Maybe the Saddest Thing: Poems (National Poetry)

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The Whispered Language of Secrets and Fears: Ten Poems for People Who Hate Poetry

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Novels might bore, and short stories can frustrate, but poetry is the only genre of literature that elicits consistent hate. People hate poetry because it is obscure, elitist, vague, complex, somber, trite, ornate, pretentious, out-of-touch, and dated.

William Shakespeare is blamed. Secondary school teachers are blamed. Contemporary poets are blamed. Poet voice is blamed. Tumblr is blamed. Greeting cards are blamed. James Franco is blamed.

Perhaps it is the way we talk about poetry that is to blame — we being those who have already been converted, who read and write and share poetry. Love is a private emotion; it risks withering when shown public light. We who love poetry think it will save the world. Why must it save the world? It should be enough to save a single minute. If a poem pauses someone, that is enough.

This list is an olive branch to the poetry skeptics. Prose is great for fiction, essays, and belabored introductions to lists, but poetry has its own place in this world. Poetry is the grand language of ceremony and spectacle, as well as the whispered language of secrets and fears. Many wonderful poems exist, but the following selections will appeal to readers of prose: work that is approachable, funny, smart, but still verse. Take a chance on these 10 poems.

1. “A Perfect Mess” by Mary Karr (Sinners Welcome)

“It’s not law but the sprawl / of our separate wills that keeps us all flowing.” Our world is a perfect mess: just when you think things could not get any worse, small miracles right the course for a few important moments. Poetry is a snapshot form, and Karr’s poem captures the feel of the city, the world unraveling in a million directions. The narrator watches the “unprecedented gall” of piano movers “shoving a roped-up baby grand / up Ninth Avenue before a thunderstorm.” Those movers “knew what was coming, / the instrument white lacquered, the sky bulging black / as a bad water balloon and in one pinprick instant / it burst.” They are saved by unlikely heroines. “A Perfect Mess” ends on an ellipsis, because, she says, “You only unplug from [the city], the current never stops …”

2. “Sir Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion” by Matthew Olzmann (Mezzanines)

I might have chosen Olzmann’s hilarious and sweet “Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem,” but there’s something extra special about his Isaac Newton poem. It has been said so often that poetry makes the ordinary extraordinary, and yet that transformation is often a romantic one (think a farmer standing in front of a field moved by wind, or someone looking down at Earth from an airplane). Yet equally appealing to me is how a great poet can make you appreciate stasis and even boredom. “Matthew Olzmann / is an object at rest, and will remain at rest, / reclining on the couch while drinking Guinness / and watching football.” I can’t trust a poet without a sense of humor. Olzmann has my trust, so I’m willing to follow his lines everywhere. Next time someone calls you lazy, share this poem and proclaim your leisure art.

3. “Blue Prelude” by Saeed Jones (Prelude to Bruise)

If Jones wrote a two-line poem it would still hit me with the power of an epic. “Last night, the ceiling above me / ached with dance.” What brings me back to poetry are those single-word decisions: “ached,” how that one note pulses through the entire line. We’ve all known the feeling of longing, of being so close to joy and yet so far away, and Jones follows the emotion from that upstairs room to the empty bed of the narrator. There he “dreamed / the record’s needle / pointed into my back, spinning / me into no one’s song.”

4. “Ode to Browsing the Web” by Marcus Wicker (Maybe the Saddest Thing)

“I’ve been told the internet is / an unholy place — an endless intangible / stumbling ground of false deities / dogma and loneliness.” I’m worried that a poetic traditionalist would make such a claim, but thankfully poetry has embraced the online world. Wicker packs so much material into his lines, modulating speed and pivots with care: “The camera pans to another / pocket of the room where six kids rocking holey / T-shirts etch aerosol lines on warehouse walls.” The beautiful thing about language is that it makes ugly action sing—in the right poet’s hands. This poem is an ode to sitting in front of a “holy streaming screen / of counterculture punks,” blinking the day away “without care for time or density.”

