Column by Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas

Sometimes a mismatched couple wanders by, and the whispers begin before they’ve even passed.  Meanwhile, they stroll on, blissfully unaware, as if they were the most obvious pair in the world.

Poetry and Instagram, for example: an improbable marriage of word and image proving wrong all of us who said it would—or should—never last.

Twitter should have been our platform.  If we poets couldn’t say our piece in 140 characters, maybe no one can.

More often Twitter rewards—with likes, retweets, follows—the quotable clapback over the nuanced ambivalence of the best poetry.  And don’t get me (or your racist uncle, for that matter) started on Facebook.

Scroll through Instagram, though, and you’ll find poetry in renaissance—or in ruins, depending whom you ask—post by filtered post.

This “Instapoetry” phenomenon did not begin with Rupi Kaur, but the 26 year-old Indian-Canadian poet has certainly become its face since 2014, when she began posting poems like this one:

                        of course i want to be successful

                        but i don’t crave success for me

                        i need to be successful to gain

                        enough milk and honey

                        to help those around

                        me succeed

Kaur has since amassed 3.7 million Instagram followers, and her first book, the self-published milk & honey, has sold an astonishing 3.5 million copies.  (Full disclosure: I claim a robust 1,032 Instagram followers of my own.

Such numbers—even wildly successful books of poetry sell thousands, not millions, of copies—inspire imitators, detractors, and plenty of thinkpiece content.

Last October, Faith Hill and Karen Yuan published “How Instagram Saved Poetry” in The Atlantic, the magazine in which Dana Gioia famously asked, in 1991, “Can Poetry Matter?”

Gioia’s tone then was elegiac: poetry, he argued, had fallen out of the cultural mainstream by ignoring the “general reader.”  Hill and Yuan strike a similarly democratic tone in their meditation on Instapoetry:

Social media seem to have cracked the walls around a field that has long been seen as highbrow, exclusive, esoteric, and ruled by tradition, opening it up for young poets with broad appeal, many of whom are women and people of color.

But the subtitle of Hill and Yuan’s essay is more circumspect, and touches the concerns of Instapoetry skeptics: Social media is turning an art form into an industry.

Even poetry cannot escape the commodification of influencers and disruptors, the world itself a platform in which we no longer behave “in character” but “on brand.”

In such a world, Rebecca Watts argues, poems are not the craft of poets but “products of a cult of personality [. . .].”  The poet’s 2018 essay “The Cult of the Noble Amateur” rebukes Instapoetry, lamenting that “artless poetry,” remarkable only in being “‘honest’ and ‘accessible,” “sells.”

Perhaps Instapoetry’s most unforgivable sin (at least among fellow poets) is being popular.  This supposed sin it shares with the YouTube spoken word performances often critiqued in similar language.

Such critiques seem to me shortsighted and tonedeaf.  I rarely find myself compelled to like, share, or retweet their work, but neither would I dismiss wholesale poets who explore innovative approaches to writing and earning a living, especially when so many poets are young women of color.

But I find the rhetoric of poetic rescue or renaissance as troubled as the ongoing (mostly exaggerated) reports of poetry’s death.

What interests me most about Instapoetry is what it reveals about how we experience poetry: in this case, the poem as visual document, an image as well as an artifact of words.

Ever since Gutenberg, poetry has lived a double life, in the air and on the page.  There the experience of the poem includes its appearance, its shape on paper, the space itself.

On Instagram, context becomes texture.  Each serif of each letter matters all the more for being set against blank space; you can almost touch the tooth of the paper there.

For all my own emphasis on poetry as an embodied art—one that we carry with us in our lungs and diaphragms, etc.—poetry is also a craft of the page.  Or even the screen.

I think of the screens—mostly still images and television static—in the pages of Claudia Rankine’s genre-defying Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004).  Rankine sets these images astride prose passages in what she calls “An American Lyric”—as if to claim that in contemporary America even an art of the lyre can be as visual as it is sonic.

But this was just as true a hundred years ago, in Mina Loy’s experiments with type size and font in “Feminist Manifesto” (1914) or Ezra Pound’s appropriation of Chinese and Arabic characters in his uncompleted masterpiece The Cantos.

In Loy and Pound’s work, the radical collage technique of Modernist poetry—the stream-of-consciousness shifts from narrative to associative logic—finds a visual analogue.

