Poetics April 11, 2018


College professors love to talk

About how poems work, juggling

lines from old poems like balloons

filled with colors, but surely

A theory about how poems work

Should itself be a poem.



John Logan said one night, as a few of us

Trailed after him from bar to bar

In San Francisco, like Aristotle’s students

Wheeling about like a flock of ducklings

As he walked back and forth in his garden,

Thinking out loud—John said that

Poetry happens when we don’t know what

We’re going to write until after we’ve written it.



A poem is not just

Prose broken into short lines

unless they jostle like puppies

Struggling reach the tit

Or sperm competing to be first

to penetrate the veil around the egg,

Knowing from their genes

They must catalyze the Big Bang

That begins all life—or die.


A poem is not just

Feelings anyone could feel

Unless they explode with knowing

How her aura feels when rubbed by mine

Or how the sensuous grace of the spirit

Justifies my faith that all is worth persisting.


A poem is not just

Assuming the world is what others

Think, but must question assumptions

For the shock of the instant when

You see that what you had never thought

To question cannot be true and opens

Up possibilities of joy you never hoped for.


A poem is not just

Words to use up at your leisure,

The synesthesia of metaphor,

Where numbers have colors

And sounds have textures.

You can’t predict when She will

Flood you with Her words.

They must be caught as gently as a butterfly

Without breaking its wings

And crafted now, even if

The garbage needs taking out,

Ignoring the persons from Porlock,

Else She will take them back, like dreams.


A poem is not just

Random noise like a tin can clattering

Chaotically down concrete steps,

But must be music for the solo voice,

Languid language does not seize our hearts.

Rhymes squeeze words to make them give off light,

Their multiple meanings generating

Harmonies and counterpoints

Like the linked strings of a harpsichord,

As the Greeks and Judeans danced one-two,

one-two, one-two-three with drums

And pipes and harps and joy and torches

Toward the hieros gamos of the holiest

In the navel of the universe.


A poem is not just

Solemnity or prayers or lectures

On how serious your life should be,

But is playing as the Gods play, since,

Having nothing they must do,

All that they do is play, enticing you

To play with them in the riotous ecstasy

Of their presence within us.


A poem is not just

Optional, as if life were adequate

When living on cold porridge,

But instead gives us the daily

Vitamins and minerals that

Almost invisibly empower us

To live with joy in every moment,

Not just survive. So when you see

A poem, take two. They’re small.

Es, fress, Papa schickt gelt

As we summer in the Poconos.

Mangia. You’re entitled.



At first. Zeus wrote  a poem of earth and sky,

When on high the Gods created us

Amidst gales of laughter.

At first there was the Word,

Who precedes Zeus and was Zeus:

That is, in rulership was reason.

Therefore we can make sense of it all.



Some poems must be more dense than prose,

Packing layers of meaning into harmonies.

There must be tension: each word a screw

To tighten in the framework.

Yet others can be less dense than air,

Floating like ideas in Plato’s mind,

Balloons filled with colors,

When the Muse just wants to play.


Some poems must be said not smooth but rough,

A diamond still uncivilized, displayed

With no more art than a hurricane.


Some poems must open into hidden space,

Showing the future shape of man,

Patterns, huge or close, that escape the eye.



When I was 14, the Muse (wearing

Her Holy Spirit hat) rescued me and

Ordered me to go find out about truth for myself.

I’ve walked that road less travelled.

Which sometimes became the bonny road

That winds about the ferny brae, and when

She brought me back to where I’d begun

And I knew the place for the first time,

The Queen of Elfhame said to me,

“No lie shall ever be told by thee,

For as I say, so must it be.”



For me the point of poetry’s to tell

The truth, at least, as much as I can find,

For it’s never absolute. There’s always more.


Poetry’s a way of knowing different

From the disprovable hypotheses of science

Or the nondisprovable ones of faith; for these,

Ask not if they’re true, but if they’re good

Every poem’s an experiment

In applied epistemology,

to find out what we think we know,

and why we think we know it.

As mathematicians play with numbers,

And theologians with values,

Poets play with concepts, painting maps

Of possible realities that sometimes

turn out to be as real as imaginary numbers

Or toads in imaginary gardens.

Theories based on beauty create facts.

That’s why mathematicians will not

Believe a proof is true unless it’s elegant.



Science is the scientific method,

Nothing more, and every guess,

Even when promoted, with stars

On its shoulders, to the rank of theory,

Has merely not yet been disproved.

Newton became a special case

In a universe of relativity.


Pursuing truth’s equivalent to faith,

Requires only that I be openminded.

I have to live with the uncertainty

Of scientific method, never

Settling for the illusory comfort

Of believing there is nothing more to learn.



Yet even truth is not the goal.

What I say about a tree may be

True or false, but it’s not the tree.


As we strolled under the trees

in the moonlight around Tamalpais Valley,

I was telling Gale, “Bach must be the music

That runs the universe, because it is so logical.”

At sixteen I loved logic

Because I could not trust my feelings.

“Everything is logical or illogical,” I said.

“No,” she said. “Not everything is logical.

Trees are neither true nor false;

They simply are, like feelings.

You either believe them or you don’t.”

Could I just accept nonlogical things

As true? My black and white world exploded

Into colors, like Dorothy arriving in Oz.


And yet, later that evening, after she had led me

Into her bedroom and was lying on her bed,

I, not knowing she’d been first seduced

the night before and wanted more,

Not believing how I was feeling

Not believing I could know how she was feeling,

I could not decide whether it was logical

to dare to ask, “May I kiss you?”.


It was years before I learned to trust

My feelings enough to act on them,

But the journey began that evening

When Gale showed me how

Feelings can transcend all hypotheses.


True and false are the broad and narrow roads,

But feelings are the bonny road,

Still winding about the ferny brae

Toward that castle they will never reach.



Some may tell you,

If you want a name in the world,

To write with exquisite craftsmanship.

Choose words to shape their feelings.

Tell them what they love to hear about themselves.

Ask them to laugh, cry, feel good, but not to think.

You have the right to earn your fair share

of honor, glory, power, wealth, and fame,


But I say, please,

unless you value truth above all else,

Don’t pretend to be a poet.




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