Prose from Poetry Magazine

All Good Slides Are Slippery

With illustrations by Chris Raschka

The poems contained in this children’s poetry portfolio are not made for children. Poetry is like a curvy slide in a playground — an odd object, available to the public — and, as I keep explaining to my local police force, everyone should be able to use it, not just those of a certain age.

In general I am suspicious of anything written specifically for children. It is, of course, acceptable to write something to a specific child — “Dear Elizabeth, I have reason to believe this cake is poison, so please leave it alone and I’ll take care of it later” — but things written by someone who is thinking only of children far too often have an unfortunate tone. If you have ever seen an adult hunch over and begin talking to a child in the high-pitched voice of an irritating simpleton, then you know the tone I mean. It is a tone that takes the fun out of everything, even everything fun.

Speaking of fun, some time ago I found myself locked in the basement of the Poetry Foundation building. It is a handy place to hide from the authorities, a horrible place to forage for snacks, and a wonderful place in which to get some reading done. The basement is crammed with the efforts of poets living and dead, famed and forgotten, terrific and terrible. There are books of poetry everyone knows, and little pamphlets no one has heard of. There are anthologies, a word which here means “a book containing a bunch of poems gathered together, often for no good reason,” and there are loose pages, scrawled and printed and typed with sestinas and epithalamiums and forms of poetry that have yet to be given names.

By the time it was safe for me to emerge, blinking, onto the streets of Chicago, I had gathered together the poems you now find here. I asked my associate Chris Raschka to provide some illustrations, and I have added a few notes which may or may not be appreciated. There are poems by men and women, living and dead, familiar to millions and unknown to everybody. The only things that all the poems have in common is that they are all strange in some way, because all great literature is strange, the way all good slides are slippery.

If you are a child, you might like these poems. Of course, you might not. Poems, like children, are individuals, and will not be liked by every single person who happens to come across them. So you may consider this portfolio a gathering of people in a room. It does not matter how old they are, or how old you are yourself. What matters is that there are a bunch of   people standing around in a room, and you might want to look at them.


“Knocks on the door”

Knocks on the door.
I sweep the dust of my loneliness
under the rug.
I arrange a smile
and open.
                                        — Maram al-Massri
                                        tr. by Khaled Mattawa


An open door says, “Come in.”
A shut door says, “Who are you?”
Shadows and ghosts go through shut doors.
If a door is shut and you want it shut,
     why open it?
If a door is open and you want it open,
     why shut it?
Doors forget but only doors know what it is
     doors forget.
                                        Carl Sandburg


Starting to read something, such as a portfolio, is like opening a door, so I thought it would be interesting to start with two poems about doors written by two very different poets. Maram al-Massri is a Syrian woman who now lives in the city of Paris, France. Carl Sandburg is an American man who doesn’t live anywhere, due to death.



The Witch Has Told You a Story

You are food.
You are here for me
to eat. Fatten up,
and I will like you better.

Your brother will be first,
you must wait your turn.
Feed him yourself, you will
learn to do it. You will take him

eggs with yellow sauce, muffins
torn apart and leaking butter, fried meats
late in the morning, and always sweets
in a sticky parade from the kitchen.

His vigilance, an ice pick of   hunger
pricking his insides, will melt
in the unctuous cream fillings.
He will forget. He will thank you

for it. His little finger stuck every day
through cracks in the bars
will grow sleek and round,
his hollow face swell

like the moon. He will stop dreaming
about fear in the woods without food.
He will lean toward the maw
of   the oven as it opens

every afternoon, sighing
better and better smells.
                                        Ava Leavell Haymon

“Yes, I live inside the piano”

Yes, I live inside the piano,
but there is no need for you
to come and visit me.
                                        — Katerina Rudcenkova
                                        tr. by Alexandra Büchler


I’m in the house.
It’s nice out: warm
sun on cold snow.
First day of spring
or last of winter.
My legs run down
the stairs and out
the door, my top
half here typing
                                         Ron Padgett


Sometimes a poet gets very interested in some story or event we’ve all heard many times but never thought much about. Haymon’s poem is from a book called Why the House Is Made of Gingerbread. “Vigilance” means “waiting alertly.” “Unctuous” means “trying very hard to please someone in a way that is often irritating.”

