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every poem wants something

By Stephen Burt

All week I’ve been teaching Richard Powers’ great novel Galatea 2.2, a book about computers and fiction-writing and lovelornness that does as much as almost any prose work ever written to explain why and where we want to read poems. Some of that explanation takes place over the course of the plot, or in the manifold quotations within the narrator’s thoughts. Some of it gets condensed near the end into this paragraph, worth hanging on someone’s wall– it’s enunciated not by the author, nor by the character also named Richard Powers who stands in for him, but by the computer program whom the “Richard Powers” within the novel has been teaching how to read:
“‘Every poem loves something. Or each wants something in love. Something loves power. Or money. Or honor. Something loves country.’ On what catalog [Powers asks] could she be drawing? ‘I hear about something in love with comfort. Or with God. Someone loves beauty. Someone death. Or some poem always is in love with another lover. Or another poem.'”
It’s all true. What new poems might somebody love today? Go below the fold to see…


Powers’ novel also contains– as you might expect, given his subsequent interests– several vignettes from cognitive neuroscience: there’s even a cameo by prosopagnosics, whose likeness to readers of poetry I mulled last week. Prosopagnosics, as Powers puts it, “deny having seen any face, even their own, even the face of their spouse or child. Or at least they think they can no longer recognize faces.” In which spirit I offer you two more poems by living writers who are by no means famous: where Tuesday’s poems were by people I had never met, these two have authors I know personally and like a lot, and I am gambling– what’s at stake? my credibility? your time?– that you, too, will see some power in these poems, even if you’ll never see the poet face to face.
The first, bleak and sharp and aching and all adult, is Andrew Osborn’s “The Future as Prosthesis”:
We become attached
to our expectations.
Often they obsolesce
before us.
But what will be
will be made our own
like a piece
of bent metal
one takes for a hook.
A hook, you said
and the bent piece
of metal said
nothing, meaning, No,
I am your new hand.
You can find that one in Andrew’s chapbook Plato’s Aviary, though you may have trouble ordering it online; you can find him in Dallas if you look.
My second poem is less bleak, I think, but more wedded to winter: it comes from Sarah Fox’s book Because Why, and is probably the shortest of the really powerful poems in that optimistic book: it’s called “Everybody Loves Eric Dolphy.” You might want to know that Eric Dolphy was a jazz clarinetist, saxophonist and flautist who (I’m told; I can’t judge) inspires rare agreement among jazzheads. You can read an interview with Sarah here, or you can just read her poem:
Father glues the hippo back
together, as he’s done before
when the others broke.
It’s no small task.
Opened envelopes hang
like cranes on a line. Herons,
in real life, are bigger but hard
to make with a piece of paper.
When Elvis died, nothing
happened to the weather. Nectar
toured the planet, nesting
in the mouths of bees.
A cello murmurs something
about tennis, or sailing.
Only the walls know for sure–
they’re so discreet!
Days are short here, nights
shorter. We sleep
like blind sailors in beds
that deliver us secretly home.

Comments (4)

  • On November 29, 2007 at 3:11 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    “‘Every poem loves something. Or each wants something in love. Something loves power. Or money. Or honor. Something loves country.’ On what catalog [Powers asks] could she be drawing? ‘I hear about something in love with comfort. Or with God. Someone loves beauty. Someone death. Or some poem always is in love with another lover. Or another poem.'”
    YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • On November 30, 2007 at 7:05 am Major wrote:

    Thank you for introducing these two poets, Steve. I look forward to more of their work.
    A cello murmurs something
    about tennis, or sailing.
    Only the walls know for sure–

  • On December 1, 2007 at 5:04 am Greg O'Connell wrote:

    Were We a Poem
    were we a poem
    i would revise the first rush of words deleting anger massage
    oil over the back of every tired phrase adjust the metre of
    sunsets & coffees-to-go spell out desire in soft italics if we
    were a poem
    Greg O’Connell

  • On December 1, 2007 at 5:04 am Greg O'Connell wrote:

    Were We a Poem
    were we a poem
    i would revise the first rush of words deleting anger massage
    oil over the back of every tired phrase adjust the metre of
    sunsets & coffees-to-go spell out desire in soft italics if we
    were a poem
    Greg O’Connell


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, November 29th, 2007 by Stephen Burt.