They might have found Instagram an appropriate medium for this technique.  So may e. e. cummings for his “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r,” a poem often understood as the representation of a leaping grasshopper:

                                                       r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r

                                               who

                        a)s w(e loo)k

                        upnowgath

                                            PPEGORHRASS

                                                                                eringint(o-

                        aThe):l

                                    eA

                                         !p:

                        S                                                                        a

                                                              (r

                          rIvInG                                  .gRrEaPsPhOs)

                                                                                                 to

                        rea(be)rran(com)gi(e)ngly

                        ,grasshopper;

Try reading this poem aloud and you’ll find yourself lost in the tall grass.  Only from the pictorial frame of the page can cummings’s grasshopper spring skyward.

The dual experience, the visual and verbal art of written language, finds some of its most profound expression in the Arabic calligraphy of the Islamic tradition.  From the Qur’an to the Hagia Sophia to the Air Emirates logo, the appearance of the word is implicated in the meaning, and the aesthetic experience, of words.

Despite this long and eclectic history of the poem as image, critics fear that Instagram will change poetry forever.

Indeed, it already has.  But so did photography and television for that matter, and the motion picture and the novel.  So did movable type and written language itself.

I don’t know if Kaur’s work, or that of any of the Instapoets, will age as well as some of these other examples.  But I do believe that Instapoetry fulfills Pound’s old demand to “make it new.”

At its worst, Instapoetry commits the same sins as other bad poetry, and all bad art for that matter: it presents a world more simplistic, more easily understood and reduced to cliché than real life.

At its best, this work challenges our perceptions of multiple media—letter and literature, text and texture.  At best Instapoetry may even challenge our idea of poetry itself.

However unlikely their match, the couple saunters on together, unconcerned with our whispers.  We can only wonder where they are going.


Dave Lucas is the author of Weather (VQR/Georgia, 2011), which received the 2012 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry.  Named by Rita Dove as one of thirteen “young poets to watch,” he has also received a “Discovery/The Nation Prize and a Cleveland Arts Prize.  In 2018 he was named the second Poet Laureate of the State of Ohio.  A co-founder of Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery and Cleveland Book Week, he lives in Cleveland, where he was born and raised. 


Lead image: Photo by Luke van Zyl on Unsplash

Column by Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas

But does poetry actually change anything?

Does it need to?

Maybe poets are, as Percy Bysshe Shelley writes, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”  Or maybe W. H Auden is right that “poetry makes nothing happen.”

Perhaps, like the best poetry itself, the issue is more complicated than an easy either/or, and unlikely to be fleshed out in this lifetime, much less the next thousand words.

Many poets find the whole mess—if poetry matters, can it matter, does it matter if it matters?—tired and tiresome.  To write at all, after all, is to believe that it matters in some way. 

Many readers and listeners may never ask these questions.  They may feel the pleasure poetry offers is what matters, and beauty is its own noble end.

But some writers and audiences demand more of this art—that poetry should strive for truth in political as well as aesthetic matters, and that every aesthetic argues a political position too.

In the devastated Warsaw of 1945, the Polish writer Czesław Miłosz asked: “What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people?”

In the midst of the Black liberation and feminist movements of the Seventies, the poet and activist Audre Lorde argued that “poetry is not a luxury.  It is a vital necessity of our existence. [. . .] Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” 

For Lorde as well as Miłosz, poetry must speak truth to power—because the power of poetry to speak truth is sometimes the only voice for the powerless.

Sometimes, though, “the nameless” is horror; sometimes poetry cannot save nations or people but can only memorialize them. 

The September 24, 2001 issue of The New Yorker published one poem among other attempts to reckon in prose with the grotesquery of the previous week’s attacks.

That poem—“Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” written by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski and translated by Clare Cavanagh—must have been accepted by the editors months earlier, and written and translated long before that.

“Try to Praise the Mutilated World” is not about 9/11.  But for me and so many others, it spoke to that day as no other work of art could:

You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,

you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.

You should praise the mutilated world.

[. . .]

Praise the mutilated world

and the gray feather a thrush lost,

and the gentle light that strays and vanishes

and returns.

Lower Manhattan lay in mutilated ruins, but even this world, we are reminded—especially this world—must nevertheless be praised.

This poem demonstrates for me how poetry approaches—as closely as words ever can—truth.

Just as metaphor helps us grasp what something is by saying what it isn’t, sometimes the poem that best addresses an event was not written with that event in mind. 

A poem need not be topical in order to stake a political claim.  Often poetry plots a meandering, wayward course to truth, as water flows downhill to water.

Of course, not everyone agrees that poetry reveals truth at all.  Tyrants have long recognized the danger of poetry, but so have philosophers.

When Plato describes his ideal city, in the philosophical dialogue the Republic (ca. 380 BCE), the Athenian idealist expels all the poets, claiming that poets lead people to illusion instead of the truth. 

