Category Archives: Not Real Poetry

It’s a Poem Because I Say It Is

woman talking about poetryRoses are red,
violets are blue,
anyway, bring me a beer.

I had a conversation with a literary friend this week, and that conversation turned in the direction of poetry. My friend raised a question that came out of something he had been reading, as to how poetry is defined. What is poetry?

I’ll come back to that question, but in addition my friend asked another question that I thought had an easy answer: “How does a poet ensure that the reader will get the point?” The obvious answer to me was that the poet doesn’t, because it’s impossible. No one can guarantee that the reader will get what the writer is after.

Nevertheless, there are things the writer can at least try, based on who the audience is intended to be. A capable writer, poet or otherwise, will try to address their audience. Perhaps that sounds obvious, but I’ve run into plenty of writers who I didn’t feel were trying. Any adolescent poet can pour out anguish or giddy delight in a poem, with great feeling. Spilling your emotions in a hot wash across the page and calling it done, however, is not trying. You could say such a poem is honest, and so it is. A dog biting a cat is also honest, but it didn’t require much effort on the dog’s part.

As to how poetry is defined, it seems to me that in English, we mostly gave up traditional poetic structures in the twentieth century, by which I mean rhyme, repeated rhythms, or predefined structures, such as rhyming every other line. You can still find those techniques in English, but people who write poetry and believe they are sophisticated will sometimes look down their noses at these traditional structures.

From the little I know, I think that Walt Whitman did much to help set us on the path to throwing out the old ways of writing poetry. As we launched on into the twentieth century, more and more poets were writing in blank verse, without the traditional elements of rhyme and meter.

Let’s note something about how we relate to language. Repeated sounds tickle our ear. This might be repetition at the beginning of words (alliteration), in the middle of words (so-called internal rhyme), or at the end of words (traditional rhyming). Why this is so, I have no idea, but it’s obviously true. We use alliteration to name businesses  (Dunkin’ Donuts, Krispy Kreme), we have a type of joke based on similarity of sound (puns), and if someone says something that rhymes, we pay special notice to it.

For thousands of years, poetry made use of this love of sound, combined with repeated rhythms, to create a sort of musical feeling in language, plus you had meaning. It was amazing. Then in the twentieth century, at least in English, we said, “Never mind, we don’t want to do that.”

So what is poetry? If the lines do not go all the way across the page, is that poetry? In the old days, we could define poetry as short lines, more specifically as lines that rhymed in certain ways, that had certain rhyme schemes, that used various patterns of stressed syllables, and so on. It might have been horrible poetry, but we knew it was poetry, and everyone could agree that it was poetry. It’s more difficult these days to define what poetry is. Most of the rules, at least for now, are gone. I can say what I think poetry is, and another person can disagree with me. Let it be so.

I say that language is extremely important in poetry, with a concern for using just the right word, with finding a phrase with the right sound and connotations. Some prose does this as well, but not all. All poetry, by contrast, is concerned with language. (I’m ignoring the fact that there is vast plenitude of shit poetry that does not do this.)

A second concern of poetry is using language to capture something that is difficult to express. The topic of a poem may be a great social subject, but most often poetry only reaches just beyond the fingertips of the poet. Going back as far as the ancient Greek poet Sappho (in contrast to Homer), poetry has tried to capture the ephemeral moments of an individual human being: I fell in love, I saw a spiderweb, I felt a cold wind on my face and thought of death, I saw the light on a lake and thought of God.

I’m thus proposing two things, and two isn’t that hard to remember. Poetry is very concerned with language (it is not merely a vehicle of communication), and poetry tries to use that language to say things that are difficult to say. I like the traditional structures myself, when done well, but I also note that these things can be done even without traditional poetic elements.

And thus I will wish you a tongue of silver that strives to be gold.


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Saturn paintingI was thinking about what it would be like if I became an astronaut. The problem—or the benefit—is that I would be a poetic writer astronaut, so when Mission Control said something like . . . I don’t know, “Push the red dial to wanky quad 4” or whatever they say, I’d be sitting there thinking, “Man, look how the sun is shining on the ocean out that little window.”

Other people on the ship would be doing experiments and sciency stuff, excitedly exclaiming things like, “The Drosophila flies are laying eggs!” and I’d be looking down at the earth saying, “Look at those colors” and wishing we had brought a CD of Yo Yo Ma.

