Archie: You ain’t yet explained to me what’s all the attraction with the Catholics?
Edith: They have lots of interesting things – like those confessionals right in the church. They’re like telephone booths to God.
Gloria: Ma, that’s very poetic.
Archie: What the hell’s poetic about it, I didn’t hear nothing rhyme?

It shouldn’t surprise us to learn that All in the Family’s Archie Bunker (TV’s most insufferable patriarch, or Terminator machine sent back in time by Fox News to terrorize the ‘70s?) – it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that Archie hadn't heard of free verse. But it shouldn’t surprise us, either, to learn that Edith, Archie’s deceptively ditzy wife, was a poet. Hers was a poet’s logic, by which I mean she could – with a single and, unbeknownst to her, needle-tipped line of logic – burst her husband’s ever-ballooning arguments and disperse the hot air. The “unbeknownst to her” bit deserves the italics, I think, especially given the contortions a more self-conscious poet will put herself through to craft images like “telephone booths to God.” We know about poets’ poets and occasional poets and anti-poets - there are all kinds of poets; Edith, in episode nine of All in the Family’s fourth season, presented something else altogether: the accidental poet.

Far more common than the accidental poet, of course, is the more self-conscious poet – basically, the regular kind of poet – identified and tagged by August Kleinzahler in his smart satire “An Autumnal Sketch”:

What to make of them, the professors
in their little cars,
the sensitive men paunchy with drink
parked at the fence
where the field begins and the suburb ends?

If there is a mallard in the reeds
they will take it.
They will take it and make it their own,
something both more than a duck
and less.

They so badly want a poem,
these cagey and disheartened men
at the edge of the field.
And before they turn back for supper
they shall have one.

I’m only just beginning to grow a little “paunchy,” and I need to work on getting a driver’s license before I can embark on hunting expeditions, and I’m not entirely “cagey and disheartened.” Still, I think I understand the impulse to “badly want a poem,” which is probably not Kleinzahler’s point, to prompt readers’ empathy with those professors of his. And yet finishing a poem can be terribly addictive. One can acquire the habit of looking forward to the next poem, of badly wanting it, even though it might not come - might never come.

The accidental poet, however, is a calmer creature – less “cagey and disheartened” than Kleinzahler’s professors, though not necessarily as blissfully ignorant as Edith Bunker. The accidental poet is someone who was not angling for poetry but hooked some anyway and hauled it up, gleaming, out of the blue. (And, of course, between Kleinzahler’s professors and Edith Bunker there spreads a vast spectrum of kinds of poets.)

Samuel Menashe is at least one poet who has recorded the accidental poetry of others. In an epigraph at the beginning of his poem, “The Bare Tree”, Menashe notes: “My mother once said to me, ‘When one sees the tree in leaf, one thinks the beauty of the tree is in its leaves, and then one sees the bare tree.’” Lovely line, that. At the end of another poem, Menashe notes: “When my father was dying he said, ‘I feel receded into the distance…All of my life my spirit has been in a race with my body and now my spirit has overtaken my body.’” And Menashe remembers other sayings from his learned parents. These parents didn’t self-identify as ‘poets.’ Nevertheless they tossed off some lovely if unplanned poetry – epigrams, off-hand remarks – much of it known only to Menashe. And more than once, talking to Menashe, I’ve admired the beauty of one of his offhand remarks, and more than once, Menashe has tried to give it to me with the hope that I might make some poetry out of it.

“Have I got a joke for you” is a phrase I imagine plagues comedians. “Have I got a metaphor for you” is probably less common, in the world of poets. And yet I suspect that, from time to time, poets do find themselves in possession of the accidental poetry of others – and find themselves wondering what to do with words that are not their own but too good to forget. Menashe, for one, inherited the orphaned words of some loved ones, and found a home for them, left them to cool, as epigraphs, in the shade of his well-built poems. And I myself have inherited the odd line. For instance, a few years back, a friend who doesn’t self-identify as a poet (I recognize that I’m talking about poets as if they’re Republicans or organ donors, but anyway), a few years back this friend described a difficult bit of courtship as a lot like trying to take the stone clothes off of a statue. I loved the lascivious simile, and told him so. Figuring he would never use it anyway, he suggested I take it. I declined the offer. But even if I had wanted to use the simile in one of my poems, I wasn’t sure that I could, and I’m still not sure; the simile is too independent and ungainly a gem. It would need a proper setting, and I suppose I still feel that it’s not mine to find a setting for.

