The Poetry Kings

A grey day in the offices of plangent voices, the poetry quarterly I helped found nearly three decades ago, and from which I was summarily ousted in a hostile takeover in the early 80′s by Elena Gotchko, the Emily Dickinson-wannabe whom I had taken under my wing when she was still a naif young ingenue, cutting her own hair and not doing a very good job of it.

“You like . . . trochees?”

Elena had marched in to announce that she’d become “elena gotchko,” and with her new boyfriend, daniel de la sota, a hulking Frankenstein’s monster of a poetaster, had commandeered the only electric typewriter in the joint and proclaimed that a new era of poetry was about to begin. I was out and she and her lumbering companion were in.

So I suppose I should have felt a little frisson of satisfaction at her call, late last night, to say that she needed my help getting the summer edition out. Her body’s immune system had apparently rejected the lower case “g” she’d added to her last name, and she was groggy from the antibiotics. The doctors were fairly sure she’d recover, but the botched transplant meant that she might have to live out the rest of her days as elena Gotchko.

Back in the saddle!

An ordinary editor would have cringed at the submissions stacked high on the desks, tables, floor, air conditioner and kitty box for the magazine’s mascot, Neruda, a male tuxedo cat who’d started as an unpaid intern five years ago, and had since been promoted to the position of reader. We’d sit him down on a manuscript and if he . . . uh . . . relieved himself, it was returned to the author with our form rejection letter saying it did not fit our needs at this time.

“Your sonnet sucks!”

As I say, the slush piles heaped around me were daunting, but I was undeterred. I was just glad to be back in the game again, shaping the course of American literature. Maybe it wouldn’t mean much to somebody like Archibald MacLeish, who said poems shouldn’t mean but be, but I was happy just to be where I was.

MacLeish: “What I mean is, a poem should not mean . . . anything. I think.”

Until I looked up and saw Sound E-Fex and Back Wurdz, two rappers who struck fear in the hearts of poetry editors everywhere. The modern branch of their posse was known as The Poetry Kings; the classical branch was called The Latin Poetry Kings. In either manifestation, they were a poetry quarterly’s worst nightmare; men who were determined to git published or die tryin’. When they submitted a hard-hitting, slice-of-life, straight-outta-Bloomsbury tranche-de-vie, somebody usually went down ’cause of all the hyphens flyin’ around.

“You gonna publish our stuff, or we gonna have to go crazy on you?”

”Yo,” Wurdz said. I recognized the two from the picture that appears above ”Pimp Yo Poem,” their monthly verse column in The Source, The Bible of Hip-Hop.

“Hi there,” I said, playing dumb, a game I’d perfected in grade school when I’d hide behind my hardbound copy of “Our American Government” and crank out crude couplets. “The submission deadline for the winter issue is past, if that’s what . . .”

“We got our stuff in before yo deadline,” Sound said. “We wanna know whether you gonna publish it, or we gonna have to go crazy on you?”

elena Gotchko: Nice job on the bangs!

“We have a fairly rigorous review process here,” I began. “After initial consideration by a reader, a poem must be approved by two editors, at least one (1) of whom shall not have slept with the poet, then it goes to our board of–”

“I don’t wanna hear ’bout yo board of academic advisors,” Wurdz said. “Eggheads ain’t never done nuthin’ good for poetry.”

I nodded my head reluctantly–I had to agree with him on that one. Rappers may not be everybody’s glass of sherry, but they’ve added more life to the world of poetry than a thousand professors. They’re the 21st century’s version of Arthur Rimbaud, who produced his best work while still in his teens, and gave up creative writing before he turned 21 to work in his dad’s business.

Rimbaud: “Spackle?  Aisle 3.”

“Okay, well, I guess since you’ve made a personal visit to the office, I could take another look at what you’ve written,” I said. I knew this would be unfair to the hundreds of other versifiers who’d submitted the products of their late-night waking dreams, who’d torn their tortured lines from their hearts, their souls, and in some cases their spleens; but the men standing before me were bearing Glocks.