5. “Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Lucky Fish)

For years I’ve been sharing Nezhukumatathil’s poem “Baked Goods” as an example of a perfect love poem, and “Break-Ups” might be the perfect explanation of how poets must lie. In popular culture, poetry is often presented as the purgation of unfiltered feelings — a genre of writing where writers lose all self-control and bleed on the page. Catharsis without craft. Poetry is actually a space for play. If every love in Nezhukumatathil’s poems were real, “Can you imagine the number of bouquets, how many / slices of cake?” There would be husbands making a “great meal,” one could change the baby while another reads the newspaper, “and every single / one of them wonders what time I am coming home.”

6. “That’s Incredible!” by Michael Robbins (The Second Sex)

When I read a poem, I expect a poet to surprise, shock, or confuse me with language. If you hate poetry, than you might have read poets who only confuse — or who don’t speak to your particular experience or anxieties in life. I have called Robbins “the most provocative Christian poet in America” with appreciation, but he is truly one of the most inventive writers working. For the uninitiated, it might take a Robbins poem or two before you get his style, but once it clicks, you feel as if you’re part of a very smart inside literary joke. Robbins is like a poetic machine who takes the entirety of popular culture, history, politics, music, and God, and then remixes them into poems with beats worthy of recording.

7. “Double Dutch” by Gregory Pardlo (Digest)

Often people who hate poetry hate the poems that served as their introduction to the form. Inevitably that poetry is “older:” formally staid, metered verse that feels antiquated. Of course older poetry is beautiful, the foundation of modern verse, but to the new eye, older poetry feels like a series of abstractions without contemporary reference. Say what you will about our embrace of free verse, but many contemporary poets mix detail and sound to create magic. Pardlo, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner, hails from the Garden State, and I haven’t found a better contemporary poet to capture the songs of my home state’s peculiar mix of asphalt and grass. Give “Double Dutch” to someone who has never studied poetry, but has spent hours on the blacktop like those girls “shadowing each other, / sparring across the slack cord / casting parabolas in the air.” Watch them nod when they recognize the truth of his lines: “she looks caught in the mouth bones of a fish / as she flutter-floats into motion / like a figure in a stack of time-lapse photos / thumbed alive.” Watch them smile at how a poet renews youth: “She makes jewelry of herself and garlands / the ground with shadows.”

8. “Before” by Ada Limón (Bright Dead Things)

If we share song lyrics to ease the pain of loss and distance, than why not great poetry? Limón’s short lines in “Before” arrive as a sequence of phrases and breaths. In poetry, so often honesty has become another word for brutality; a poet is only authentic if she is raw. Limón’s authenticity is on another level; it is like hearing the confession of a friend. She is able to capture the particular grief of separation experienced during youth. “Before the road / between us, there was the road / beneath us, and I was just / big enough not to let go.” A great poem brings us back to our own tenuous moments, to our own “hazardous bliss.”

9. “Intersection” by Kerrin McCadden (Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes)

McCadden, a fellow high school English teacher, knows how to offer poetry to a skeptical audience. There is an accepted narrative structure to prose. Sentences scaffold paragraphs, and paragraphs are the links for pages. Poetry is somewhere between a dream and a scream. “Intersection” moves in a surreal manner; first, there is that tedious interaction at the four-way stop. Then, love: “Your hands cup the wheel / at ten o’clock and two, then float / past my knee and only sometimes land.” How quickly, and yet how smoothly, McCadden moves us. If this were prose, we would ask: is this really happening? In poetry, we ask: why does this not happen more?

10. “Nothing Is Haunted” by Sandy Longhorn (The Alchemy of My Mortal Form)

In many great poems, there is a space of absence. It might be a chasm or a pinhole, but it is a space of uncertainty, and it must not be so big as to swallow the rest of the poem. “Nothing is Haunted” is that type of poem. The first lines are surprising enough to invite us in: is it true that “Nothing is haunted / in quite the way small Midwestern farms / are haunted”? Longhorn convinces us. The source are these lithe girls who “lie awake through summer’s / liquid heat and listen to the rattling window screens.” We can hear the panting between the lines; this is horror in verse. “The girls throw off / their bleached sheets and untangle their legs.” Hot and uncomfortable, they want to run, but instead “huddle” while “quivering in one weak circle of light.” Are these girls or ghosts? Longhorn carries that absence, that confusion, on to the final lines, and then hands it off to us, to you.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Free Rides: Writing and Reading on Trains