Without the allure of their beautiful words, Plato argues, poets “are like faces which were never really beautiful, but only blooming; and now the bloom of youth has passed away from them.”

That Plato condemns poets with a poetic device—a simile—is a note of irony I cannot resist.  But a better answer to Plato comes from Emily Dickinson, who suggests that poetry arrives at the truth by indirect—but more persuasive—means. 

I doubt that anyone has ever told it more beautifully than she:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind—

Plato and Dickinson alike remind us that any truth is inseparable from its telling—which is why Plato thought poets so dangerous, and why Dickinson advocates for telling it slant.

In other eras, to “tell it slant” hardly seems sufficient.  Maybe this is why in our own age of political, cultural, and ecological crisis, our most salient poetry often grapples with these gravest public questions through the lens of private life.

In Jericho Brown’s “Stand,” the love between two men becomes as urgent as the need to change the world, and a small way of changing that world:

Peace on this planet

Or guns glowing hot,

We lay there together

As if we were getting

Something done.

Love between and among people is a radical act, but more so when that love defies the norms of a dominant culture.

The question “does poetry change anything?” does indeed have an answer, but the answer is always “people,” and those changes often happen more slowly and subtly than we notice—less the way we change our minds than the way we fall in love.

Or, as Seamus Heaney says more eloquently in his essay “The Government of the Tongue,”

Faced with the brutality of the historical onslaught, [the arts] are practically useless.  Yet they verify our singularity, they strike and stake out the ore of self which lies at the base of every individuated life.  In one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil—no lyric has ever stopped a tank.  In another sense, it is unlimited.

So it will not suffice to offer either “unacknowledged legislators” or “makes nothing happen.”  One of the ways poetry can change us is to refuse to settle for such easy answers.

I prefer George Oppen’s revision of Shelley—poets are not the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but legislators // of the unacknowledged // world.”

And I would rather quote the entirety of Auden’s assessment of just what poetry makes, and is:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.

In this view, poetry is what happens.  To speak a new world is to work toward it.  Poetry is the change itself.  Or at least, if we are wise, the beginning of that change.


Dave Lucas is the author of Weather (VQR/Georgia, 2011), which received the 2012 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry.  Named by Rita Dove as one of thirteen “young poets to watch,” he has also received a “Discovery/The Nation Prize and a Cleveland Arts Prize.  In 2018 he was named the second Poet Laureate of the State of Ohio.  A co-founder of Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery and Cleveland Book Week, he lives in Cleveland, where he was born and raised. 


Lead image: Photo by Thought Catalog from Pexels

Column by Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas

The most important hip-hop “crossover” event of my youth was not Aerosmith and Run-DMC or Anthrax and Public Enemy or even the Rage Against the Machine and Wu-Tang Clan tour. 

            My own crossover happened in Mrs. Stuckey’s eleventh grade British literature class, between John Milton and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.

            Because every teenager loves a rebel.  Because even I—a not-particularly-rebellious adolescent—wanted to inhabit their words.

            I admired the charismatic eloquence of Milton’s Satan.  Against my better judgment, his cry—“Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” (IV.75)—broke my heart.  Just like Adam and Eve, I had been tempted.

            But I had already fallen for Bone’s verbal acrobatics.  Their rapid, melodic delivery and nearly indecipherable lyrics put Cleveland on the hip-hop map.

            I had not expected to discover that the work of the blind English poet, dead for more than three hundred years, could converse with the musicians whose lyrics I copied into my notebooks. 

And I remained unaware of the separate political and social contexts of their work.  In my suburban, adolescent ignorance, I knew as little of Bone’s Cleveland as I did of Milton’s seventeenth-century England.

I knew the intersection of East 99th and St. Clair Avenue, in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood, only from Bone’s music videos.  Or I knew the apocalyptic depiction on the cover of their 1995 album E. 1999 Eternal, with its images of skulls and smoking, burned-out buildings. 

I saw that cover in my mind when I first read Milton’s description, in Book I of Paradise Lost, of the Hell in which the fallen Satan finds himself:

The dismal Situation waste and wilde,

A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round

As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames

No light, but rather darkness visible           (I.60-3)

            I was so preoccupied with the romance of the outlaw that I doubt it occurred to me then that Krayzie Bone had also described a kind of hell when he rapped, on “Creepin On Ah Come Up”:

Woke up this morning with the thought of robbin’ a bank to get rich

Ain’t ate in days so it ain’t no thing to click click, bitch, gimme your shit

[. . . ]

I be livin’ on the darkside

And I can’t escape, some say it’s a phase

If it is only way I’m gonna survive is if I play with my gauge

The assonant play of the long a and both short and long i sounds in those lines belies their sense of desperation, the matter-of-factness of “Ain’t ate in days.” 