And yet my friend, to this day, doesn’t want it. From time to time, he even inquires about it, as if it’s a pet he once had custody of, but had to abandon. “How’s that simile?” he asks. “Have you used it in a poem yet?” (He never got the clothes off that statue, by the way.)

What to do with these orphaned words, other than feel flattered that they’ve been left in our charge? T.S. Eliot might’ve instructed us to flat-out steal them or, at the very least, leave them at the back of our minds, where they might be transformed into something else. But then Possum didn’t have a blog. Okay, a blog isn’t exactly the Eliotic cranium, where bits of this and baubles of that clump together, finding new forms, like household items at Christmas time. Still, a blog is a kind of bottomless space into which language can be jettisoned and, with the input of others, changed. So here I will jettison – have jettisoned – the accidental poetry of my friend. Let it float away and be forgotten. Or let it float away and be found. At the very least, let it be. And if you yourself have been carrying around any orphaned lines – old family sayings, say, or the witticisms of friends, or other kinds of epigrammatic matter and accidental poetry – hey, feel free to open the airlocks and unburden yourself:

Originally Published: May 7th, 2009

Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

  1. May 8, 2009
     Don Share

    In every city, I always hear the lions roar. - Max Beckmann, 1947

  2. May 8, 2009
     Annie Finch

    It strikes me that your beautifully-built post circles back on itself, Jason, in the sense that looking for a poetic home for one of these accidental bits of poetry is something like trying to take the clothes off a statue. Or, in one of the lines from Yeats I find most sticky (especially since I used it as an epigraph once) "to press at midnight in some public place / live lips upon a plummet-measured face." It takes a Pygmalion-strong desire to bring them to life again within the non-life of one's own poem.

  3. May 8, 2009
     Eileen Myles

    Hey Jason,\r

    I both question the accidental category and the professors. I mean isn't the process of writing quite accidental for all of us. Isn't that somewhat the element we dwell in when we write. When someone says something great, whether it's a character or a person I'm talking w or even me or a thought in my head these seem like the seamless beads of poetry, whatever it is we do. Some of us call ourselves poets I think that's the difference. But I bet either Edith's thoughts or her writer's felt same as I do when the line occurred. \r

    And re August's poet shot - oh come on. I mean this is more to him - who didn't ask to be ithis conversation but since his poems here I've gotta say its intentions are troubling to me. Why do we need to make there be some bad mediocrities who are professors who write about ducks so deliberately. I mean yawn most of us make our livings teaching at some point and paunches seem true for more poets than not. It's not a vigorous job teaching. I know lots of people who would glibly write a simliar poem about New Yorker poets who love ducks and teach college anxiously. The poetry world is full of many things but one of them is endless easy notions about class. The little people who accidentally say lovely things or the bad deliberate people who force poems out ceremoniously. Those academic shills unlike me. I just think we're them and I don't mean and so let us cherish our mediocrity but maybe the constructed other here in either case is not a very fruitful idea. Poems are relative, right. August's poems are very academic to many readers. Nobody is all duck. Though that's a nice line don't you think.

  4. May 8, 2009
     Don Share

    "The free-floating availability of all language (in popular culture and academic) has been drawn down into poetry by poets for good reasons and with beautiful results. Why not use it all: from technical to vernacular overheard. Take lines from the tormented dead and from mad people, drunks, captives, and foreigners whose English is ripe with useful faux pas. Sit in bus depots and barbecue pits and note down what the oblivious passersby say to each other." -- Fanny Howe

  5. May 8, 2009
     Travis Nichols

    There is, of course, this.\r

    And the "Danger is Their Business" cassette, the first put out by K Records, full of found sounds and a cappella accidentals.\r

    And Flarf. ?

  6. May 8, 2009

    "...we are subject to a continuous flow of courses through us...we can tap into it at any time..." --Kit Robinson

  7. May 8, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    "Nobody is all duck" IS a nice line, Eileen! Thanks for it -- and to the others for their comments!

  8. May 31, 2009

    you create beautiful,tasty,easily masticated rationalizations. Why such fumisterie? This is a brass age for poetry and academic poets poison the air that we breathe. No one ever learned how to be a poet or write poetry in a creative writing class. Poems are not relative! Ever! Well maybe for poetasters they are...