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In local parlance, a “free ride” means riding New Jersey Transit without buying a ticket. For years, that trick was easiest on the Morris-Essex line, with the double-decker trains going westbound from New York City. A free ride from Newark Broad Street to Dover was possible on the 8:19 pm train, using the following method. Step 1: enter the train in the midst of a crowd, far from a conductor. Step 2: move two cars forward. Don’t stop to peek at someone’s text, and don’t settle for an empty three-seater with a fresh copy of The New York Post. Step 3: choose a car with a clean-check: when the conductor brushes through upon boarding, collecting tickets but not clipping, giving receipts but sticking no slip in the flaps above seats. Step 4: Catch an open spot in a two-seater; pencil in hand with an open book is the best disguise. If an overzealous conductor somehow reaches your car, avoid eye contact. If I were caught, this would be my Step 5: show the conductor my monthly pass, apologize, and explain that I am a fiction writer.

I would never steal a free ride, but would gladly accept one if New Jersey Transit, or Amtrak, offered. I am not the only rider willing to accept that gift. Consider the social media frenzy that erupted when writers recently discovered Amtrak’s free writing residencies. The Wire’s coverage of the story’s background was the single-most shared literary link I’d ever seen. What writer, laptop on a folded-down food tray, or notebook on knee, doesn’t wish they could spend hours drafting on those rails? Dream evolved into reality because of a December 2013 PEN America interview with novelist Alexander Chee, where he says trains are his favorite place to write: “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.” Jessica Gross read Chee’s interview and tweeted her own desire for such a residency. Amtrak offered her a free “test run.” She accepted, and took a round trip on the Lake Shore Limited from New York to Chicago: “thirty-nine hours in transit — forty-four, with delays.” At The Paris Review, her romantic description of that residency’s spartan, utilitarian space would entice any writer interested in solitude: a 3’ 6” by 6’ 8” sleeper cabin with a window, “two plush seats,” a sliding, chessboard-topped table, a sink, cups, towels, soap, and curtains that can be drawn over two windows facing the corridor. As Gross notes, “I’m only here for the journey.” She was “ensconced” in order to write.

Gross shares how other writers love the schedule of train travel: “Anne Korkeakivi described train travel as ‘suspended impregnable time,’ combined with ‘dreamy’ forward motion: ‘like a mantra, it greases the brain.’” Even writing about writing on trains feels natural. Gross refers to Emily St. John Mandel’s fine essay here at The Millions, which describes a very different type of train: the New York City subway system. There she “scrawl[ed] fragments” of her third novel on “folded-up wads of scrap paper, using a book” as her desk. Mandel notes that reading is ubiquitous on the subway, but writing is rare. That’s understandable. Subways are about connections and changes, quick closing doors and an absence of conductors roaming the cars. Trains are longer commitments, more conducive to settling into one’s seat, tuning out, and letting the steady ride transport the mind.

I have done my fair share of writing on trains, but prefer them as places to read. My train reading is associative: one book leads into another. Lately I’ve been riding the train most often in summers: hour-plus routes that begin in Netcong and Dover and end at the Broad Street, Newark station. I teach a sport literature course at Rutgers-Newark that runs July through August, so one such train-reading litany began with Don DeLillo’s End Zone. The refrain of “hit somebody, hit somebody, hit somebody” complimented the repetition of my ride: run, slow, stop, start. End Zone sent me to a more recent DeLillo, Point Omega, which is a thinner read, but more directly engages the evolutionary theories of Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. My edition of Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man fell apart when I reached page 36, which ends with this sentence: “In such a vision man is seen not as a static centre of the world — as he for long believed himself to be — but as the axis and leading shoot of evolution, which is something much finer.” I had to reach under the seat in front of me to grab the pages that broke from the bitter spine.