            Between Krayzie Bone’s “darkside” and Milton’s “darkness visible,” these lines try to see in—and see their way out of—the dark.  They are at once concerned with the realities of this world and with questions about the otherworldly.

             Indeed Bone Thugs-N-Harmony seemed to me as inspired by the shadow of the occult as by the stories of their streets.  Milton invokes the “Heav’nly Muse” at the opening of Paradise Lost, asking for the Holy Spirit’s blessing on his endeavor “to justify the ways of God to man.”  Bone makes a muse of the Ouija board instead in the incantatory lines:

Dear Mr. Ouija

I want to know my future

Will I die of murder?

Of bloody murder?

I did not yet know the word theodicy, but I had learned of the problem of evil, the question of why a benevolent God would allow evil to exist.  I had asked those questions myself.

And when Layzie Bone raps, in “Tha Crossroads,” “And I asked the good Lord why / He sighed, he told me we live to die,” his words represent another attempt to justify—or at least to understand—the ways of God.

Such questions inform much of Bone’s music: the realities of systemic racism and poverty, police and gang violence—but also the potential to work toward a new reality. 

“The mind is its own place,” Milton’s Satan declares, “and in it self / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n” (1.233-4).  I had already heard a version of those lines, in Bizzy Bone’s verse on the original “Crossroad”: “To get where you headed / You must make a heaven of hell.”

            I couldn’t have said this then—that I, as reader and listener, could be the point of contact between these artists.  That anyone else could too.

I was only then learning that such contact is exactly why we read and listen.  In the years to come I would seek that contact in everything I read and eventually in what I wrote myself.

Nor did I understand then that, for all I loved hip hop, it did not belong to me—that I needed to listen as a guest listens in a house that has been opened to him.

Nevertheless, hip hop was my introduction to the wordplay and metaphor I would find later in other forms of poetry.  The notion that a perfect line of verse should seem at once surprising and inevitable began for me in rap.

Milton and Bone together were responsible for my own crossover from hip-hop listener to poetry reader.

So when, years later, I read The Odyssey, I felt a homecoming of my own when King Alcinous welcomes Odysseus to his court, and asks him to tell of himself and his travels:

With what name

are you known to your people?

[. . .]

And also tell me of your country,

your people, and your city

[. . .]                                        come now, tell me

about your wanderings: describe the places,

the people, and the cities you have seen.    (8.550-51, 554-5, 571-3)

It was a homecoming because I had already heard Odysseus’ answer.  I had heard it in Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Who Am I (What’s My Name)?” and would hear it again in Eminem’s “My Name Is.” 

Those rappers likely borrowed the trope from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “Birthday Party,” the origin what became a hip-hop cliché: “Melle Mel and I’m here to say / I was born on the 15th day of May.”

            Similarly, I had known versions of the feud between Beowulf and Unferth in the Old English epic.  When the hero arrives at Heorot Hall to battle the monster Grendel, Unferth challenges him and mocks his courage.  Beowulf’s answer requires no mic to drop:

The fact is, Unferth, if you were truly                                

as keen or courageous as you claim to be

Grendel never would have got away with

such unchecked atrocity, attacks on your king  (589-92)

It’s not exactly “Ether,” but the verbal jousts of this exchange, the boastful back-and-forth of it brought to my mind the beefs between Dr. Dre and Eazy-E, Biggie and 2Pac, Nas and Jay-Z.

            Even that term “crossover” has poetic roots in Ancient Greek and Latin.  As we have seen, metaphor and translate are two words to describe the movement across or beyond a threshold.

So poems and songs bear us across the threshold of ourselves, and—if only for a moment—we get a glimpse of another world, and a clearer eye to see our own.


Dave Lucas is the author of Weather (VQR/Georgia, 2011), which received the 2012 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry.  Named by Rita Dove as one of thirteen “young poets to watch,” he has also received a “Discovery/The Nation Prize and a Cleveland Arts Prize. In 2018 he was named the second Poet Laureate of the State of Ohio.  A co-founder of Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery and Cleveland Book Week, he lives in Cleveland, where he was born and raised.


Lead image: Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas speaking at Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. | Photo / Carissa Russell

Column by Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas

Relax.  This is not a column about iambic pentameter.

            This is a column about the secret history of the English language.

            But the story of English happens to be the story of iambic pentameter too.

Even if you know pentameter only as the meter you were supposed to know for your English class, you may have been hearing it—or speaking it—all along.

You may cringe nevertheless to recall that old, awkward horse galloping ba-bump ba-bump ba-bump ba-bump ba-bump, maybe counting out the stresses in Lord Tennyson’s “Tithonus”: “The woods decay, the woods decay and fall.”

