I’ve seen it as “art is about” too.)Continue reading “Quoting”

Miss Moore, Briefly

I like Marianne Moore. I do acknowledge that Moore can be hard. And that not every single one of her poems is great.

James Dickey (though he later said he had changed his mind a little about how much he thought of her work) wrote of Moore that

Few poets […] have shown how endlessly various, how ingenious and idiosyncratic and inexplicably fascinating, how sheerly interesting the world is in its multifarious aspects […]

He also says

In her “burning desire to be explicit,” Miss Moore tells us that facts make her feel “profoundly grateful.” This is because knowledge, for her, is not power but love, and in loving it is important to know what you love, as widely and as deeply and as well as possible.

Like I said, I know what Moore’s limitations are, Continue reading “Miss Moore, Briefly”

Currently Reading: Quantum Physics!?

I’m in the middle of an immensely satisfying book which explains quantum physics in a way I can (at least for a few minutes at a time) understand — which, if you knew anything about my science grades in high school and college, is really saying something.

The premise of How to Teach Physics To Your Dog is that physics professor Chad Orzel (the author) is explaining concepts and conundrums of quantum mechanics to the unusually inquisitive, not to mention talking, dog he adopted from the pound.

And it’s awesome. The frame of explaining concepts to Emmy (the dog) is quite effective — what does the uncertainty principle mean about the probability of finding bunnies in the yard? Is measuring what made her bone disappear? How does one get to the universe where steak IS dropped on the floor? Continue reading “Currently Reading: Quantum Physics!?”

Reading the NW

Recently finished Brian Doyle‘s lovely fiction debut Mink River, magical realism of the sort you might expect from a book that crosses Irish and coastal Native American stories and styles. It’s rich, delightful, and satisfying and I kept thinking as I read it that if it didn’t turn out to remain so all the way through the end I should be horribly disappointed.

I wasn’t. Every time I thought the storylines might get too plot-less, or the interweaving (sentence to sentence, in some sections) might unravel, or the lush repetition might overwhelm, what needed to happen happened, in some unexpected and wonderfully blooming way.

Mink River is set in a town on the Oregon coast, not, as Doyle explains at the beginning, “an especially stunning town, stunningtownwise” — there are

no houses crying out to be on the cover of a magazine that no one actually reads anyway and the magazine ends up in the bathroom and then is cut to ribbons for a fourth-grade collage project that uses a jar of rubber cement that was in the drawer by the back stairs by the old shoebox and the jar of rubber cement is so old that you secretly wonder if it fermented or a mouse died in it or what.

One way to put it is that the rest of the book tells you what the town is.

Continue reading “Reading the NW”