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.”

We Must Love One Another or Die: A Brief History

Valentine for a Homely Couple

Carl’s wife sits shotgun in his truck
Her doughy face baked whitish red.
He gets out and climbs the semi–
Smiling, he asks “How’s it going?”
We just grunt and nod our heads
at the auger hole, and how it’s stuck.

“Better you than me, boys,” he says.
“I’m enjoying Sunday off.
Got a beer and my old lady.
It ain’t much, but it’s enough.”

Bill and me look at each other;
He’s the type to make a crack.
Me–I just want to get this load done.
We’ve got 18 miles to drive back.

“Your wife, she sure is lookin’ sweet,”
Bill says–I don’t pay him no mind.
Carl’s wife smiles, then she says thank you.
“You ever seen her walk the streets?”
Carl asks, all innocent.  “From behind
Looks like two hogs fightin’ under a sheet.”

Carl’s wife laughs, she likes attention.
Backhanded flattered, and it shows.
Her flabby arm hangs out the window
What attracts him, God only knows.

“Have you lost weight since I last saw you?”
Bill asks, and then he calls her “Dear.”
“Naw,” Carl says, “she’s like the State Fair–
Bigger and better every year.”

We see her laugh, she’s missing one tooth.
It’s clear she’s heard this joke before.
Old Sam arrives to check our progress–
It’s his dough that we’re wasting now.
He kicks a dead mouse out the barn door
As we prepare to tell untruths.

“Howdy, Carl,” Sam says
surprised to see his foreman in the bay.
“I give you the day off and what do you do?
You just can’t tear yourself away.”

“You know my wife, Earlene–right Sam?”
Carl says with somewhat misplaced pride.
“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
Can he be pleased by one so wide?

They talk of things, while in the trailer
Bill and I unclog the jam.
The fescue seed begins to flow
As if from out a hydro dam.

Carl takes his leave, with mock regret.
“Sorry to see you break a sweat,
I’ll keep a cold beer waiting,” he says,
“In case I haven’t drunk it yet.”

Carl starts his truck, Sam farts around,
He sticks his hand into the seed.
“This stuff’s too wet, it’s got to dry out,
A day in windrows is what it needs.”

Sam stands up straight to watch them go.
“That little peckerwood’s a card.
Before too long they’ll have them six kids
And a beat-up truck in their front yard.

“I know that it ain’t none of my business,
where ole Carl puts his prick.
But for me, I know one thing;
Them Bohunk women sure go to pot quick.”

Image result for couples country 50s

We’re silent, Bill and I, for once,
as we attempt to take this in.
It’s true, of course, there’s no denying,
and yet to say it seems a sin.

Happy the man, and happy the mate
Who care not what the world may say.
Here’s to the two whose matches are few–
May they find love on Valentine’s Day.

Greeting Cards From the World’s Grumpiest Poet

Around Thanksgiving my thoughts turn towards those less fortunate than myself. This year, I’ve decided to extend a hand to Giacomo Leopardi, known to his few friends as “Jock.”

Giacomo Leopardi

For centuries, Leopardi has been known as the world’s grumpiest poet. When Matthew Arnold published his collected poems in 1853 he intentionally omitted “Empedocles on Etna,” which is now recognized as one of his top ten poems in both the AP and Coaches Polls. Why? “It’s depressing,” Arnold told a reporter fromVictorian Poetry Daily. “I don’t want people thinking I’ve been hanging out in Leopardi’s basement, listening to Neil Young records.”

Matthew Arnold, after liberal application of Dippity-Do.

I’m in Missouri for the holidays, so it’s but a short drive from the small town where I grew up to Kansas City, where Hallmark Cards is one of the largest employers. I figure if Leopardi can get a job writing poetry for them and is forced to be cheerful from 9 to 5, maybe he’ll snap out of it.

Mr. Kool Aid: Maybe this will cheer him up.

I honk the horn outside his house and he comes bounding out as this trip represents the most excitement he’s had in months. He hated Recanti, the small town where he grew up, and I now understand that bringing him to the Gateway to the Ozarks as an American Field Service foreign exchange student probably wasn’t such a great idea.

“How they hangin’?” I ask as he gets in the car.

“I feel only noia,” he says, referring to the sense of ennui, dreary indifference, torpor, that suffuses his work.