“Let me see, what was the title of your work?” I asked.

“The Land of Counterpane,” Wurdz said.

I gave him a look that expressed volumes, or at least an epic poem. “You realize, don’t you, that Robert Louis Stevenson has already used that title?”

An angry Stevenson: “Don’t you go infringin’ my s**t, you waffle puffin’ punk!”

“So what if he did?” E-Fex asked. “Copyright done run out.  We sampled it.”

He was right, but that was hardly the point. A reputable–or semi-reputable–poetry quarterly could hardly publish a known plagiarism. Unless The Poetry Kings were going to make a substantial tax-deductible contribution, I allowed myself to think in a moment of mercenary madness.

I flipped through the reject pile and found what I was looking for. “All right, let me give it a second read,” I said. “But I can’t promise you anything.”

I leaned back in my chair, turned on my hand-held scansion device, and started reading.

Hand-held scansion device: Don’t start reading without it.


When I was sick and lay a-bed,
With several bullets in my head,
Around me all my firearms lay,
To keep me happy all the day.

“You’re off to a good start,” I said. They smiled at me, showing their grillz, the hip-hop orthodontic devices that are purely cosmetic in nature. I read on.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I’d watch my leaden homies go,
Tricked out sick and lookin’ good,
Among the bed-clothes
through the hood;

“You’ve spun a rather elaborate conceit,” I said, hoping to manage their expectations. “It will be interesting to see whether you can conclude in a manner that makes the work into a literary whole.”

“Wus he talkin’ ’bout?” Wurdz asked Sound.

“He wants to see whether we game or lame.”

“Testing–a-b-b-a, c-d-e, c-d-e.”

I nodded. He had divined the essence of my task. I picked up the paper–I noticed it was scented with Courvoisier–and continued:

I’d sometimes send my Escalade
‘Neath knees bent upwards, spreading shade;
A sound–a shot?–bestilled my heart,
‘Twas but an under-blanket fart.

“Nice touch, that,” I said with admiration. “And now,” I announced with upraised eyebrow, “let’s see if you can nail the dismount.”

“Wus he talkin’ bout?” Sound asked.

“Like Mary Lou Retton,” Wurdz replied. “Anybody can git up on da pommel horse, only a champ can git down off it clean.”

“On the nosey,” I said, then looked over the top of my glasses and continued.

I was the gangsta great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
Yaddida, shaboopalaboopy pain.

It was, to say the least, a letdown. “What happened with the last line?” I asked. “You just trailed off without completing either the sense or the form of the poem.”

The two co-poets seemed embarrassed. “I’ll be the first to admit,” said Wurdz, “that it needs more work.”

“What the hell is a ‘shaboopalaboopy’ anyway?” I asked.

“It’s a neologism,” Sound said. “It originated with Bay Area rappers, the hyphy movement. They used it to . . . make their raps better by”–he hesitated, apparently chagrined–”filling in spaces.”

“So basically, it’s the hip hop equivalent of ‘Yadda yadda yadda’,” I said, a bit scornfully.

“We thought we’d have a better chance if we submitted something on our forearms.”

“Thass right,” a woman’s voice said from the doorway. It was Pho’Netique, a stone fox who was known to contribute to Pimp Yo Poem when the guys couldn’t get their copy in on time.

“I’m afraid we’re going to have to pass on this,” I said to the 2 Jive Crew in front of me. “Take another crack at that last stanza. You’ve got something there, but it needs a little work.”

They were crestfallen, having been shown up for what they were–poetic wankstas–in front of a woman. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of manuscripts . . .”

“Wait!” It was Pho-Netique’s turn to whine. “I submitted some confessional poems a while back and I was wondering if you’d had a chance to read them.”

“Uh, I don’t recall,” I said. “What was the title?”

The Bell Jar.”

