He was nervous--they always are,
the new ideas, fidgeting in front of
my big desk. I didn't have to ask
what he wanted. I'd seen it all before:
The threadbare concept, the vague, tired image,
bathed in unearthly light. "Look," I said,
"Why don't you go to the press?
They can find words for anything,
fast and cheap." "You don't understand--
I'm a very private thought. You
are a private poet, aren't you?"
"You bet." (Three cob-webbed file cabinets full
of private poetry.) "But I don't handle
love poems. They're nothing but
trouble. Make a bum out of you
every time." I cracked my knuckles.
His cigarette ashes missed the tray.
"But you're my last hope! I've tried
greeting card writers, novelists, cartoonists--
I even begged a whole English Lit. and
American Studies Department! No one
would help me. I simply must have a
Poet!" His eyes were as bloodshot
and chaotic as my own. But what
the hell, I'd had nothing else to
say lately, and there was a strangled
eloquence about him, just the hint of
a new angle. If I'd known then
where it would lead me--tangling
with six rough drafts, getting tied up
in a sestina, fighting off a mob
of sentiments, the blood-chilling message
from Mr. Big ("...indeed sorry...cannot use
your work..."), and most of all HER, Muse, sweet, sad
Muse, those big dumb eyes pleading
with mine to go on, find the missing words
somehow--Ah, Muse, what did I
get you into!... Had I known, I wonder, would I
still have returned his feverish stare
(He had to be expressed, see--
it takes some of them that way) and
said so nonchalantly "Okey dokey, I'll give it
The things one is afraid to say
are also the things everyone else
is afraid to say. Ten people lean
on a bar, chatting and drinking,
each rough-edged fragments of themselves,
howling coyote souls under sedation,
yet to themselves and each other
as complete as any rock or chair.
When the anesthetic wears off
suddenly, alone in a room
full of gesticulating furniture,
one knows an agony no rock could bear.
Then, to release from stone faces
a trickle to quench desperate thirst,
one strikes terrible blows
that destroy mere flesh.
I too am parched, but I am commanded
only to speak to the rock. It will --
knowing then what can be said --
give forth water.
A Choice of Dreams
When I sit down to write again
I find that you have changed -
You are ready to hear
new things, as changed from the reader
I once knew as is an adult from a child -
all head, huge eyes and quick tumbling about
like a bounce-up doll, hardly the same species,
one would think.
Now I must change
to be able to say
what you are ready to hear.
It is as if you sleep
and the world's noise will wake you
if I cannot concoct quick enough
dream reasons to make dream sense
of the newest noises.
Only in shared dreams are we together.
This sleep is our waking
to each other. But old dreams,
old reasons lose their magic and become
part of the noise, like litter
of old newspapers.
It's not that you have changed, no more
than I have. It's the noise that's changed -
it has captured more of our dreams,
the better to masquerade as waking,
the waking that would mock us
with gargoyled distortions of old dreams
clung to too long.
There is no waking, no sleep, only the dreamer
and a choice of dreams.
The Beginning of a Poem
Even as I write these words,
I know that critics will insist
that the poem doesn't begin here.
"For me," each will say, "this poem
really begins in the [much later] stanza..." --
and of course, they will be right.
Yet this poem has already begun.
What can I do about it?
For a poem squats on one's tongue
as stubbornly as garlic.
Any critic still reading (I don't know
why a critic would still be reading)
will have thought the poem was about to begin
with the garlicky squatter, an image,
after all. But if the critic is still
with us, he or she knows that the poem
has not yet begun. Why not? Does this poem
despise critics? Love to tease them?
Surely it can be written for no one else --
who else would care?
I begin to suspect that this poem
never will begin -- the REAL poem,
that is. So it may as well begin
anywhere -- and so it does!
The observant critic who is still with us
(that optimistic "us"!) will have noted
that the poem, such as it is or might be,
really ended, for any reasonable reader,
at the close of the last stanza,
a punchline, of a sort. This critic
will advise cutting the current stanza
as superfluous (or, just to be kind,
will suggest saving it for another poem),
saying, "for me the poem ends with
'and so it does!'" And, indeed, so it ought.
However -- and it pains me to have to say this,
having been helped so often by generous advice
from critics -- nonetheless, the poem --
if poem it be -- ends here.
[The poem is gone. It's over. Go home. Think about
The End of the End of the World
I can imagine the cataclysm -- explosion, flood,
asteroid collision, implosion of the sun....
I can envision billions of bodies or no bodies,
an ashen globe or its ashen quadrillion fragments --
all that I can conceive of.