            Poets, on the other hand, love to count: syllables, stresses, grievances.  The term meter describes the patterns we observe in poetry.  Some poetries track syllables, others stresses (or accents).  Some, like Modern English, count both.

We measure meter in poetic feet.  An iamb—that ba-bump rhythm—is the most common foot in English.  The names Michelle and Jamal, the words about and obey are all iambs. 

The term iambic pentameter, then, describes a line of five consecutive iambs.  As in: “The woods decay, the woods decay and fall.”

            So far so good.  But so what? 

            The matter of meter is more than what’s stressed and where.  Rhythms and meters rise and fall across the poetic line but also through the historical lineages of peoples and nations.  Those histories influence the way we speak and write our “own” English today.

So why pentameter in the first place?  Why this pattern and not another? or none at all?

That story begins more than a thousand years ago, in an English we cannot recognize today—the Old English (Anglo Saxon) of Beowulf and The Sea-farer

Old English poems employ a heavily alliterated four-stress line.  For instance, in Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, the Old English “mære mearc-stapa, | sē þe mōras hēold” (103) becomes “haunting the marshes, marauding the heaths.”

This language, like the political and cultural fortunes of the island itself, changed forever with the Norman invasion of 1066.  William, Duke of Normandy’s conquest of England was also a conquest of English.

The French-speaking Normans “eliminated written English as the language of government and undermined it as the language of literature,” writes historian Robert Tombs, “and spoken English ceased to be the language of elite society.”

 Instead, as Tombs notes, the Normans implemented Latin for most official written matters, and their native French “for verbal communication among the new elites.”  No political or cultural rupture in English history was more profound.

The three languages coexisted in tension among provincial, common “folk” (itself an Old English word).  But the French and Latin influence eventually changed English into something the Anglo Saxons would not have recognized.

This linguistic hierarchy still persists in English, as Stephen Cushman taught us at the University of Virginia.  Francophone and Latinate words—converse and dissertateseem more sophisticated than Anglo Saxon—talk. 

Even our forbidden “four-letter words” are often Old English words for bodily functions.  You don’t need me to mention the Old English versions of excrete and defecate, intercourse and copulate.

By the time the poet and diplomat Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1343—1400) served at the court of Richard II (1367—1400), French had waned amidst ongoing wars between the nations.  But its influence remained, everywhere from the monarch’s motto (Dieu et mon droit—“God and my right”) to the forms of the new “Middle English” poetry.

Chaucer adapted European syllabic forms such as the French decasyllable and Italian endecasillabo to the accentual Old English line, and the iambic pentameter was born.

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote

                        The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

                        And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

                        Of which vertu engendred is the flour [. . .]

Chaucer’s Middle English is not yet ours—but his language makes ours possible.

Over the next five hundred years, iambic pentameter became all but the official meter of English poetry.  Educated elites (Thomas Wyatt, John Milton) adopted the pentameter, and poets of humbler means (William Shakespeare, John Keats) made their names by making it their own.

Perhaps iambic pentameter mimics the rhythms of spoken English.  Or perhaps they evolved together.  But once you hear pentameter in poems, you’ll notice it elsewhere, too: “But once you hear pentameter in poems,” for instance.

            Maybe you’ve also noticed the abundance of dead white male poets in this history.  So have I.  And that fact highlights another, more troubling element of the history of pentameter and English—another function of conquest, colonization, and subjugation.

Iambic pentameter becomes synonymous with the English poetic tradition; that tradition has often itself been synonymous with systematic bigoted exclusion. 

No wonder then that the Black Arts Movement of the 1970s and others revolted against what Etheridge Knight called the “white aesthetic;” it is easy to understand iambic pentameter as one of the “master’s tools” that Audre Lorde said “will never dismantle the master’s house.”

            For the poet Marilyn Nelson, however, those tools may yet build something new.  “I know, I know,” she writes in her essay “Owning the Masters”: “The tradition is the oppressor,” acknowledging the Black Arts purview.  “Yet the once enslaved are heirs to the masters, too” (12). 

Nelson sees Phillis Wheatley — the first published African American woman — as one such example.  Born in West Africa around 1753 and enslaved before the age of ten, Wheatley nevertheless learned to read and write, and demonstrated her talent in the iambic pentameter of the American “masters.”

In Wheatley’s “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” she celebrates the independence of the new United States as an analogue for her own emancipation from slavery: “No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain, / Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand / Had made, and with it meant t’ enslave the land.”