“Here–I brought you something,” I say, and hand him a t-shirt with a bright red Mr. Kool-Aid on it.

“Thanks,” he says with a voice devoid of emotion. “Let’s get going.”

We hit I-70 and make pretty good time as the traffic is light. As I had hoped, the tedium of the drive moves Leopardi to break out of his customary silence.

“Where are you taking me again–and why?” he asks, staring straight ahead.

“We’re going to Hallmark, makers of more greeting cards than any other company in America,” I say, hoping that the possibility of being on the winning team will inspire him a bit.

“What good does it do to greet people,” he says morosely. “Existence is an imperfection, an irregularity, a monstrosity.”

I figure maybe his blood sugar is low and he needs something to eat, so I pull into a Dairy Queen. “What do you want, a Dilly Bar, a root beer float?” I ask as I get out of the car.

“I want a Cappuccino Heath Bar Blizzard,” he says, brightening a bit. “I’ll go with you,” he adds as he opens his door. “Otherwise you’ll screw up the order.”

We order and for once I remember to get enough napkins, then we’re back on the road.

“Did you bring any samples of your work, like I told you to?” I ask, fearing that he’ll be unprepared for what may be his one shot, his one opportunity–to quote the great American folk poet Eminem–at leading a productive life.

Eminem: So poetic, he has to write the stuff on his arms.

“Yes,” he says as he pulls his giant daybook–the Zibaldone di pensieri–out of his PBS tote bag. “Here’s something I wrote to my sister Paolina on the occasion of her wedding.” He clears his throat of the milky DQ sundae-drink, then begins:

The children that you’ll have
will either be cowards or unhappy.
Let them be unhappy.

“O-kay,” I say hesitantly. “Well, uh, that might work for one of Hallmark’s ‘Shoebox’ cards.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s their line of humorous cards,” I say. “Innovative, unpredictable, laugh-out-loud cards featuring a range of humor to serve a variety of relationships,” I continue, reciting the text from Hallmark’s website by memory, I know it so well.

“Hmph,” he says. “I don’t think so. Everything is evil. All that is, is evil.”

The sugar in the Blizzard has apparently burned off. I should have ordered him a chili dog first.

“What else ya got?” I ask, and he flips a few pages.

“Here’s a maternity card I’ve been working on,” he says:

The day we’re born is cause for mourning.

“Well, that might work for a combined birth-condolence card,” I say, trying to stay positive. I realize I can’t take him in for his interview quite yet, so I call and reschedule for later in the afternoon while I try to think of some way to cheer up this stick-in-the-mud of a wet blanket.

We cruise around for awhile, when finally it dawns on me; there’s only one thing absolutely, positively guaranteed to put someone in a satisfied state of mind in this part of the country.

“I’m hungry,” I say as we pull into Arthur Bryant’s. “You up for some barbecue?”

“Heck yeah!”

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

At the Viking Poetry Slam

A mastery of poetry was a must for any young Viking.  A few Viking poems dwelt on love, but the heroes often undermined their happiness by chasing adventures that separated them from their beloveds. 

                                     The Wall Street Journal

“Who’s got the beer cooler?”

It’s 1230, and I don’t mean by the hands of the sundial.  I mean it’s 1230 A.D., and me and my buddies, Gunnlaug Snaketongue and Hallfred the Troublesome Poet, are having our regular Friday night poetry session.  We meet at Ericson’s, where they have 20 ounce King Olaf’s for only a clam, and pitchers for five clams.  Let me tell you, we usually set back the progress of Western civilization a couple of decades before the night is through.

Ericson’s:  Get there early for Friday Night Oxen Races.

We roll the bar dice to see who goes first, which is actually not the most desirable spot.  It’s better if your listeners have consumed a little mead before you start to bare the workings of your innermost soul.  Unfortunately, I roll snake-eyes.

“You go first Kormak Ogmundarson!” Hallfred says with glee.  I can tell he’s going to pounce on my handiwork like a blood eagle grabbing a baby chick.

“Okay, here goes nothing,” I say.  I take one last drink to wet my throat, then I launch the Viking ship of my verse onto unknown seas.

That night I dreamt of a maiden fair
whose dress I removed with a flourish.
What I saw underneath was a navel and hair
but a body that looked overnourished.