In the poem by Ron Padgett I know exactly what he means. In the poem by Katerina Rudcenkova I have no idea what she is talking about. I’m not sure which I like better.



If   I would be walking down the road
you told me to imagine and I would and find
a diner kind of   teacup sitting on its saucer
in the middle then I would feel so good
in my life that is just like mine
I would walk right up and look into my face
eclipsing the sky in the tea in the cup
and say, “Thank you, I have enjoyed
imagining all this.”
                                         Liz Waldner


“Eclipsing” is a word which here means “blocking the light from,” as the moon sometimes does of the sun, and vice versa. One of the things I like about this poem is how polite it is.


In the Low Countries

They are building a ship
in a field
much bigger than I should have thought
When it is finished
there will never be enough of them
to carry it to the sea
and already it is turning
                                         Stuart Mills


“The Low Countries” refers to an area in Europe, near the coast. “Sensible” is a word which here means “full of common sense.” Poetry usually isn’t.


Burn Lake

     For Burn Construction Company

When you were building the i-10 bypass,
one of   your dozers, moving earth
at the center of a great pit,
slipped its thick blade beneath
the water table, slicing into the earth’s
wet palm, and the silt moistened
beneath the huge thing’s tires, and the crew
was sent home for the day.
Next morning, water filled the pit.
Nothing anyone could do to stop it coming.
It was a revelation: kidney-shaped, deep
green, there between the interstate
and the sewage treatment plant.
When nothing else worked, you called it
a lake and opened it to the public.
And we were the public.
                                         Carrie Fountain


“Silt” is a kind of dirt. “Revelation” refers to when something is revealed, like a secret or another dangerous idea.



"My hat"

My hat
was run over
by a trolley
This morning
my coat took a walk
to some place
far away.
This afternoon
my shoes
happened to get assassinated.
— I’m still here?
that’s just
i t.
                                         Henry Parland
                                          tr. by Johannes Göransson

A Boat

O beautiful
was the werewolf
in his evil forest.
We took him
to the carnival
and he started
when he saw
the Ferris wheel.
green and red tears
flowed down
his furry cheeks.
He looked
like a boat
out on the dark
                                          Richard Brautigan


My favorite part of the Parland poem is the space between the letters of the last word.

My favorite part of the Brautigan poem is the title.


From "Bestiary"

My mother sends me a black-and-white
photograph of   her and my father, circa
1968, posing with two Indian men.

“Who are those Indian guys?” I ask her
on the phone.

“I don’t know,” she says.

The next obvious question: “Then why
did you send me this photo?” But I don’t
ask it.

One of those strange Indian men is
pointing up toward the sky.

Above them, a bird shaped like a
question mark.
                                          Sherman Alexie

The One About the Robbers

You tell me a joke about two robbers who hide from the police. One robber hides as a sack of cats and the other robber hides as a sack of potatoes. That is the punch line somehow, the sack of potatoes, but all I can think about is how my dad used to throw me over his shoulder when I was very small and call me his sack of potatoes. I’ve got a sack of potatoes he would yell, spinning around in a circle, the arm not holding me reaching out for a sale. Does anyone want to buy my sack of potatoes? No one ever wanted to buy me. We were always the only two people in the room.
                                          Zachary Schomburg


A “bestiary” is a book of beasts. Alexie is of Native American, or “Indian,” descent.

“Joke” is a much more difficult word to define.


Think of   a sheep
knitting a sweater;
think of   your life
getting better and better.

Think of   your cat
asleep in a tree;
think of   that spot
where you once skinned your knee.

Think of   a bird
that stands in your palm.
Try to remember
the Twenty-first Psalm.

