Category Archives: Not Real Poetry

It’s Me Except When It’s Not

painting of small townI’ve wondered why it is that if you write something with short lines, people automatically assume it’s about the writer. That is to say (at least in my experience), there seems to be a common assumption that poetry is autobiographical. Though also in my experience, most poetry actually is autobiographical. Modern poetry is mostly me, me, me.

Is it just something about poetry? I’ve read a number of poems by Rumi (probably the greatest Persian poet, born in 1207), and the ones I’ve read all refer to the poet himself. In England in the 1600s, didn’t John Donne write poems about himself? And isn’t Walt Whitman’s most famous work called “Song of Myself”?

So OK, maybe it is just poetry. Yet I find that self obsession constrictive, and I don’t see why poetry can’t be fictional. After all, every song that has words is basically using a poem, right? And those are mostly fictional, even rising to greatness sometimes like Bruce Springsteen.

I’m posting a poem this week that sounds like it’s the poet talking, but it’s not. The persona speaking in this poem has not lived my life. My own life has been almost the exact opposite of the one described in the poem. I have more than once leaped from the cliff, crashed onto the rocks, and eventually limped away. And I’m not done leaping.

I Should Have Been Hungry

I should have left this town
where every song is like a hymn,
where aspirations of the young
are to become—
with home and cars—
old by twenty-five.
I should have gotten on a train,
I should have ridden toward the sun,
where forever it meets the land
off in the distance.
I should have been hungry,
I should have been cold,
I should have known that being alone
is the price of being alive.

I should have trusted the empty ache
that pulls toward empty space.
I should have run toward what I feared,
avoided those people, intense and sincere,
who were glad to know
they followed every rule.
I should have been hungry,
flown wild while I could
to the tracks, in the dark,
to jump into the wind.

I should have opened my eyes
to sun and color and motion,
to the shimmer in the distance
of the world where mysteries lie.
I should have listened to the stories
that we can be like water
and flow toward something bigger.
I should have been hungry,
should have lived on the edge,
should have known
my own heart
stood poised on the ledge.

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Five Hundred Miles From the Ocean

wine and cheese

Hey, you need a poet here

Three days in a row last week I went to poetry readings where I stood and read poems that I wrote all by myself, poems with mystery, pathos, and commas. Lots of commas. I think a profusion of pausing adds to the pathos.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that such a chain of readings will never happen to me again. For the only time ever, I read poetry in public three days in a row. That’s kind of like a world premiere, isn’t it? I mean, if a world premiere involved very, very few people, and those few spread out over several days. Plus one place had cats.

The highlight was day three, when I had the opportunity to spread my tiny wings and fly around the room chirping repeatedly. Once a month the Unitarian church in Atlanta (the big one with the circular meeting space) sponsors an event called Wine, Cheese, and Spoken Word, with a featured poet. This month, while other folks took care of the wine and cheese, I supplied the words as the featured poet.

I’ve known for quite a while that I was going to do the reading, so I had time to make necessary preparations, such as writing some poems. I knew this event would involve about a 20-minute reading, then a short open mic, then another 20-minute reading. Several weeks ago when I was thinking about this, around the time of the winter solstice, it occurred to me to use the solstice as an inspiration. So I decided that with two sets of reading, I’d do the first half as poems of darkness, and the second set as poems of light, moving from darkness to light, as if my poems were the solstice and I was, hmm, what would that make me, the earth tilting on its axis, I guess.

I was pretty pleased with that idea, and as it happens I have plenty of poems that lurk in the darker side of life as well others that celebrate the light. I like to have variety in my writing, or else I get bored doing it. When I’m doing a reading, I also think of it somewhat as putting on a show. It’s not just reading, it’s performing. (Whether or not I’m actually good as a performer would be another question entirely.) To enhance the performance—in my eyes—I wore a black shirt for the first half, then I changed to a white shirt for the second.

Speaking honestly—and I don’t plan to keep that up—I can say that I didn’t particularly look forward to doing the reading. I didn’t exactly mind it, I wasn’t the slightest bit nervous, and when I finally stood up in front of people, I actually loved it. And yet, strangely enough, I didn’t really want to do it. I don’t think I can explain that dichotomous psychological phenomenon.

I did have sense enough to use the event to push the two books I’ve put out, as much as I’m ever going to push anything. On the stairs I set up the posters of the two book covers, and I had a few copies of the books on a table for sale. It was my friend who organized the event, however, who suggested that I read a few pages from the short story collection, and after I had finished reading she stood up and promoted both books more than I would feel comfortable doing.

On the whole, it seemed like a decent night. I tried to read with a little bit of flair, and I sold a few books and signed a few books. At the end, no one offered to carry me around the room on their shoulders with tears of joy streaming down their faces, so . . . I don’t know. I guess people liked it well enough. And there was the black and white shirt change. Let’s not forget that.