Available in print and Kindle format on as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”


How to Hypnotize Women

Readers of a certain age—or more precisely, male readers of comic books of the sixties—may recall an advertisement that appeared regularly alongside come-ons for sea monkeys, correspondence courses in ventriloquism, and X-Ray Specs. It depicted a cool-looking guy, his hair slicked back with Vitalis or Wildroot Cream Oil, squiring an attractive girl with a pageboy hairdo while a less cool guy fumed in the foreground.

“You are getting very . . . horny.”


“What’s he got that I haven’t got?” the headline blared above the picture, and below, the lothario’s secret: “The Power to Hypnotize Women!”

I never availed myself of the educational opportunity this ad presented, perhaps inhibited by my Catholic upbringing in which boys and girls were separated into different lines on their way to bathroom break so they wouldn’t think impure thoughts on the way. Or maybe it was the sense that resort to the awesome power of mesmerism wasn’t sporting; like hunting deer from a tree stand, it gave the predator an unfair advantage.

Elizabeth Smart


The subject of women held in thralldom to men by mysterious powers came to mind the other day when I read the story of Elizabeth Smart, author of the prose poem (or the poetic novella) By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, a perfervid retelling of her infatuation and affair with George Granville Barker, a poet who had achieved success at the age of 18.

George Barker: What’s he got that you haven’t got?


Smart stumbled upon Barker’s work in a London bookshop, and conceived a love for the man before she’d ever met him. She began to tell people that she planned to marry Barker, even though he was already married. She posed as a manuscript collector and in 1941 offered to fly Barker and his wife to California from Japan at her expense; Barker accepted, fearful he would be drafted if he returned to England. Their affair began shortly after they first met.

Grand Central Station is a short work, 120 pages long. You can read it in one night, even if you take intermittent breaks to check the score of a Boston Celtics-Toronto Raptors game, as I did tonight.

Smart’s paean to her lover is so self-abasing it would be embarrassing were it not for its beauty; drawing on Biblical sources (the Song of Solomon and Psalm 137, from whose first lines the title is adapted), Catholic liturgy, Shakespeare and the Greeks, Smart recounts how she and Barker commit adultery right under Mrs. Barker’s nose. Smart seems to be alternately discomfited by this fact and resentful of Mrs. Barker’s prior and legal claim on the man she loves.

David Hume: What’s he doing in this post?


Grand Central Station fell—as David Hume might say—stillborn from the press. The first edition ran to just 2,000 copies, and Smart’s mother bought many of them to suppress the work’s spread. (N.B.–my first book was published in a first edition of 2,000 copies; coincidence, or something more sinister?)  The Smarts were a socially-prominent Ottawa family, and her mother arranged to have the book banned in Canada as well. It sank into obscurity until it was republished in England in 1966 with an introduction by Brigid Brophy that declares it one of no more than “half a dozen masterpieces of poetic prose in the world.”

Smart, in her later years

The irony, when considered nearly seventy years after its publication, is that Smart’s work of self-abnegation has surpassed that of her erotic master; Barker is largely forgotten now, while the reputation of Smart’s one work of genius—however misbegotten—seems secure. In his lifetime, however, Barker cut a wide swath through the ladies; he had four children by Smart, who raised them herself, and eleven more by several other women! For fans keeping score at home, that puts him ahead of Calvin Murphy, the all-time career leader among NBA producers of illegitimate children.

Murphy: Fourteen children by nine women? The poet laughs at you with scorn.


I mention all this for the benefit of guys like myself who do not have the skills, the height and the vertical leap to make it in the NBA. You don’t have to be a basketball star to score with chicks—you can hypnotize women with poetry!


Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

The River Where His Lover Lies

The river where his lover lies
is not too wide from bank to bank.
The water eddies here and there
as it flows down into the sea.

The ferry carries cars across
from Chester on one shore to Lyme.
The surface of the water’s calm,
there’s not a lot they have to say.

He took the boat so they could see
the swans that swim along in pairs.
They mate for life, he’d said; the plank
was lowered, so were her eyes.

Something was amiss that day,
some inner peace, some needed balm.
He calculated there was time
to stem the tide, avert the loss.

The water made her paleness stark
against her hair, as she sank down;
and now he has to damn or thank
the river where his lover lies.