Think of   a big pink horse
galloping south;
think of   a fly, and
close your mouth.

If   you feel thirsty, then
drink from your cup.
The birds will keep singing
until they wake up.
                                          Franz Wright


The Twenty-first Psalm is a song in the Bible. The Bible contains some fantastic poetry, although I’ve always preferred Franz Wright’s.



This is a world where there are monsters
There are monsters everywhere, racoons and skunks
There are possums outside, there are monsters in my bed.
There is one monster. He is my little one.
I talk to my little monster.
I give my little monster some bacon but that does not satisfy him.
I tell him, ssh ssh, don’t growl little monster!
And he growls, oh boy does he growl!
And he wants something from me,
He wants my soul.
And finally giving in, I give him my gleaming soul
And as he eats my gleaming soul, I am one with him
And stare out his eyepits and I see nothing but white
And then I see nothing but fog and the white I had seen before was nothing but fog
And there is nothing but fog out the eyes of monsters.
                                          Dorothea Lasky

"A monster owl"

A monster owl
out on the fence
flew away. What
is it the sign
of? The sign of
an owl.
                                           Lorine Niedecker


The word “monster” automatically makes a poem more interesting.



5am: the frogs
ask what is it, what is it?
It is what it is.
                                           Campbell McGrath

 And the Ghosts

they own everything.
                                           Graham Foust


Many, many poems are too long; hardly any are too short.


This Room

The room I entered was a dream of   this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of   a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.

We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.
                                           John Ashbery


A quail is a small bird. Like many small birds, it is said to taste like chicken. “Induced” is a word which here means “persuaded, usually through trickery.” Some people think John Ashbery is one of the greatest poets in the world. Other people don’t understand his work at all. I count myself in both categories.



Roads around mountains
cause we can't drive

That's Poetry
to Me.
                                            Eileen Myles


“Uppity” refers to someone who acts as if they are more important than they are, as in the sentence “Is it uppity of Lemony Snicket, who is not a poet and knows very little about poetry, to edit his own poetry portfolio?”


“Knocks on the door” by Maram al-Massri, translated by Khaled Mattawa is reprinted by permission of Bloodaxe Books and Copper Canyon Press. “Doors,” from Wind Song, is copyright © 1957 by Carl Sandburg, and renewed 1985 by Margaret Sandburg, Janet Sandburg, and Helga Sandburg Crile, reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. “The Witch Has Told You a Story” by Ava Leavell Haymon is reprinted by permission of Lousiana State University Press. “Yes, I live inside the piano” by Katerina Rudcenkova, translated by Alexandra Büchler, is reprinted by permission of author and translator. “Poem” by Ron Padgett is reprinted by permission of Coffee House Press. “Trust” by Liz Waldner is reprinted by permission of Liz Waldner and the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. “In the Low Countries” by Stuart Mills is reprinted by permission of Rosemary Mills. “Burn Lake” is copyright © 2010 by Carrie Fountain and used by permission of Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (usa) llc. “My hat” by Henry Parland, translated by Johannes Göransson is reprinted by permission of Ugly Duckling Presse. “A Boat,” from The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disasters by Richard Brautigan, is copyright © 1965 by Richard Brautigan, reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. “Bestiary” by Sherman Alexie is reprinted by permission of Ugly Duckling Presse. “The One About the Robbers” by Zachary Schomburg is reprinted by permission of Black Ocean. “Auto-Lullaby” by Franz Wright is reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. “Monsters” by Dorothea Lasky is reprinted by permission of the author. “A Moster Owl” by Lorine Niedecker is reprinted by permission of University of California Press. “Dawn” by Campbell McGrath is reprinted by permission of the author. “And the ghosts” by Graham Foust is reprinted by permission of the author. “This Room,” from Your Name Here, is copyright © 2000 by John Ashbery and used by arrangement with Georges Borchardt, Inc. “Uppity” by Eileen Myles is reprinted by permission of the author.