Teilhard’s thought is recursive, so I then chose to re-read On Being Blue, William Gass’s 1976 treatise on that color, emotion, and concept: “a random set of meanings has softly gathered around the word the way lint collects.” Gass sent me to The Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. Was there ever a writer more syntactically appropriate for the train? “As a Wife Has a Cow: A Love Story” might be inscrutable, but it is still a literary ride. I admit to not finishing Stein’s collection, and other books, that I begin on the train. My relationships with books might last for an entire afternoon, one half of a round trip, or only between stops. Stein’s wordplay inspired me to revisit Patrick Madden’s excellent essay collection, Quotidiana. His short but packed essays are a perfect fit for trains. One essay, “Remember Death,” moves from the band Rush to Montaigne to Mr. Lamb (one of Madden’s high school English teachers that I also had — we are from the same hometown) to Sts. Jerome and Anthony. I moved from the breadth of an essay collection to the depth of a memoir: Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia by Blake Butler, which now reads like an elegy for his late father. Butler’s labyrinthine prose made the train car feel comfortably claustrophobic.

After a helping of non-fiction, I longed for the escape of fiction again. James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime is never so romantic and heartbreaking as when it is read on a train. The longing in Paul Lisicky’s Lawnboy felt perfectly metered across multiple stops, and painfully final when the train pulled into the yard at Dover, out of service. I often return to the underappreciated James Alan McPherson when thinking writers, trains, and endings. McPherson worked as a dining-car waiter on the Great Northern Railroad in 1962. Then came Harvard Law School and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but a life on the rails never left him. He edited Railroad: Trains and Train People in American Culture with poet Miller Williams, and also wrote two train-related stories, “On Trains,” and my favorite, “A Solo Song: For Doc, ” an elder dining-car waiter’s advice to a new hire. These words might have been spoken to McPherson himself: “There’ll always be summer stuff like you, but the big men, the big trains, are dying every day and everybody can see it. And nobody but us who are dying with them gives a damn.”

I prefer prose to poetry on the train, but there’s a place for verse in transit. Tyehimba Jess’s development of persona in leadbelly metaphorically matches the transformative aspect of travel, the possibility that we might be reborn in a new place. I’ve read and prepared reviews for Maybe the Saddest Thing by Marcus Wicker, Fables by Sarah Goldstein, Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie by Joshua Harmon, Copperhead by Rachel Richardson, and browsed poems in Colorado Review, Gulf Coast, and Poetry. My favorite single poem to discover on the train is, coincidentally, “Love Train” by Tomás Q. Morín. I first heard it discussed in a Poetry magazine podcast, but read the full poem on the actual page. A woman asks for “Earl Grey cookies / sandwiched around buttercream or marshmallows / made of chocolate,” but her husband returns from the dining car with his “bowl brimming with pretzels, / the snack you wanted least.” That’s not the only problem: “When I came bearing the salted and twisted news, / the room was empty but for a heel.” He’s forgotten their room number on the train, so he opens every door “marked with threes and eights,” waking strangers “like a beggar, no, an angel, / a begging angel who has written on his heart / WILL WORK FOR LOVE.” Frustrated, all he finds are “row upon row of couples asleep,” or riders “staring out the windows like zombies,” unsure what to do “once the newspaper is well-thumbed, / the tea has gone cold, and the conversation is dead.” He finally discovers his wife “in a cafe / in a city we didn’t know, where she is “slowly eat[ing] / a dish of whipped cream and bananas.” Hearts broken and healed, in transit.

At The New Yorker, Vauhini Vara wonders what will happen when the romantic excitement for Amtrak’s residencies subsides, and we get down to dollars and cents. She also makes a smart comparison with David Foster Wallace’s sideways glance at Frank Conroy’s “essaymercial,” “My Celebrity Cruise, or ‘All this and a Tan, Too,’” which Conroy was paid to write. Amtrak’s social-media director, Julia Quinn, told Vara these writer residences are “the most organic form of advertising for us — different people on our trains and exposing their audience to what long-distance travel is like.” The key word here is audience: “We are a for-profit organization, so we are definitely determining when the best time is to send these people. I’m not going to send all of the residents in May, June, and July during our peak system, when we could be selling those tickets.” No one expects Amtrak to offer these residences without any strings, and certainly writers are not the demographic that needs charity the most. But this might be a good time to dull the cynical blade and embrace optimism. I hope Amtrak develops these introductory residencies into a full program, and that these writers are inspired to create new work, breathe life into old drafts, and maybe even enjoy some good reading.

Image credit: Unsplash/Florian van Duyn.

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