Nelson observes the irony that Wheatley found her voice in a language and tradition forced upon her: “The Wheatleys ‘owned’ Phillis, but the Wheatley name lives now only because Phillis owns it” (12).  Nelson urges young poets of color to claim the whole English tradition as theirs, to “own the masters, all of them (16)”.

Meanwhile, that old four-stress line of the Anglo Saxons did not disappear.  Instead, it evolved into the meter of English folk poetry. 

Those who could not read or write could still sing, pray, and riddle in four-stress “ballad meter.”  And poets who, like William Wordsworth, hoped to adopt “the real language of men” often chose that rhythm for their own lyrics.

You can hear ballad meter everywhere from the hymns of the Book of Common Prayer to the poems of Emily Dickinson to “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle.”

Today, that structure survives in blues and bluegrass, rock and roll and hip hop.  If iambic pentameter is the meter you’re supposed to learn, the ballad is likely the rhythm you already know.

These meters and rhythms live in the rhythm of the breath, the heartbeat, the tapping toes of the impatient.  They wait for those who know that to start again always means to put one foot in front of another.


Lead image: Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas speaking at Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. | Photo / Carissa Russell

Column by Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas

“Rhymes can make sense of the world in a way that regular speech can’t.”

Hip hop mogul Jay-Z (Sean Carter) says it better than I can.

It’s no coincidence that someone who built a career in rhymes argues so persuasively about the persuasive force of rhyme.

“Think about it,” he writes in his memoir, Decoded.  “O. J. Simpson might be a free man today because ‘glove don’t fit’ rhymed with ‘acquit,’” recalling defense attorney Johnnie Cochran’s famous couplet.  “That’s the power of rhymes.”[i]

Simpson’s ongoing legal problems hardly diminish Jay-Z’s claim: the sonic phenomenon of rhyme carries rhetorical force.  As Cochran well knew. 

As did the Republicans urging Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for president in 1952, hoping their slogan—i like ike—would convince the General and voters alike.

And as the schoolyard bards who discovered that my surname rhymes perfectly with “mucus” also knew, all too well.

Rhyme can convince the mind of what the ear already knows.

We know that children improvise rhymes spontaneously as they explore and invent language. [ii]  As we come into speech the sounds around us begin to make sense, and we begin to sound out our own versions of them.

Recall the stubborn baby brother in A Christmas Story,rhyming over his dinner instead of eating it: “Meatloaf, smeatloaf, / Double-beatloaf.  / I hate meatloaf.”[iii]

So rhyme can make sense and make fun.  It helps us remember and—as advertisers hope—keeps us from forgetting.  Rhymes can be profound—“womb” / “tomb”—or silly—“If called by a panther, / Don’t anther” (Ogden Nash).[iv]

So why, someone will ask, doesn’t poetry rhyme anymore?

            I never know how to anther—err—answer.  I say that it still does, or that it never did.  I say: some poetry rhymed, and some still does.  Or I try to change the subject.

            Rhyme is a linguistic coincidence, an accident of corresponding vowel sounds and end consonants.  That loveable accident has come into and fallen out of fashion several times in the thousand or so years of English-language poetry.

The earliest Old English poems (think Beowulf, circa 700—1000 AD) use alliteration as a structuring principle.  Rhyme emerges in English poetry only by the early twelfth century, with the influence of Medieval Latin and French.[v]

So you can thank the conquering Normans indirectly for Geoffrey Chaucer’s couplet: “Spek, sweete bryd, I noot not where thou art. / This Nicholas anon let fle a fart.”[vi]  (Whether we can thank Chaucer for the wisdom that “whoever smelt it / dealt it” is another matter.)           

As we have seen, Shakespeare’s sonnets rhyme schematically, but his blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) sets the stage for hundreds more years of English dramatic and narrative poetry.  Rhyme endured in songs and lyric poems, sneaking on stage every so often to close out a scene.

By the time John Milton writes his prefatory note to the second edition of Paradise Lost (1674), he dismisses rhyme as “the invention of a barbarous age,” arguing that the “jingling sound of like endings” is a kind of “modern bondage.”[vii]

Milton always was a bit grandiose.

Forty years later, in his Essay on Criticism (1711), Alexander Pope used his own rhyming couplets to mock the clichéd “like endings” of lesser poets:

Where’er you find ‘the cooling western breeze,’

In the next line, it ‘whispers through the trees’:

If ‘crystal streams with pleasing murmurs creep’,

The reader’s threaten’d (not in vain) with ‘sleep’.[viii]

Today Pope might mock the rhyme clichés of pop songs: the “desire” that always burns “like fire,” a “love” that must come “from up above.”

