To The Poets

Just now, I was attempting to read some poems in a journal foolish enough to print one of my stories. I figured, Hey, if these guys liked my particular brand of juvenile man-boy rantings, maybe their poetry will be swell! Alas, halfway through the first poem, during an admittedly interesting line about shadowy men holding lanterns like severed heads, the song "Joy and Pain" came on XM's 80s station, and I was driven to distraction.

Possibly there's some sort of metaphor in there, but since I'm not a licensed poet I don't believe I'm allowed to construct it. Union rules and all.

Lame joking aside, there was a time, not so very long ago, when I enjoyed poetry. It was a simpler time, perhaps -- I was younger, less burdened by the world's often-sucky realities. I'd just moved to Washington, D.C., and many of my favorite moments were spent reading poems on the Metro ride to work, something perfect about experiencing these little meditative bursts while all around me a veritable crush of badly dressed humanity headed, grimacing, to their variously acronymed workplaces. Or: reading poems while exploring my new neighborhood, which within a six-or-seven-block radius contained Peruvian chicken and Vietnamese spring rolls and Chinese people playing ping pong in the rec room of the Chinese embassy (seriously! I saw this! It was awesome!) and tiny twenty-something granola-type women walking absurdly large dogs and tweed-suited ambassadors or attaches or dignitaries (oh, to one day be referred to as a dignitary!) disappearing strange models of foreign luxury cars behind the ivied gates of their rock-walled compounds.

Anyway, during this time I often found myself wowed by poetry. Broken apart by poetry. Every now and then, it felt as if my heart had been slurped from out of my chest, seasoned with some sort of Peruvian dry rub, roasted on a spit, and served back to me with salsa verde and a side of fried yucca (delicious!). There are reports from those days of tears, but I maintain it was dusty in those rooms, that I had something in my eye, that I'd just been peeling onions.

I recall reading a particularly moving Philip Levine poem that involved a dream-like image of the narrator's family doing nothing so much as moving around a living room, smoking and talking about money, yet seemed to open the door to a world as rich and mysterious as whatever went on behind those menacing compound gates.

There was a poem by Kim Addonizio with a beautiful extended metaphor involving regrets being born like children, then gathering outside the window and peering in at their mother as she danced with a handsome stranger, feeling already the kick of a newborn forming inside her.

There were some poems by Shirley Kaufman and Carolyn Forche that I read over and over; a couple I liked enough to photocopy and paste to the walls of my dingy studio apartment (though, to be fair, this may have just been a tactic to convince women I was deeper and more interesting than I was).

A year or so later, at perhaps the height of what I think of now as the Poetry Appreciation Era, I was sitting, alone, in a tiny bar in Madrid, still trying to process the bullfight I'd just witnessed, trying to process, too, my job prospects once I returned to D.C. (having quit my most recent miserable employment situation rather abruptly to travel), trying to process, too, why my girlfriend hadn't responded to my last several emails (Later, I would realize there was an inverse relationship between the frequency of her emails and the amount of Other Guys Cock she was putting inside herself) and in this state of strange existence, maybe three beers in while the jukebox played forgotten North American hits of the 80s ("Joy and Pain," for instance, which triggered this whole memory in the first place), the Spanish being spoken all around me bearing only the tiniest passing resemblance to the Spanish I'd been forced to learn in high school ("Donde esta la biblioteca, Gabriella?" is not as great an ice-breaker as one might expect), while all of this was going on I turned the page in a Stephen Dobyns book and read his poem "Quirencia" and experienced that profoundly odd sensation of being equal parts overjoyed and heartbroken at exactly the same moment.

That was then, this is now. What happened? What is it that I've lost?

I have no idea, but I think I'd like to get it back. So, dear poets, now that we've added you to our stable, I'm putting you to work: What should I be reading? How should I be reading? What went wrong? Please help me right this ship before I turn into a completely cynical, cold-hearted bastard.


JP said...

If you like Levine, you'll probably adore Larry Levis. He's like uber-Levine. A tiny bit more lyric than typical Levine fare, but really still very narrative.

Here's some Levis:

Winter Stars

It's a good poem. A really good poem.

More anon.

(But only if you call me "Sensei.")


Mike said...