A Night Ride With the Conservative Poetry Enforcers

          There are maybe five conservative American poets, not one of whom can safely show his face at a writing conference for fear of being angrily doused with herbal tea.

                     David Orr, Beautiful & Pointless

It’s Wednesday night and the sky is cloudless and moonless. I’m cruising the streets of White River Junction, Vermont, with my posse; T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, e.e. cummings and Wallace Stevens. We’ve got our gang colors on–tweed sport coats–because we’re out for retribution. Eliot was making a posthumous appearance at the Bread Stone Writer’s Conference the night before, hovering like a brooding omnipresence over a panel discussion on De-Privileging the Dead White Male, when the head of the low-residency poetry program at the University of Vermont-Quechee campus tossed some green tea and honey on his ghostly apparition. Forget what you’ve heard about the incorporeality of the afterlife; T-Dawg, as he is known fondly among us, has first degree burns on his hands to show for the gross incivility he was subjected to.

“You pointin’ that green tea at me, maggot?”


“Can we stop at Dairy Queen?” Stevens says from the seat beside me–typical for the Emperor of Ice Cream.

“Yes if you’re going to get something to drink,” I say. “No if you want a sundae. You know they give you the runs.”

“how come stevens always gets to ride shotgun?” cummings asks from the back seat.

“Because his reputation is the highest at this point,” I reply, trying to broker a peace. “It’s not my call–talk to the critics.”

Stevens: “I could really go for a Heath Bar Blizzard sundae right now.”


cummings rolls down his window and flips his cigarette out–a minor act of rebellion against the excesses of the environmental movement.

“You jerk,” Frost says. “Just because you’re a registered Republican doesn’t mean you can be a pig.”

“I live in Cambridge, Mass.,” Cummings says, momentarily drawing himself up from his normal lower-case orthographic state. “Littering is an inalienable right when you live in the city.”

e.e. cummings: “excuse me for smoking.”


I pull my car over to the side of the road outside the Writer’s Center, and we sit in silence as we wait for the poet who will be our random victim to walk out.

“Did everyone bring a beverage to toss?” I ask. Great poets tend to be world-class wool-gatherers, forgetting even the most important details of a night time terror ride.

“I brought a bottle of cider that I made myself,” Frost says. Good old Bob–marginalized as a conservative during his life, famously saying a liberal is someone so broad-minded he won’t take his own side in a quarrel.  He soldiered on until he got his day in the sun at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, that tax-cutting imperialist who accused Richard Nixon of being weak on defense!

“I brought my martini shaker,” Eliot says. “Can I have a sip?”

“It’s up to you,” I say. “I’d think you’d want to keep your martini dry until you saw the whites of a liberal poet’s eyes.”

“You didn’t stop at Dairy Queen,” Stevens says with a dream-like voice. “No root beer float.”

“Give him a Gatorade, would you?” I say to the guys in the back, and Frost reaches into my red and white Coleman cooler, the one I’ve been using since I was introduced to Schlitz Malt Liquor on the night shift at an ice plant when I was fifteen.

Frost hands one forward to his poetic rival, and Stevens jumps a bit when the chilled plastic bottle is placed in his hands. “A frosty cold one from Frost,” he says with a thin little smile after he’s recovered. I note that he doesn’t say thank you; that’s Stevens for you, an imperial sense of entitlement.

We had argued over when and how we would retaliate for the indignity that Eliot suffered at the hands of his poetic inferior. We debated whether we should respond in kind with a searing hot beverage, but decided we would take the high road. Liberal poets may scar their competitors with coffee and tea, but we would repay them with an olive branch; cold drinks at worst, lukewarm liquids preferred. We don’t have to throw stuff to make a point; we use our words, as our mothers told us to long ago.

cummings–as he is wont to do–is the only one to push the envelope. he’s brought along two four-packs of single serving wine bottles, one white and one red, and from the malevolent look on his face my guess is he’s going to twist the cap on the cabernet first in order to inflict the maximum amount of damage to some poor poetaster’s affected Mexican peasant shirt.