What I cannot imagine, in all that silence
(and any silence is an opportunity,
so this final silence must be
the opportunity to end all opportunities) --
what I cannot conceive of is the absence
of 10,000,000 poets -- the absence of even
a single poet -- to tell the absent us
in trillions of words, collectively,
how hard it is to speak at such a time,
but that now, after the end of the world,
more than ever, we must speak out;
no 10,000 or 10 billion e-mail messages
about gatherings of poets, ash to ash and
on the web, to mourn, to share, to celebrate
man's renewed commitment to survival, if only as
dispersed atoms and exotic rays in whirls
of dusty cosmic gas;
I can't conceive of no lyrical affirmations,
no acid condemnations of those to blame
(The System, corporate greed, philistines,
Arabs, Jews, Communists, Blacks, the press,
the administration, right-wing extremists,
liberals, environmentalists, men, etc.),
no fresh and powerful voices joining in,
no performance poets rapping out their rages,
brags and politically correct empathies,
no brilliant epiphanies to make us keenly aware
that we are all, everyone of us, cinders --
and perhaps that most of us deserve it,
and certainly only the poet could feel
the death of a whole world
in the crushing of an ant or the shadow
of a leaf's fall -- if only there were still
ants and leaves and sensitivity.
No, this is inconceivable, beyond silence;
it cannot be, this oxymoron: A catastrophe
without poets, the greatest conceivable catastrophe
without the greatest flowering, or at least vegetating,
of poets. It is inconceivable,
like a perfect God with zits, and therefore
impossible. Yes, thanks to poets,
the end of the world is impossible.
The Silence of the Iambs
Borges tells of time stopping for a year
as a man faces the firing squad, bullets
paused in flight while he, in his mind,
composes sonnets, works out chess problems,
solves scholarly riddles...and then
time resumes. Time stopped for me during an
open-mike poetry reading. There, just after the words
"...touched the soft silence of your..." - soul?
heart? left ear lobe? But the poet was unmoving,
mouth open, her eyes in their sudden rigor, oddly
calculating; the other faces I could see were all
frozen in polite introspection, as if each,
were thinking, "I've had too much
coffee" or "Did anyone notice my fart?" Nothing
moved. The water held its slope in the glass
I'd been lifting to my lips. Threads of cigarette smoke
hung in frayed silken twists. A petrified ribbon
of coffee bridged from lip of pot to cup,
as a waiter waited for someone never to say "WHEN."
For a long time (so to speak), the interrupted poem,
too, hung there. I spent - it seemed - hours
trying to think of a next word that could save
the line from banality. In vain. For hours more
I memorized the gleam of her teeth, the contours
of paralyzed smoke. I composed letters to several
editors on various burning issues. I composed limericks
that began "The soft silence of..." - for example:
The soft silence of fleecy white lambs
Can't compare to the silence of clams
(Clams, unshelled, you should touch
Very gently, not much...)
Or free verse: Silence of the Iambs!
I held long eloquent arguments with my dead mother
about the importance of being a poet. I thought up
brilliant ways to make money from poetry. I tried,
again - again in vain - to redeem the poetus
interruptus or at least to predict what, if anything,
would come next, and, suddenly, I noticed
that the smoke was moving, twining, winnowing
the light, a lovely translucent creature...
Ah, time had resumed, and...I forgot to notice
how the line or the poem concluded. It must
have done so, because I found myself applauding
mechanically, trying to recall my money-making schemes...
but all my hours - days! - of contemplation
had blurred like last night's dreams, only
a few limericks remaining.
How Poetry Is Done
You can make any sentence poetical
by mentioning blood or bone.
For example, instead of "Yesterday
I went to the store," say "Yesterday
I went to the blood and bone store."
Instead of "The moon rose", say
"The blood moon rose" or "A bone
of moon rose" or, best, "A bone
of blood moon rose". For "I love you"
try "Bone and blood I love you".
Bone and blood are instant intense.
For profound, add in an inapplicable
abstraction, such as "geometry" or
"calculus", or a scientific reference
like "hologram" or "ecology", and
throw in a juicy verb. For example,
"The geometry of blood laments
this hologram of bone". But intense
and profound are not enough. You need
an ironic (hip) sense of mortality, as in "Chanting
its inevitable theorems in every fatty cell,
the geometry of blood laments this
fading hologram of bone" except that
"theorems" makes too much sense
with "geometry", so change "theorems"
to "charade" (not "singsong", which
makes too much sense with "chanting").
This gives us a satisfactory
Twentieth Century poem written
in a fresh unique authoritative etc. voice,
especially if the line lengths
are a bit weird, for example:
its inevitable charade
in every fatty cell
the geometry of blood
laments this fading
Entitle it Collage #7 and send it
right out to a very little magazine
or anything that ends in "REVIEW".