Anyway, NASA won’t take me, not because I’m too old, or not in physical condition, or don’t have the slightest idea how to fly a spaceship or do anything an astronaut actually does. They won’t take me because I told them I don’t think their missions include enough wine. So instead I wrote a poem about being an astronaut, and if I run out of wine, I can walk into the kitchen.


I made a ship of pale blue ice
and sailed beyond the moon,
with reckless friends, an old star map,
and bottles of rare red wine.
We aimed at silver Saturn
with its moons like tiny planets,
and singing songs from circus days,
we drank and sailed through darkness.
When we entered dreamspace, past the moon,
every monster we ever feared
was riding on a comet.
We watched them pass
with their gleaming eyes,
their ragged coats, and their sharpened knives,
but on we sailed through darkness.
The sun swam small behind us,
and space spread vast ahead.
That’s when we found what no one
back on Earth
had even guessed,
that space was full of sounds,
like wolves and wind and lonely babies crying.
Still on we sailed through howling, moaning darkness.
Our wine ran out
and empty bottles
floated all around us.
The songs that we’d been singing
now seemed childish, misconstrued,
so instead we started quoting starlight poems,
as stars were all we saw off in the darkness.
When we’d been frozen gone too long
at last we came to Saturn,
where we stood crying at the sight
of glittering rings.
We were hoping we could touch them,
maybe taste what they were made of,
but the gravity of that giant took our ship.
It swung us hard in a windless circle,
swooped us round and rushed us by,
with colored rings like frozen oceans down below.
So we sailed around the planet,
then it flung us back toward Earth,
and all that we brought home were wiser eyes.
These days we sit beside a lake,
talk about our space trip days,
and with bottle after bottle
drink to Saturn.

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Maybe If I Poke It With a Stick

Last week I was sitting at my computer, typing along, listening to music, la la la, and the song stopped. Huh? I thought. Then I noticed the dread little exclamation mark doojiggy on top of my internet connection bars. No connection!!!

I shut down the browser and opened it again. No internet. I gritted my teeth, saved what I was working on, shut down the entire computer, and waited for it to sloooowly boot back up. No internet. Then I looked at the modem box, as if I would know the difference between a modem and a trilobite skull from an archaeological dig. I pushed a button anyway. No internet.

Being the Buddha-like, placid person that I am, I did not walk into the other room, look in the closet to find the tool box, take out a hammer, and come back to beat the demonic living shit out of the computer, bust up the desk into firewood, and smash out the windows for good measure. No sir, I’m not that kind of person. What I did was contemplate the ubiquity of injustice.

And later I wrote a poem.

When the Internet Goes Down

When the internet goes down,
I check the dead connection,
reboot with anxious hope,
and grimly tell myself to just work on.
I continue with my writing,
now unable to check flowers,
which I was just about to do,
unable now to save it to the cloud.
What if the house burned down?

When the internet goes down,
I roam through my apartment,
thinking I might read a book
turning the paper pages,
or go for a walk in the park.
I look in the cabinet for CDs
instead of streaming Pandora.
I walk back and forth feeling restless.

When the internet goes down,
I light the kerosene lantern,
go out to the barn to chop wood.
I wonder if my horse is too old,
should I think about buying another?
It’s a long way to get into town,
where I go to buy flour and sugar.

When the internet goes down,
I lie on my hard straw mat,
then go to the field to cut hay,
to work on the lands of the Duke.
In exchange he protects my small hut.
Someday I hope I’ll own a cow,
but as for now,
I haven’t built a fire, so I eat my dinner cold,
bean stew from the day before.

When the internet goes down,
I look out the mouth of the cave
at the sun setting red past the river.
I’m glad I have a fire here,
and pray I don’t let it go out—
a disaster that’s happened before.
I go back to chipping a stone,
making a sharp spear point
for the next time I go out to hunt.

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Family Values

Devil's Share whiskeyWhen I was a wee child, my tribe here in Georgia decreed that I would be raised as a proper member of the Southern Baptist tribe. I was taken—willingly at first, then with questions at the age of 13, then dragged with chains—to church. I can’t say they didn’t at least try. Someone even told me once that we shouldn’t dance. (As for drinking too much and illicit sex, those astonishing delights were yet to come.)

