The title of this poem, Si vous devez expliquer le titre de votre poème, il ne fonctionne probablement pas, translates roughly from French as: If you have to explain the title of your poem, it probably does not work. The poem (excluding the title) is three sentences and 142 words long. In the first sentence the title of the poem is translated, having been written in English first and then put through Google Translate because the poet is a monolingual English speaker and did not know the French, only that he wished the title to be in French; in the second sentence the length of the completed poem is revealed; and in this, the third and final sentence, the first two sentences are unpacked while avoiding the inevitable recursion implied by the poem’s structure—before ending, as all poems and sentences must.
Once there was a poem
that would not be written
but languished like bare boughs
against a dirty water sky.
Once there was a poem
that could not write itself,
huddling in a hollow
beneath gravid rose bushes,
hunkering like toppled tundra
where street sounds were muffled
and the light was dimmed
by a month of no more good lines.
Once amidst a muddle
of matted stanzas, it slept
the sleep of the restless,
tepid trochees, anemic anapests
drifting and melting,
a February blight.
Once there was a poem
that could not right itself;
I had to grab it, prop it,
and hold on tight:
Hi de ho, humdrum hallelujah,
Marching it into the light.
“…all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it…
—from Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry”
You knew you were in trouble
the second you put the plate on the table—
those sesame snow peas and truffles
you drizzled with kumquat and ginger
to impress your poetry potluck writing group—
when he said, Not Chinese again.
You knew you were in-for-it
when he called your poem a travelogue of Paris
grinding down the wrong track
with its Kunitz epigraph fumbling at the gears
as he blasted, The old man got to wear
that crown of Laureate just for his age.
You knew, despite your mince and trim
and folding in its metaphoric light,
this poem would be tied to the chair
with rope, have the life beaten from it,
a flabby bunch of bunkum flattened
with his belting, Where is the cri de coeur?
And you knew in the way you know
in a half-wake state when you hear a train
in the distance barreling into your sleep
in a blur of whistles and grinds and whirs,
its metal scraping rails in a still night, deep
in dark, its muffled blue note wailing.
You knew you must be dreaming this
standing before a train coming on headlong
at you half-naked there, a train about to slice
through what you peeled down to—
an awful tutu, mismatched shoes, feather cloche
you shouldn’t be caught dead in.
Then this man with a train for a mouth
tells you this is not a well-lit poem
and the guy donning laurels in the first car
misdirected it—that it’s rocketing
down the wrong track on a collision course
headed right for Gare du Nord.
And you actually thank this man, talking
with a mouthful of train, for his keen observation.
But you don’t write a word for days
then weeks as you focus instead your eyes
on wind riding dunes hitched to a slice
of tangerine light, shapeshifting sunset.
You put your ear to the movement of earth
beneath a frenzy of shorebirds pecking the eyes
from a head of a beached seal there. And speechless,
you listen for a fading blue note of a train
in the distance, off to somewhere far away.
Having been starved from an early age on,
having become the dog who jumps the first morsel,
preventing, with threatening growls, the rest of the meal
from being delivered to his plate, I am so inclined
to forget my Muse at the appearance of a word, a line,
that I am sure I have stopped her many times
in mid-speech, before the deeper confession,
the more-splendid gift can be given,
causing her to draw back like the lover
of an easily satisfied man, to say,
“I thought you wanted to be a poet—
forgive me!” and depart with wounded pride
as I sit and play with a word, a line.
—> Alex James
The book is too delicate para mi, I think—too prone to falling apart before I’m done with it. The pages lie loose between their cloth-worn covers, the gilded title faded. I imagine putting it in my bag and the pages coming free—arbofolioeca: an Esperanto word comparing paper to the leaves of trees. Perhaps it would be appropriate—squares of Hopscotch scattered along the path behind me, snippets of a ripened book showing up in my wallet, between the pages of my notebooks, on top of my lunch, among my bandages and chapsticks.
A library fine is a small price to pay for art.
In the house of books, we tiptoe,
usually, Hansel and I, though Herr
and Frau Grimm say it’s our home,
if we want it to be. Which we do,
we think, maybe, possibly, hoping
they mean it since we cannot
return to that house-not-home,
the hut with skittery mother
and knife-eyed father
with rough claw-hands
and foul breath, a time
I wish I did not remember.
This house (home?) is filled with new:
the smell of fresh-baked bread
climbing to the attic from the oven,
the clucking of jolly Frau Grimm
as she pads around cleaning floors
and picking up our toys from under
the professor’s chair as he reads
tales he and his brother found.
Like they found us, Frau and Herr—
Hansel wrote them with fear and hope,
and took me away from that place
into the safety of the moonless night.
Tonight, though, is special—
a chicken brushed with butter
is roasting in the oven: Sunday
night dinner for the four of us.
The sun sliding behind the hills
shines a sparkling orangey glow
onto the red cape and hood
of a little girl in a painting.
I walk to Herr Grimm and say,
for the first time, ”Tell me a story,
please”. He lifts me to his lap
and softly starts: “Once upon a time”.
I am stealing your words, slowly.
Cut from newspapers
scribed from your interviews
made into strips of paper
which are then folded—sometimes
with spit for a softer, blurred edge
sometimes hardened with a nail for gleam
into small creatures and arcane knots
so they become many layers of meaning
as well as substance.
I hang them by my window
a mobile that only drafts stir—
I do not touch them once they are made
for they are in waiting.
No, you need not worry
not you, golden of tongue.
You answer in your own time
or by remarkable letter
and are an exalted being—
I leech from you what you’ve already shed
I gather for myself, to one day transform
able to hide as many meanings as I hide words
flooding lines in a set-mantra order.
No, it is to one day dress myself in words
stolen and reformed, to become myself
a self as you awakened me.
A simulacrum of paper and poetry and lifetimes.
Fifty years and more since
I held the clover in my hand
in the field fronting our house,
looked close, saw the blue
piercing white, whispered:
and felt the charge
of equality to mystery,
loved the blubbering
rush of words repeated
like Helen at the pump
then tossed the thing aside,
ran off to pick up a leaf,
a pebble, a piece of trash
along the road, devouring
the face of each to discover
its secret name equal to,
if not larger than, itself.
Shouldn’t we be tired
of all this ecstasy
Dear Poetry Foundation
I’m writing to let you know
that whenever I print a poem
on your website,
a small message appears
at the bottom of the page:
“Report a problem with this poem.”
It doesn’t matter whether it’s
Eliot or Seidel,
Bukowski or Merwin,
Wendell Berry or Thom Gunn,
the same message appears:
“Report a problem with this poem.”
So I’m wondering—
what exactly does it mean?
Do lines suddenly bounce off the page
or words self-combust spontaneously?
Do margins wiggle like belly dancers
and spaces close rank in solidarity?
Did someone spit in the fonts
or the comma skip town
with the question mark’s wife?
Is one of your proofreaders
a compulsive (and very furtive)
exactly what kind of Foundation
are you running?
Because as far as I can tell,
poetry isn’t going anywhere.
And that’s what I’m reporting.
—> D. G. Geis