gertrude stein

1 post

When Poems Drink Too Much Language

too much

Dial 911. I think my poem’s on something.

I thought the house smelled a little odd this morning. A bit more organic than usual. My first thought was the dog, who always looks guilty, but no.

Turns out, it’s that poem I wrote yesterday.

My fault, in a roundabout way. I left some “language” poetry lying around the house. Ron Silliman, Gertrude Stein. Rae Armantrout (oh, forgive me… rae armantrout).  Typically it’s under lock and key.

What was I thinking, you ask? I wasn’t. I was just writing, having a little fun. And my poem, it started watching The Young and the Reckless on TV. Like any adolescent, its brain hasn’t fully developed. Ask and it will have no raison, no d’être.

Last night, on the counter, I’d also left open an old New Yorker to a Dan Chiasson review of Mai Der Vang’s debut poetry collection, Afterland. Dan quotes a Mai poem (“Mother of People Without Script”) with impunity, with little regard for rhyme, reason, or innocent bystanders (read: impressionable poems-in-progress):


Paj is not pam is not pan.
Blossom is not blanket is not help.

Ntug is not ntuj is not ntub.
Edge is not sky is not wet.

On sheet of bamboo
with indigo branch.

To txiav is not the txias.
To scissor is not the cold.


To scissor is not the cold? What could it mean? To scissor is the hot, maybe? My poem didn’t care. It clearly swooned at the whole idea of inhaling language like this.

As is typical of the young, my first draft rationalized: “What does it matter if my words carry no meaning and every meaning at the same time? That’s for the reader to climb through. The reader comes, interacts, and makes meaning from words, beautiful words. I just provide, in my lettered bounty.”

I even found a few glossy M.F.A. brochures lying around. Lord.

Once I challenged it, my poem started getting uppity. It grew loud with its opinions, heady with its possibilities. “You only need imagination,” it said in its post-, post-, post-modern voice. “Mine is to stir the embers of your imagination. From there, the fire is yours.”

Then it passed out.

Eventually, I had to ask myself: Did I really write this? Can wordplay be taken this seriously? Are there still “language editors” out there, even “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” ones, ready to click ACCEPT so many years after the heyday of avants being off their gardes?

And why me, anyway? Rehab is expensive stuff, and detoxing poems is neither easy nor cheap. You know and I know that health care is fraught these days. Kind of like poetry sales. And poetry marketing. And yes, the raising and writing of poetry into good, rule-abiding citizens.

Pray for me, friends, and do not judge me. Better yet, pray for my poem, and do not judge it, either. It’s on an IV now, getting 50 cc’s of meaning per hour.

You’ll see. A little revision. A few dactyls here, a few trochees there. It will be on its metrical feet in no time.

Meanwhile, I thank all of you for your expressions of sympathy. See you in the hospital gift shop…