            If you share Milton’s distaste for the “jingling sound of like endings,” you might prefer slant rhyme instead.  That is, a rhyme with the same ending consonant but a different vowel sound, like Macbeth’s “poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage.”[ix]   If perfect rhymes are sugar to the ear, slant rhymes are salt. 

            We wait for the perfect rhyme to find its partner, but slant rhymes we may never see coming.  Take Paul Muldoon’s poem “Quoof,” a poem about a word—“our family word / for the hot water bottle”—and about the familiar and tribal idiosyncrasies of the supposedly common language we speak.

            In the poem, that single awkward syllable—“quoof”— falls between two near-strangers about to share a bed for the first time.  The poem acts out their giddiness with each other in its far-fetched, almost-mismatched rhymes:

An hotel room in New York City

with a girl who spoke hardly any English,

my hand on her breast

like the smouldering one-off spoor of the yeti

or some other shy beast

that has yet to enter the language.[x]

I missed these rhymes the first time—let’s be honest—the first several times I read the poem.  Keep saying it aloud, though, and the rhymes emerge, each end word paired with an unlikely partner. 

“English” and “language” is a maddeningly glorious stretch.  Maybe you’ll protest, as I once did: “They don’t rhyme!”  And they don’t—at least until you chew them over, letting the sound convince you.  The English language we thought we knew seems to change there between the tongue and the ear.

I can’t read “Quoof” without thinking of Bun B’s (Bernard Freeman) verse on UGK’s song “One Day.”  The rapper and Rice University lecturer bends the sounds of words to rhyme

“drama / harm ya / bombers / palm of / California / hydroponic / marijuana / sauna / corner.”

On the page these may not read as rhymes.  But listen as Bun B’s enunciation links them together.  As the verse ends, he grieves for the death of a friend “behind a funky-ass dice game / I saw him once before he died, wish it was twice, man.”[xi]  The “a” in “man” lengthens to sound almost like “main.”  The rhyme locks into place.

As when Shakespeare seals a scene with a rhyming couplet, Bun B resolves the long series of rhymes with his own.  His voice convinces us of the rhyme; the rhyme convinces us of even more.

Your ear already knows all of this. 

It knows how rhyme’s hits and near-misses delight and surprise us.  How they lurk sometimes in the midst of a line—“The blonde assassin passes on” (Emily Dickinson)[xii]—or announce themselves and their rhymer—“’Bout my coins like Mario / Yeah they call me Cardi B, / I run this shit like cardio” (Cardi B, “I Like It Like That”)[xiii].

Your ear knows, but sometimes the mind needs a reminder.  Sometimes the world—at least in rhymes—almost makes sense.


[i] Jay-Z.  Decoded.   New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2010.  243.

[ii] Roland Greene, ed.  The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.  4th ed.  Princeton: Princeton UP,

2012.  184.

[iii] Bob Clark.  A Christmas Story.  MGM.  1983.

[iv] Ogden Nash.  “The Panther.”  The Best of Ogden Nash.  Ed. Linell Nash Smith.  Chicago: Ivan R. Dee,

2007.  5-6.

[v] PEPP 431. 

[vi] Geoffrey Chaucer.  “The Miller’s Tale.”  The Canterbury Tales.  Ca. 1385.  3805-6.

[vii] John Milton.  Introduction.  Paradise Lost.  2nd ed.  1674.

[viii] Alexander Pope.  “Essay on Criticism.”  1711.

[ix] William Shakespeare. Macbeth.  1606.

[x] Paul Muldoon.  “Quoof.”  Quoof.  London: Faber, 1983.

[xi] Bun B.  UGK.  “One Day.”  Ridin’ Dirty.  Jive.  1996.

[xii] Emily Dickinson.  “[Apparently with no surprise.]”  1884.  Emily Dickinson’s Poems As She Preserved

Them.  Ed. Christianne Miller.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2017.  5.

[xiii] Cardi B.  “I Like It Like That.”  Invasion of Privacy.  Atlantic.  2018.


Lead image: Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas speaking at Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. | Photo / Carissa Russell

Column by Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas

            It’s happening again.

Even as we speak, elsewhere — in a college dorm, maybe, or some recess of the internet — a word is changing.

Just as “cool”evolved in African-American jazz circles of the 1930s and 40s, coming to refer to musical temperament instead of temperature, so this word — whatever it may be — will change now.[i]

In two years I’ll complain about hearing it from my students. In three years I’ll be saying it myself.

This is the trajectory of slang, that unofficial but essential wellspring of our language. The aspects of English we were never required to spell or diagram, and some we weren’t allowed to say in class at all.

When the word “slang” first appeared in English, in 1756, it named “the special vocabulary used by any set of persons of a low or disreputable character; language of a low and vulgar type” (OED).