“Why do they hate us?” Stevens asks no one in particular.

“Because you’re better than them,” I say, “and because you undermine their belief that a poem must conform to a rigid view of the way the world ought to be, instead of the way it is.”

“Jonathan Livingston Seagull crap,” Stevens says, again as if he’s talking in his sleep.

“On the nosey,” I say.

cummings shushes me as he sees a man in a Greek fisherman’s cap stumble down the stairs and then out onto the lawn. Frost clears his throat, and I can feel a poem coming on.

He’s in his cups as he descends
the stairs that lead to the conference
where within I have no friends
and that has made all the difference.

The three poets in the back slip quietly out the street-side door and take their places underneath some overgrown rhododendrons, the kind Virginia Woolf compared to overfed suburban stockbrokers.

Woolf: “I loaned my Black & Decker hedgetrimmer to Marianne Moore, and now she won’t give it back.”


The poet is humming to himself as he comes down the drive; I believe I detect the strains of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” which would make him just about my age if he’s recalling the monster guitar hits of his youth–SOTW is ranked #12 on Q magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks.

“Smoke–on the wa-ter/Fire in the skies,” the guy sings, and not too well. I see Frost, Cummings and Eliot exchange glances, then pounce on him.

Fuckin’ poetry, man.


“What the . . .” I hear the guy say before Eliot succeeds in stuffing some Lilly Pulitzer cocktail napkins in his mouth.

Tres festive!


The trio of nefarious verse-slingers drags the guy to the car where they stuff him in the back seat between Frost and Eliot–the “bitch” seat. Cummings starts to get in the front, but Stevens stops him.

“I have not relinquished my shotgun rights!” he says in a prissy tone.

“come on, wally!” cummings exclaims. We’re all getting a bit exasperated at the old man’s hyper-formalism.

Stevens ignores him, gets out and waits for cummings to “ride the stick.” Thankfully, my car has an automatic tranny on the column, so it’s not so bad.

“Where are you taking me?” the poet–and I used the word advisedly, since I recognize him–asks. It is Bendall Plourde, a refugee from a Master of Fine Arts program who claimed “printer’s error” when his amateurish attempt at a sonnet in a student newspaper drew derisive letters to the editor. Since I was the outside union typesetter for the paper I threatened to take out a full-page advertisement showing his original copy, with its mistakes of grammar, spelling, usage, syntax, mixed metaphors and pathetic fallacies–not to pile on or anything. I was prevailed upon not to place the ad for a sum in the high three figures–counting the decimal point, of course. Printer’s error my ass.

We drive for awhile and once we’re out in the country again Eliot removes the napkins from Plourde’s mouth and, without missing a beat, throws a martini in his face.

“What’d you do that for?”

“I might ask you and your bien pensant colleagues the same thing, since I was doused with hot green tea at last night’s session.”

“Well you deserved it, you who said that liberalism was ‘a worm eating itself into the traditions of our society.’”

“You dispute that?”

“Sure. All good poets are liberals–right?”

It’s cummings’ turn to chime in. “good lord, man–wherever did you get that idea?”

“From David Orr.”

“who’s that?”

“Just the poetry critic of the New York Times.”

“He doesn’t know his ass from his elbow,” Frost says dismissively as he looks out the window at a field lying fallow, trying to wring a poem out of it. The guy never stops working!

“Orr is to Lionel Trilling as a snow cone is to the Matterhorn,” Stevens intones with a voice of authority.

“Who’s Lionel Trilling?” Plourde asks, genuinely mystified.

“The ur-liberal literary critic of the twentieth century,” I say. “Author of The Liberal Imagination, who famously said ‘liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition’ of our time.”

“So–that just supports what I said,” Plourde says. “Ouch,” he cries as Frost administers “Indian sunburn” to his right arm.

“Oh no–not Indian sunburn!”


“Au contraire,” Eliot says. “Over and over again Trilling found that the poets he admired the most, the writers he thought would endure, including Proust, Joyce, Lawrence, Eliot, Yeats . . .”

