Breaking Its Own Rule, The Poem Tries An Answer To The Question ‘What’s A Poem?’ (Dick Hague)

October 14, 2008

Out in the country,
a man from the city
drives his new car
down the middle of the road.
He’s lost and doesn’t even know it.
He’s smoking a cigar,
talking to Chicago on his cellular phone,
making big deals.
But he’s no poem.

So he doesn’t see the pack of dogs,
feisty beagles and mutts from all over the country,
racing along at wheel-level beside him,
nipping at his tires.
They’re poems, all of them,
deep-winded natives,
sharp of tooth, and lean.

And he doesn’t see,
a mile down the road near the old wooden bridge,
the county sheriff
(he’s a poem too,
half laughter and tobacco,
half jokes and barbed wire)
waiting to catch him breaking the law.

And he doesn’t even imagine–he can’t–
how back at the Court House,
hunching in the dark,
the judge (a poem too,
formal and strict as a sonnet,
but nowhere near so pretty)
sits waiting and ready
to throw his ass in jail.


This comes from a marvelous book called Lives of the Poem: Community and Connection in a Writing Life in which Dick Hague ruminates on poems as living things. “Like bees,” he writes in the Preface, “[poems] are gregarious; they die in isolation from another. And because they are living things, the same degree of attentiveness and the same diligence and tolerance and creativity necessary to establishing and maintaining human friendships are necessary to developing a friendship with poetry.” What I love about Hague’s book is that he tracks the making of several of his own poems through their conceptualization, formation, and various revisions, as well as his efforts to get some of them published. In other words, he gives readers a true glimpse into the life of a poem, and not just the poem’s life, but into the lives and neighborhoods circulating around it and through it. The result is a conversational, at times jovial, celebration of poetry at its best.

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