I looked up from my rudimentary parchment note pad to judge the effect of my quatrain on Gunnlaug and Hallfred.  “You say overnourished like it’s a bad thing, dude,” Gunnlaug says with a look of disapproval.

“But wait,” I say, anticipating twentieth-century cable TV pitchman Billy Mays, “there’s more.”

“There’s more bad poetry where that came from!”

“Let ‘er rip,” Hallfred says as he unleashes a belch that could be heard in Vinland.

“Okay,” I say, then compose myself and start in again.

She could have been my winter consort
if I’d paid more attention to her
But I was consumed by televised sport
and another Vike came to woo her.

Vinland, via the scenic route

I’m surprised to see a look of empathy on Gunnlaug’s face.  “That’s beautiful, man,” he says as he pretends there’s something in his eye in order to hide the fact that he’s wiping away a tear.  “Ain’t that always the way.  You’d like to have a relationship with a woman, but you want some freaking adventure with your guy friends, too.”

Hallfred, on the other hand, being the Troublesome Poet that he is, is unmoved.  “What the hell are televised sports?” he asks.

“It’s an anachronism I threw in for dramatic effect,” I say.  “This is a stupid blog post–you’re going to have to wilfully suspend disbelief if you’re going to get anything out of it.”

He takes this in slowly, and mutters a grudging “Okay–that was pretty good.”  He’s not the brightest shield on the battlefield, if you know what I mean, but he leaves a pretty wide wake at poetry slams because of his brooding good looks and primitive style.  Personally, I think it’s all a facade.  He’s so dumb his descendants will be going bare-chested to football games in Minnesota winters seven centuries hence.

“Show me what you got, big fella,“ I say to him throwing down the poetic gauntlet.

He pops a handful of squirrel nuts into his mouth, and washes them down with a gulp of beer.  “Here goes,” he says, and begins:

My old lady’s quite a dish
if I do say so myself.
She don’t come along when I icefish,
she eats tuna from the pantry shelf.

Gunnlaug emits a tepid grunt of approval.  “I sense the difference between your maleness and her femaleness,” he says looking off into the distance, “but you didn’t do much to establish a dramatic tension.”

It’s clear that Hallfred is hurt by this faint praise, and he lashes out, bringing his pickaxe down on the bag of Astrix and Obelix Pub Fries that Gunnlaug’s been munching on.  “Anybody can be a critic,” he fumes.  “Let’s hear some poetry out of you, blubber-belly!”

“Well kiss my ass and call it a love story,” Gunnlaug says with a withering smile.  “Looks like Mr. Brutalist has a sensitive side, too.”

“Your doggerel smells like two-year-old Swedish Fish.”

“Actually,” I interject in an effort to keep the peace, “Swedish Fish stay moist and chewy forever in the patented Sta-Fresh resealable bag.”

But Hallfred isn’t letting his rival go.  “Come on, man,” he says angrily, as other patrons turn their heads in the hope of seeing a senseless killing.  “It’s Rhyme Time.”

Gunnlaug looks Hallfred up and down, then a frosty snort of Arctic air escapes from his nostrils.  “It ain’t bragging if you can do it,” he says, then clears his throat.  The silence in the room is broken only when he speaks in a low voice steeped in regret:

I once got a peek of a wench’s breasts
that made me forget I was a Viking.
I’m telling you man, they were the best–
I gave up my Harley and biking.

An audible gasp rose from the crowd.  The ultimate aesthetic error of Viking poetry–to succumb to the wiles of a woman!  How was Gunnlaug going to get out of the lyrical gulag he’d wandered into?

She had a big hat with horns festooned
and said “Dear Vike, please impale me.”
But a friend had some tickets to the Wild vs. Bruins
“Stay with me,” she cried, “and don’t fail me!”

Now it was Hallfred’s turn to snort.  “The first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole,” he said with a sneer, “is to stop digging.”

“Hold your freaking reindeer,” Gunnlaug said.  “I ain’t through.”

He took a deep breath, then began again.

I looked in her eyes, both drowning in tears–
Though watery, they still looked nice.
“Look,” I said, “I’ll make it up to you dear–
I’ll take you to Smurfs on Ice!”

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.


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