Poetry is for Reading

April 26, 2009

Poetry Is For Reading Part 1 – An Explanation. Etheridge Knight.

Yes, it is grand to study a poet, to examine the mechanics, to see how the machine works, to admire technical brilliance and the resonance of influence and allusion. Yet I, like many readers, sometimes just want to enjoy poems the way I enjoy TV, a novel, a comic book or a new cd.

wirePoetry, like all of these mediums, comes with the risk that if you just dive in – you’re going to sink into limitless depths of banality, rubbish, or things you just don’t like. TV is an evil glowing devil box full of people trying to get famous and comic books are for kids. But we, the discerning ones, we know better. We find Mad Men. We know Brian Michael Bendis‘ run on Daredevil. We share these things amongst us as part of, and perhaps as measure of, our enjoyment of them. We pass DVDs of The Wire to each other, make mix tapes. We don’t de-construct or analyse. We get excited.

Many months ago my friend Morgan asked me to recommend some newer books of poetry to him. Books I had gotten excited about. Sure, he’d read what he’d had to read in school and had gone through some classics at his own pace but felt he had no foothold on more current work. Somehow we got side-tracked, however, talking about insane things Mike Tyson has said and I’ve felt guilty ever since for allowing the conversation to degrade and for  not giving him a thorough list of readable books.


The troubling thing is that there is a lot of accessible poetry out there. Poetry that doesn’t require one to be a poet nor a scholar. Poetry that sparks and crackles and is as good as the new Decemberists album. But, there are an awful lot of books in that dusty cannon, ones taken like pills or praised by people who never liked AC/DC, or are simply competent or technically proficient.

In reading a New Yorker article about two of my recent poetic obsessions, Matthew and Micheal Dickman, Joseph Millar said, “They talked about poetry the way that young people used to speak about rock and roll, or surfing, or cars.”

Now, I’m not going to compare poetry to rock and roll or surfing but, in this little series, I intend to gush. I’ll recommend books to sit down and drink a beer with, poets you may or may not have heard of whose work you can ingest like your favourite cd, work you’ll want to share with your friends, books you might want to read all of, borrow or buy.

Of course, these are just my opinions based on my own travels, my interests and peccadilloes. Everything is individual, but please let me know if I switch you onto anything that you like. Similarly, feel free to share your opinions with me.

knightI’ve already gone on too long talking about the conceit of this concept and now, nervously, recommend a poet:

Etheridge Knight.

Knight found his way onto my love-shelf thanks to Michael Burkard who gave me a cassette of a Knight reading. I  knew nothing of Knight beyond his threadbare voice on that cassette. I learned from his poems that he’d been incarcerated at Indiana State Prison, that he was African-American, and was addicted to heroin. His voice sounded lived in and just about on the right side of cozy. His poems were rhythmic, brutally sensitive, funny, and honest. His poem Hard Rock Returns To Prison From The Hospital For The Criminal Insane had the eerie feel and humour of One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest.

You can hear him read it hear at about 1.30 minutes in:


And then he read what is just about one of my favourite poems. It has a vulgarity to it, sure, but it has a cut and beating heart too.

Feeling Fucked Up

by Etheridge Knight

Lord she’s gone done left me done packed / up and split
and I with no way to make her
come back and everywhere the world is bare

bright bone white crystal sand glistens

dope death dead dying and jiving drove
her away made her take her laughter and her smiles
and her softness and her midnight sighs—

Fuck Coltrane and music and clouds drifting in the sky
fuck the sea and trees and the sky and birds
and alligators and all the animals that roam the earth
fuck marx and mao fuck fidel and nkrumah and
democracy and communism fuck smack and pot
and red ripe tomatoes fuck joseph fuck mary fuck
god jesus and all the disciples fuck fanon nixon
and malcolm fuck the revolution fuck freedom fuck
the whole muthafucking thing
all i want now is my woman back
so my soul can sing

There is a bio and a selection of poems available at

·You can find Etheridge Knights work at the Scottish Poetry Library in The Vintage book of African American Poetry.

·You can buy the Essential Etheridge Knight (University of Pittsburgh Press) here.

·Read about another poet – Hayden Carruth.

·Cartoon by Dan Meth. My voice is in it.

Nothing But The Poem – a roundup.

February 2, 2009

One of the perks of being Reader-in-Residence is that I get to chat to people about poems – about what we like and don’t like and about what we get and don’t get. I especially get a thrill out of the Nothing But the Poem sessions I’ve been running. At these we discuss the poem as it appears on the page and through listening, talking and careful reading, we try to chase down meaning or, at least, a kind of emotional understanding. I’m often inspired by how deeply people can get into analysing a poem I consider “difficult” and I’ve found, reading as a group, poems grow inside themselves and mature rapidly. Talking out a poem can be a little like watching a time-lapse video of a tulip in bloom. So, I thought it might be nice to share the poems we discussed at The Forest recently during a NBTP session- I’ll try to give some idea of what the group said about each piece.