“Yeats?” Plourde says with a note of betrayal in his voice–you can tell that one stung.

“Yes, Yeats,” Eliot continues, “Mann, Kafka, Rilke, Gide, Hemingway, Coleridge, Kipling, Faulkner and my esteemed colleagues in this car–to all of them ‘liberal ideology has been at best a matter of indifference,’ if they weren’t suspicious or even overtly hostile to it.”

We didn’t need any napkins to shut the guy up after that Honor Roll of Scribblers.

“Say it . . . say it ain’t so!” he says finally, tears welling up in his eyes.

“I’d like to–for your sake–but I can’t,” Eliot continues. “Trilling thought you needed to be a part of the traditions of the west in order to effectively perceive and express the social distinctions we lump together under the rubric . . .”

“What’s a rubric?”

1978 AMC Rubric


“A subcompact manufactured by American Motors in the sixties,” Frost says. I’m pretty sure he’s kidding.

” . . . of class,” Eliot says. He gives Plourde a Cheshire-cat smile, and at this point everybody chucks their drinks at the guy. Justice prevails.

“Still,” Plourde says as he tries to wipe the cheap cabernet off his favorite shirt, “Orr’s right about one thing.”

“What?” Frost asks.

“He said there weren’t five conservative poets, and there’s only four of you.”

“How about our driver?” Eliot asks. I am so flattered!

“Him?” Plourde asks, snorting with contempt to think that the former printer’s devil who took him down so many years ago in Worcester, Mass. would ever rise so high.

“Are you saying he’s not a conservative?” Frost asks.

“He voted against Reagan–twice,” Plourde says with scorn, making a great show of his umbrage. “And he’s also a lousy poet.”


Available in print and Kindle format on as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

The Penance of Jane Shore

There is a state between lady and whore
called “courtesan.” In the reign of Edward IV
there were three such,
of whom he said
they were merry, wily and holy,
one we know by the name Jane Shore.


Daughter of the merchant class,
a grocer’s daughter, a lovely lass,
she mirrored the manners
of gentle ladies
who patronized her father’s store
and before her youth had passed


the die had been cast;
she’d discovered what a man was for.


And so she climbed by her looks and charms
from the lowly to a place in the arms
of men, mighty and great.
“The Rose of London” she
was called, noted for her wit as well.
A series of lovers would keep her from harm:


The first was William Shore, fifteen years older
than her; wealthy merchant, but to her colder
than desired. The marriage was annulled
at her request for impotence, three bishops
deciding at the request of Pope Sixtus.
Free to love again, Edward the king did hold her,


then his stepson, Thomas Grey, a married man,
then the Baron of Hastings. Her plan
was to serve as go-between,
to conspire against the rule of
Richard III, but she was charged
with promiscuity, and so with taper in hand

she was made to walk the streets of London
dressed only in her kirtle, exposed to men’s eyes.


From this you may surmise:
When a conspicuous woman is brought to heel
where before she was the favorite of all
there is probably something more to tell
than merely the story of her fall.

Bats at Twilight

The bats are out tonight,
I said. She looked up and there
they were, silhouetted against the dying light
to the west. Over our shoulders
to the east it was dark, but from where


we sat, we had an intimate view of the two,
engaged in some sort of courtship ritual
I surmised after a while; the urge to do
as lovers everywhere do. They dipped
and soared; I assumed it was very traditional.

“If we had more bats we’d have fewer bugs,”
I said. She shrank back into her sweater,
and gave me a look, then a shrug.
“I don’t care,” she said. “I don’t like bats.”
I knew, no matter how I tried, I’d never get her


to agree to let me put up bat houses.
It was a little thing, nothing I cared about much,
just at the corners of our lot. One’s spouse holds
the veto vote on such matters, over
all the earth and every creeping thing and such.

Abide by this rule, or find her colder
once under the covers you have slipped:
As to animals other than dogs and cats,
forswear them all, and love her.