I’ll end this by throwing in a verse from one of the darkness poems (called “The Cost of Music”):

Lucinda is deeply afraid of tidal waves,
the way they thunder in suddenly and nothing escapes.
Although she lives five hundred miles from the ocean,
she says not all waves are made of water.

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Maybe I Should Try Harder?

drawing of the devil pointing

OK, how much do you want?

For the last four months or so I haven’t written any poetry, or wanted to. But recently I’ve been listening to songs by the musical group The Devil Makes Three. When I listen to the lyrics, they just lift me out of my chair. I can’t say what it is about those lyrics that sparks my imagination so much, but it do. Their music makes me want to get a bottle of whiskey, drive fast down a dirt road at night, and write poetry. So when I got to where I was going, with the engine still running, I sat in the road with the bottle beside on the dirt, and by the light of the car headlights I wrote a couple of poems. Here is one of them.

I’m a Little Disappointed

I found one of your letters.
You implied you might could love me,
if I would just be patient
and wait till Christ comes back.
I’m jealous of my former self,
who thought he had a chance,
till he went off
and I showed up,
knowing what I know.
Now I’m drinking gasoline,
and I’m looking for a match.
If Satan comes up to me
trading sulfur for my soul,
I’ll say, “Hey, man, put it in my hand,
then get away from me!”

I read a book on world peace.
They made it sound so good,
like something we should do,
and all we’d need is everyone
would be completely different.
I thought that I should try it.
How hard could world peace be?
I’d quell my fears and inner beast
with honey, milk, and brandy.
Then someone played his music loud
while I was trying to sleep.
Now I’m drinking gasoline,
and I’m looking for a match.
If Satan comes up to me
trading sulfur for my soul,
I’ll say, “Hey, man, put it in my hand.
Don’t try that grin with me.”

I went to see the Buddha,
I thought that he would know.
I thought that he could tell me
how I should be a good boy,
the twelve steps to enlightenment
and all that tranquil stuff.
So I walked up to him smiling,
held out my hopeful hand,
but he just sighed and shook his head
and asked me for spare change.
Now I’m drinking gasoline,
and I’m looking for a match.
If Satan says he’ll give me
phosphorus for my soul,
he’d better hand it over,
then run while he’s still whole.

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The Good Old Days—Very Old

Good old days poster

And they’re so white!

Here in America we’re in that famous period when thoughtful people who have a hopeful power to inspire us present well-considered discussions of possible ways to solve our problems . . .  Ha ha ha ha! Of course not. We’re having a Presidential election.

Sometimes during elections I like to examine the rhetoric candidates are using, to look for patterns or to bring to the fore some of the unspoken assumptions. This year, however, since one of our parties has held up its middle finger to America and nominated a man who literally goes off raving on a daily basis, what’s the point of rhetorical analysis? Crude personal insults don’t need analysis.

Instead, I wrote a poem. This is for the little Trumpster. Or rather it’s for the people who vote for him. Donald Trump is not actually afraid, he just pretends to be. He’s lying about that, too.

It’s Too Late!

I heard the fearful calling,
wearing ties on TV, frowning.
They were red-faced, arms were waving,
angry tweets on Twitter, spreading.
We must dig holes and hide.
We must hide,
we must hide.

The fearful see the evil
in the sunshine and the moonlight.
They understand the danger
if night should follow day.
We must build a wall and hide.
We must hide,
we must hide.

The fearful run from strangers
who might hurt them, make them ill,
disturb them with their language,
way of worship, who they love.
We must keep them out and hide.
We must hide,
We must hide.

The fearful fear the future,
hate the present, love the past,
when everything was perfect,
but now ruined and spoiled and gone.
We must stand strong but hide.
We must hide,
we must hide.

I heard the fearful calling,
looking sad, depressed, and scared,
crying, “Everything is lost!
And now what will we do?”
We must close our eyes and hide.
We must hide,
we must hide.

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No, Not That New York

painting of man drinking tea


Did I ever talk about my alternate life where everything I wear is silk, all wine is good wine, I can choose a different super power every day, and my cell phone always has a clear signal? I can’t remember if I mentioned this.

So anyway, yesterday as I was picking out a yellow silk shirt, I thought “Today my super power will be that everything I eat will taste like spicy onion rings.” I know it doesn’t sound that super, but some days I just don’t feel like fighting evil. Don’t you have days like that? And anyway, spicy onion rings—don’t tell me you’re not wishing for that super power.

Because I am also kind and generous and it doesn’t cost me anything, I wanted to do something for you, so I wrote you a poem about my fabulous life, to let you share it in your small, really small, infinitesimally tiny, way. You don’t need to thank me. I already know how you feel. That’s my super power for today.

How to Drink Green Tea

I will go to my private New York,
where stars will rain on me
like showers of light,
golden glitter pouring from the sky.
I will dance
the way a scirocco
whirls across the desert.