Originally Published: September 3rd, 2013

Lemony Snicket is the author of A Series of Unfortunate Events, a new series entitled All the Wrong Questions, and, most recently, The Dark, a picture book illustrated by Jon Klassen.

  1. September 4, 2013

    Reading this made me happy! Thanks.

  2. September 5, 2013
     Hanna Busse

    Jealously is a funny thing. I tried to avoid it as a child. No matter how
    much I loved Lemony Snicket, I never once sat down and said to myself,
    "I want to be Lemony Snicket." I could want to be LIKE him, or write
    great books, or imagine too many terrible secrets that one day come to
    fruition and cause a great deal of trouble for the Baudelaire orphans.
    But I was always proud I never wanted to BE Lemony Snicket.

    Well, now I do, which means my fears have come to fruition, a phrase
    which here means that something previously imaged or talked about
    has actually happened, usually unexpectedly because the imaginer or
    talker doubted that it would. I feel ashamed. I should let Mr. Snicket
    have his own life, and I'll have mine. But then again, I think I would
    prefer to steal his.
    (None of this is meant to be serious or threatening, Mr. Snicket, but
    rather my attempt at imitating your writing style while complimenting

  3. September 5, 2013
     Sohini Basak

    Thank you Lemony Snicket! Such a good read. I wish I had courage enough to be as uppity as Count Olaf and take a sneak peak into Mr Snicket's poetry portfolio.

  4. September 5, 2013

    This was wonderful! Thank you.

  5. September 6, 2013

    oh yay, oh yay! Lemony Snickett succumbs to the poetry bug
    like so many good writers before him! First it's
    unveiling the mystery identity, then poetry! Soon we'll
    likely find out he lives somewhere! oyé, oyé! So glad to
    have you rank and filed.

  6. September 7, 2013

    This is Exactly
    What I was looking for
    When I googled Poetry.

  7. September 20, 2013
     Barrie Evans

    When can we expect to see this--and more of it--in the form of a book?

    We need more poetry that is put in a volume for kids. We need more adults who can act like they are talking to kids but are really telling adults something we need to hear.

    Thank you, Mr. Snicket.

  8. September 28, 2013
     E Walsh

    One of my life goals is to make my children passionate about poetry. I
    was so happy to find this article and second the wish that Mr. Handler
    (err...I mean Mr. Snickett) would extend this into a book. I would be
    considered a treasure in our house.

  9. October 26, 2013
     John Kelly

    I have a feeling that after all the opaque poetry that demands work in order to be gotten at but fails to be gotten at, and the tons of criticism that accompany it, what poets want to illuminate is what these poets have expressed to us in the "All Good Slides Are Slippery" portfolio.

  10. November 8, 2013
     Francesca Beard

    Hi, big fan due to my eldest kid reading the entire series of Unfortunate
    Events x 3. I am charged to look for a poem for my youngest daughter to
    read at her poetry competition. She is very tricksy. Adrian Mitchell - NO!
    E E Milne - NO! Carol Ann Duffy - NO! But I am hopeful these might have
    something for the little tyke. Thank you, these are rich and deep and
    beautiful and exactly what I was looking for.

  11. November 17, 2013

    I loved this collection. Particularly "And the Ghosts." It perfectly
    exemplifies poetry which attempts to say so much in so few words.

    I've shared several of the poems with my middle school classes, and
    they've enjoyed them.

  12. March 22, 2014
     Lisa R

    After cleaning up the coffee that exited my nose upon
    reading this article at 6:30 AM on a cold Saturday
    morning, I had to write and thank you, Lemony Snicket,
    for sharing these wonderful, sometimes inscrutable,
    poems. I can't wait to confound and intrigue my students
    with them!

  13. May 21, 2015
     Slow Reader

    LOVE THIS so very much!!
    Thank you Daniel Handler!
    Thank you Poetry Magazine!

  14. September 8, 2015

    I just rediscovered this article plan to share it and the poems with my grandchildren