I began backing away from the Southern Baptist religion, eyes wide with appalled realization, more than fifty years ago. Still, the religion became part of my cultural background, and I willingly draw on it in my writing even now. As striking metaphors go, it’s a gift. This week, I got lazy and could not write a real blog entry, so I’m posting a religion poem I wrote a few weeks ago.

A Summer Evening Near Nacoochee

“I’m getting tired,” the Devil said.
“I just want to sit and drink.
People are lazy and wicked and dumb,
and they don’t need help from me.”

The sunlight poured like golden coins
through the leaves of magnolia trees,
where the Devil sat, too lazy to move.
For all he cared, Hell could freeze.

He opened a bottle of whiskey,
stretched his legs out on the porch.
“And who could think in this heat?” he said.
“It’s hot as a Roman torch.”

He smiled as he looked at the figure
approaching across the back yard.
“I knew you’d show up,” the Devil said.
“I can’t catch you off guard.”

“Just pour me a drink,” said Jesus,
sitting down in a wicker chair.
His face was shining with sweat.
A leather band tied back his hair.

They touched their glasses together,
then each took a heartfelt drink.
They both stared out at the pine trees.
Jesus reached for the bottle and winked.

“Been thinking about something,” he said.
“How would this work for you?
I think we ought to switch jobs.
We could both use something new.”

The Devil laughed and shook his head.
“I guess you’re already drunk.
Before I took that crew of yours,
I’d trade with a desert monk.

“And the way I see it, anyhow,
we already do the same,
but I get quiet benefits,
while you get a better name.”

Jesus sighed and nodded.
“Yeah, you got me there,” he said.
“Just thought I’d try the idea out,
bring it up, see where it led.”

The Devil shuddered, drank, and coughed.
“And it makes my blood run cold,
the idea of all those churches.
How fast would that get old?”

“Tell me about it,” Jesus said,
and he reached for the bottle again.
“In two thousand years I still don’t know
where they got that idea of sin.”

The sound of tree frogs increased
from up in the tall pine trees,
while the cousins passed the bottle,
and wished for a cooler breeze.

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Off Across the Desert

desert trainIn good weather, I always sit outside at lunch, with a blank book I use to write poetry, looking at the fountain near the table where I sit. A year or so ago I used to push myself to write poems, straining for ideas, so that I could read those poems at a poetry event I go to once a month. Then I realized that pushing myself to write wasn’t fun, and I said to hell with it. I’m not a poet. I don’t have to do this, and I stopped for several months.

I write poems now just for the pleasure of playing with words and ideas. As long as it’s fun, I write. If it stops being fun, I’ll stop. Sometimes I write down phrases, just seeing what I can come up with, and since it’s only a list, I never have to use them, but if a phrase strikes me, I’ll see if it goes anywhere.

Here are a few recent lines (that went nowhere):
• the volcano in your heart
• the shadows on the floor of people you once knew
• we’ll take the train to Mars one day and eat strawberries in the dining car
• we’ll make umbrellas of starlight and walk in the moonlit rain

A few days ago I wrote “Off across the desert, she hears the horn of the train” and with enough effort that did gradually go somewhere. Here’s where it went.

Esperanza Street

Off across the desert,
like a whisper from lost lands
she hears the train horn moaning far away.
In the pinkened early morning,
with the pale stars hanging on,
she gets up to wake her son,
hoping this time that he’ll stay at school all day.

Distant desert train horns
come like lizards, wind, and dust
to the flat adobe house
with a fountain standing dry out by the wall.
She sits a moment in her car
before she drives to work,
to think about her sister
with the baby in Chiapas near the church.

The train is on the river bridge
where boys take dares to jump.
She’s driving past the laundromat,
the place she worked a year ago,
then past a field of peppers,
hopeful green in early sun,
till she turns off from the bypass
heading toward the heart of town.

The bar comes down on Esperanza Street.
The heavy train clacks shudders rumbles through . . .
someday someday . . .
she’ll leave her job,
someday someday . . .
she’ll go back home,
someday someday . . .
she’ll make sweet cakes
in a bakery of her own.

The bar goes up, the train goes on,
she watches down the track,
then drives on to the hospital,
where she’ll wash the haunted sheets,
thinking back through better days
of papayas, waterfalls,
and an orchard where she played,
but her heart is on the train,
traveling free, traveling light,
as it slides off into morning,
and the whistle blows again.

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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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