Oh, yeah, Larry Levis. I forgot about that guy. I actually have the book Winter Stars. I should check out more of his stuff.

Especially now that I know he looks like Rip Torn.

JP said...

I also think you'd like Albert Goldbarth. I already showed you that one poem, but it isn't really typical of him. He's actually a very Barrelhouse type of poet. Pop culture is sort of his shtick.

And Alan Dugan's pretty hardcore. One of my favorite poems ever:


Nothing is plumb, level or square:
the studs are bowed, the joists
are shaky by nature, no piece fits
any other piece without a gap
or pinch, and bent nails
dance all over the surfacing
like maggots. By Christ
I am no carpenter. I built
the roof for myself, the walls
for myself, the floors
for myself, and got
hung up in it myself. I
danced with a purple thumb
at this house-warming, drunk
with my prime whiskey: rage.
Oh, I spat rage's nails
into the frame-up of my work:
it held. It settled plumb,
level, solid, square and true
for that great moment. Then
it screamed and went on through,
skewing as wrong the other way.
God damned it. This is hell,
but I planned it, I sawed it,
I nailed it, and I
will live in it until it kills me.
I can nail my left palm
to the left-hand crosspiece but
I can't do everything myself.
I need a hand to nail the right,
a help, a love, a you, a wife.

JP said...

Ooh, and I bet you'd dig Richard Siken. And oh my god I can't believe I didn't think of it before but you'd totally love Paul Guest.

jill alexander essbaum said...

Simon Armitage is my favorite. And I'd bet you'd like him.

Mike said...

Thanks for all the suggestions. Maybe there will be hope for me yet.

Dan said...

Goldbarth is a great suggestion. You might also like Jack Gilbert—one of my personal favorites—especially when he's writing about Pittsburgh. He also writes alot about lost love and lost youth which might be part of what you like about Levis. I tend to like poems with a heavy mix of regret and nostalgia.

JP said...

Oh, totally Gilbert. Good call. But man, I think we're just running down the list of "working man's" poets for you, Mike. For all that, I really want to suggest a woman but, like the total misogynist that I am, I'm having trouble thinking of one you'd like offhand. Wait, okay: Margaret Atwood (yes, that Margaret Atwood) has a book called Morning in the Burned House that completely rocks my world. And for a tear-jerker (but not in a super girlie way) you can read Marie Howe's "What the Living Do." And for some hot girl-on-girl sonnet action, Marilyn Hacker's "Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons" is on my contemporary top five books list.

Ok, I know, enough...

Mike said...

Wait, now I'm confused: I always thought the boy poets were really women, publishing their titles under male pseudonyms so people would take them seriously.

JP said...

Pretty much, yeah. Except for the small herd of tough guy poets we pointed out. (Take tough however you want; it's obviously a diverse group.)

For the women, though, I've suggested a dyke, a tough as balls mean New Yorker and a chick who sort of looks like a man, so I'm guessing it'll be butch enough for you.

dave said...

There's an up-and-coming poet by the name of Heidi Montag, and you might want to check out her work as well. Here's a little sample:


I know you're in the crowd
So come and free me now
I'm standin' all alone
And I just want you to touch me

(I know you're in the crowd)
But you got me feelin' so naughty
Make me wanna show you my body
(all alone)
And I feel so exposed

(I know you're in the crowd)
But you got me feelin' so naughty
Make me wanna show you my body
And I just want you to touch me

oooh, oooh, oooooh

(what you waitin' for, touch me)

oooh, oooh, oooooh

(what you waitin' for)

Touch me


Smart, sexy, surprising, just about everything you'd expect from Heidi Montag at this point in time.

Let me be the first to predict here that the poet Heidi Montag will soon have no choice but to take her clothes off for Playboy, and then the Ubiquitous Spencer Pratt will cut her head off, along with a male waiter companion, and then he'll be famous forever and ever.

Mike said...

OMG, I looooove Heidi's work.

I didn't know she was doing poetry now. I'm a big fan of her performance piece, entitled "Acting Like a Total Douchetard While Having My Entire Contrived Romantic Life Documented by The Tabloid Press."

Not sure if that show's still running or not, but if so, you should totally check it out. It's a real mindfuck.

heather said...

how about these from matthew dickman, boston review?


i don't think he has a book out yet, but these are cumulatively great!