First we read an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem. On my first, second, third and fourth reading I considered the rhymes simplistic and none of the lines seemed to flint or spark. I found the natural imagery antique and dusty and, to my ears, it sounded saccharine and one dimensional. Read:

Here in a Rocky Cup

Here in a rocky cup of earth

The simple acorn brought to birth

What has in ages grown to be

A very oak, a mighty tree.

The granite of the rock is split

And crumbled by the girth of it.

Incautious was the rock to feed

The acorn’s mouth; unwise indeed

Am I, upon whose stony heart

Fell softly down, sits quietly,

The seed of love’s imperial tree

That soon may force my breast apart.

“I fear you not. I have no doubt

My meagre soil shall starve  you out!”

Unless indeed you prove to be

The kernel of a kingly tree;

Which if you be I am content

To go the way the granite went,

And be myself no more at all,

So you but prosper and grow tall.

Edna St. Vincent Millay from Rocky Cup of Earth Blogspot

The trick to this, the group felt, was to read the poem as if it were about a relationship. Which seemed sensible and served to redeem the pleasing phrasing with an injection of bleakness. So, the group thought, the poet shows how love and relationships can sometimes require brutal sacrifice – “and be myself no more” – for a partner (or adversary) to grow strong. I read it again – there among the sweet hopes of love there is a bitter bite – don’t you think?

Next we read a poem by Michael Dickman which I loved when I first read it:

My Autopsy

There is a way

if we want

into everything

I’ll eat the chicken carbonara and you eat the veal, the olives, the

small and glowing loaves of bread

I’ll eat the waiter, the waitress

floating through the candled dark in shiny black slacks

like water at night

The napkins, folded into paper boats, contain invisible Japanese


You eat the forks,

all the knives, asleep and waiting

on the white tables

What do you love?

I love the way our teeth stay long after we’re gone, hanging on

despite worms or fire

I love our stomachs

turning over

the earth


There is a way

if we want

to stay, to leave


My lungs are made out of smoke ash sunlight air

particles of skin

The invisible floating universe of kisses, rising up in a sequinned

helix of dust and cinnamon

Breathe in

Breathe out

I smoke

unfiltered Shepheard’s Hotel cigarettes

from a green box, with a dog on the cover, I smoke them

here, and I’ll smoke them



There is a way

if we want

out of drowning

I’m having

a Gimlet, a Caruso, a

Fallen Angel

A Manhattan, a Rattlesnake, a Rusty Nail, a Stinger, an Angel

Face, a Corpse Reviver

What are you having?

I’m buying

I’m buying for the house

I’m standing the round

Wake me

from the dash of lemon juice,

the half measure of orange juice, apricot brandy,

and the two fingers of gin

that make up paradise


There is a way

if we want

to untie ourselves

The shining organs that bind us can help us through the new dark

There are lots of stories about intestines

People have been forced to hold them, alive and shocked awake

The doctors removed M’s smaller one and replaced it, the new

bright plastic curled around the older brother

Birds drag them out of the dead and abandoned

Some people climb them into Heaven

Others believe we live in one

God’s intestine!

A conveyor belt of stars and saints

We tie and we loosen


and forgettable


Michael Dickman from the New Yorker, December 15, 2008. Dickman’s collection, End of the West, is published by Copper Canyon Press.

So much of this poem seemed incomprehensible, right down to what we thought the poet was actually trying to say. We could all feel what we thought he was expressing – the joy of life, the waste of life, the importance of living, the intestinal ties that bind, the fact of dying – but yet it was very hard to pin Dickman’s actual opinion down. This, however, didn’t stop a good discussion of our favourite lines and how much we’d like to drink everything in this poem – particularly a Corpse Reviver. I think we all agreed that it was looking back on a life full of “minor unforgettable miracles.” Still, it seems like it should be depressing, right?

We concluded the session with an understated poem by Marita Garin titled “Huskies” which I found in an issue of Verse (number 4) from 1985. I’d been looking for a sexy (I thought) poem called The Want Bone by Robert Pinsky. (That is a dirty title, isn’t it?). Anyway, Huskies was on the same page and it struck me too (which shows how valuable a good literary magazine is down the line). I brought it to the group for the same reason I brought “My Autopsy” – I was switched on to the poem but didn’t fully understand why.

On the surface the poem is about a person looking at a pack of caged huskies.  You begin to feel the narrator’s desperation (perhaps displaced) to open the gate, unleash the pack and let them free. Garin writes, “I could give them / what they want / they look at me / in their eyes / there are no barriers.” Which sure sounds whimsical in a free-the-animals kind of way but grows potent when you imagine the narrator, standing in the dusk on a stranger’s property, looking at the dogs and considering what might be her own barriers.

I’ll be doing another session at The Forest on Saturday the 21st at about 2pm. Hope to see you there.