“Broken Promises” David Kirby

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“As Dead Now as Shakespeare’s Children”

David Kirby, another one of those poet slash professors (in this case at Florida State University), is known for long-ish narrative poems, often leavened freely with humor. It’s an engaging combination, one I’ve been coming to know better since I picked up two of his books.

As a short intro, I found an unusually (for him) short poem that makes liberal use of personification. It provides insight into Kirby’s imagination, too.

Imagine, reader, that your broken promises came to life, that they dogged you and surrounded you every day. Think: The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. As you’ll recall, she had so many children (another vagrant dad, apparently) she didn’t know what to do.

That’s you. You and your broken promises. Stuck in a smelly Reebok.

Hey, it might make for a great poetry prompt: Pick an abstract thing (like promises) and give it human properties (Boardwalk, preferably). Run with it in a poem.

Here’s what happened when Kirby did:


Broken Promises
David Kirby

I have met them in dark alleys, limping and one-armed;
I have seen them playing cards under a single light-bulb
and tried to join in, but they refused me rudely,
knowing I would only let them win.
I have seen them in the foyers of theaters,
coming back late from the interval

long after the others have taken their seats,
and in deserted shopping malls late at night,
peering at things they can never buy,
and I have found them wandering
in a wood where I too have wandered.

This morning I caught one;
small and stupid, too slow to get away,
it was only a promise I had made to myself once
and then forgot, but it screamed and kicked at me
and ran to join the others, who looked at me with reproach
in their long, sad faces.
When I drew near them, they scurried away,
even though they will sleep in my yard tonight.
I hate them for their ingratitude,
I who have kept countless promises,
as dead now as Shakespeare’s children.
“You bastards,” I scream,
“you have to love me—I gave you life!”


Note how your personification poem won’t fly unless you surround it with realistic props. Concrete props. Dark alleys. One-armed handicaps. Single light bulbs for rotten illumination.

A promise that’s “small and stupid, too slow to get away,” is not only wearing its personification on its sleeve, it’s showing off with a little alliteration to boot (note return to Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe theme).

What gets me here is how the narrator chases broken promises away but knows they will return to “sleep in my yard tonight.” Now that’s a concrete image. Rogue promises that partake of sleepovers in your back yard. Blanket rolled out, I imagine. Sleeping bags and bug spray. An empty bag of chips blowing in the wind.

So go ahead. Promise to write a personification poem. If you don’t, it’s just another broken promise ringing your doorbell at 3 a.m. (Serves you right.)