I will go to my private New York,
where the young at heart
will consider me deep and wise,
and the old at heart
will call me daring and wild.
I will smile like Greta Garbo,
walk through rooms like Fred Astaire,
and sing lines from tragic operas
with a voice like ultraviolet.

I will go to my private New York,
where I will sew clothing from rainbows.
I will stitch the hems with a crescent moon,
line the jacket with the songs of wolves,
and fold up a sunset for a hat.
I will stroll like a parade
that happens wherever I walk.

I will go to my private New York,
to invent floral ways of thinking.
I will create new languages out of moonlight,
and when I speak,
each sentence will contain an entire month.
I will consult with philosophers and witch doctors
on the best way to cure melancholy,
and I will drink green tea
in the evenings.


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It Is All Us

two girls in a grassy fieldLast year (i.e., a couple of weeks ago), I was sitting with my daughter in an Indian restaurant, where, it now seems to me, we were in a contest over which of us was going to eat more of the bowl of hot chili sauce that had been brought to the table. While we were there, she also played me a short video on her phone of a man reciting a poem that she liked. I don’t remember what it was, or who he was, and maybe it was partly the way he recited it, but the poem caught my attention and made me want to write something under its influence.

What I ended up with is below. I’m sure I didn’t come near to imitating my model, but this was as close as I could get. Nevertheless, I’ve had some positive reactions to this poem, which emboldens me to put it here. And if it is not to your taste, well, God bless you for having taste in the first place.

We Can Do This

Take my hand
and we can do this.
We can look at a world on fire around us
and see people walking in green spaces.
Instead of broken bricks and hearts,
we can see parks laid out in curving lines,
with benches for resting,
ponds for fish and birds,
and sloping hills for children to roll down.

Take my hand
and we can do this.
We can find those who are ill and pale
and lift them into the bold optimism of health.
We can watch sick children stand,
hands out for toys,
unsure of why they were lying down in the first place.

Take my hand
and we can do this.
We can calm harsh and broken breathing
until it flows like clouds across a quiet sky.
We can hear our own breath move in like peace,
and move out like the healing of spirits.
We can learn to breathe in ways
that show us what is hidden.

Take my hand
and we can do this.
We can hear music when children shout,
people say hello on the street,
store clerks greet customers,
friends talk at dinner,
wives and husbands whisper of things,
old people talk about that day long ago,
and we can hear music
when our own voices speak.

Take my hand
and we can do this.
We can see art when the wind blows,
turning tall grass into magic wands,
with a spell on the end of each.
We can feel art by touching a cold window,
recognizing the magic of two worlds,
one inside another.
We can taste art in cinnamon and lemon and pepper,
as every amazing flavor
creates a new reality.
We can smell art in sawdust
as it floats out in the sunlight,
while the polished wood is silent about its own mystery.

Take my hand
and we can do this.
We can understand
that the distant bird in the sky is us,
that the music coming from an open doorway is us,
that a tree on the other side of the world is us,
that the words of a poem are us.
It is all us.
Take my hand.

Matisse dancers

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I’ll Be Gone a Little While

painting of woman at window

Don’t stop waiting

There is a pronounced tendency these days, among both poetry readers and poets themselves, to think that poetry is supposed to be about the poet. If we read a short story in which a character says, “I hated my father”, it’s that character speaking. If we read a poem in which the narrator says the same thing, we think “Wow, this poet hated his father.” Almost no one seems to recognize the possibility that poetry might be fictional.

So before you read the poem below, I want to clearly make the point that I have not been released from jail on multiple occasions. And feel free to use this poem as needed to help win over the object of your affections.

The Next Time I Get Out of Jail

The next time I get out of jail,
I’ll buy you a pretty dress,
then steal a car and come to you,
just to hear you whisper “yes”.

We’ll celebrate the darkness
with noise and colored lights
and rum and Coke and cigarettes,
with pistol shooting in the night.

The next time I get out of jail,
I’ll bring a case of beer.
When I’ve drunk half and you’ve drunk half,
I’ll whisper in your ear.

Then naked at the window,
we’ll throw chairs out on the lawn.
We’ll sing songs about the Devil
and his cheerful crimson spawn.

The next time I get out of jail,
I’ll wait for a lunar eclipse,
so I can arrive in darkness
to kiss your amazing lips.

Then when the town grows quiet,
we’ll get an open jeep,
turn our music crazy loud,
drive slowly down the street.

The next time I get out of jail,
I hope I’ll look the same
so you can recognize me
when I stand and pray your name.

I’ll write a book about you,
based almost on the facts,
how every time I went away,
you knew that I’d be back.

Next week I will be in Ireland, the graceful land of green and Guinness. I will try to post something from there, but if I do, it will be done from my phone, so don’t be looking for the usual elegant writing of pensive melancholy and wry wit. I’ll be busy with green stuff and Guinness. And if I do not post anything, I’ll be back in two weeks.

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