The historians of the language at the Oxford English Dictionary can trace the word’s evolving definitions, but even they are unsure of its etymology.  “Slang” began, it seems, as slang: faddish, vogue, forgettable.

Yet it endures, “low and vulgar” — and in the work of great poets.

Shakespeare, for example, coined or repurposed hundreds of words (“dwindle,” “lackluster,” “swagger” ). In Sonnet 135, he shows off the versatility — in standard and slang usage — of just one:

Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,

And Will to boot, and Will in overplus

[. . .]

So thou being rich in Will add to thy Will

One will of mine, to make thy large Will more.

The scholar Stephen Booth counts thirteen instances of the word “will” in the poem, referring to the poet’s name, the wish to act, the auxiliary verb (as in “I will”), and a euphemism for both male and female genitalia.[ii]

We twenty-first-century readers may not register these slier, slangy connotations without some scholarly help. So brief is the shelf life of most slang that we miss the dirty jokes that had the Elizabethans snickering into their ruffs.

Slang endures because of — not in spite of — this changeability. In his essay “Slang in America” (1885), Walt Whitman describes slang as the democratic aspect of poetry, the material by which anyone, elite or coarse, might make of their own vocabulary a pleasure and an art:

Language, be it remembered, is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, taste, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.  Its final decisions are made by the masses, people nearest the concrete, having the most to do with actual land and sea.[iii]

Whitman admires “the daring and license of slang”: in Tennessee, he writes, undiluted alcohol is “barefoot whiskey;” a plate of ham and beans in New York is “stars and stripes.” What the OED calls “low and vulgar” Walt Whitman treats as a commons, a reserve in the realm of language where anyone can meet anyone else.

At least in theory. 

After all, as Michael Adams argues in Slang: The People’s Poetry, slang is “rooted in [. . .] the complementary needs to fit in and to stand out.”[iv]

One function of slang is to communicate with some (a teen clique, maybe) what it conceals from others (parents, teachers, other cliques); in this way it also communicates its own status as privileged dialogue. 

Slang stakes our claim to belong to a particular group and establishes a position within that group. The creativity of slang, Adams writes, “asserts our everyday poetic prowess.”

This is just what I mean when I argue that we live with poetry all the time.  Even if you haven’t read a poem since high school, your slang contributes to the artistry of language. In your own words, this thousand-year-old mongrel tongue becomes renewed.

As it is in the words of the teenagers who speak Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool”:

the pool players. 

                                    seven at the golden shovel.

We real cool.  We

                        Left school.  We

                        Lurk late.  We

                        Strike straight.  We

                        Sing sin.  We

                        Thin gin.  We

                        Jazz June.  We

                        Die soon.[v]

In the poem’s teen lingo we can see the poet’s formal mastery.

Listen to the long vowels of the monosyllabic words as they walk the edges of their short lines.  At the end of those lines—all but the last—Brooks strands each “we,” syncopating the rhythm of these curt, declarative sentences.  (Listen to Brooks read the poem aloud and you’ll hear it clearly.[vi])

What do they mean by “We / Jazz June”? We may think first of the musical form — a noun — but “jazz” can be a verb too: “to make a mess of, to ruin;” “to excite or thrill,” “to stimulate or intoxicate;” “to enliven;” “to have sexual intercourse with,” “to trick or tease” (OED).

These possible meanings could apply to the month of June or a woman named June. We don’t — we can’t — know. But that’s the point of the pool players’ slang: their “we” does not include us.

Brooks said she imagined the young men in the poem speaking as if graffitiing their names on the wall to prove they were there.  They say “we” to convince us, to convince themselves who they are.  The poem tells us they may die before they ever know.[vii]

The slang and sentence structure of “We Real Cool” — like so much exciting linguistic invention in contemporary language — derive from African-American English. Too much of this innovation continues uncredited; too many white speakers of “Standard English” appropriate Black slang in one breath and dismiss “Ebonics” in another.

But slang can also be a tool for marginalized groups to reclaim power over the words used to stigmatize them. As socially relevant as poetry can be, slang is where some of the most political work of language occurs.

Think of the use of the word “queer” to shame sexual minorities, and more recently as a means of empowerment adopted by some of those same groups. The word can even function as a verb: “to queer a text” is to read it from the perspective of queer theory.

The word “bitch” follows a similar path from its Anglo-Saxon origins as “the female of the dog” to a pejorative term for a woman a few hundred years later to the title of a feminist-minded pop culture magazine by 1996 (OED). “Bitches get stuff done,” declared Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on Saturday Night Live in 2008.[viii]

In such instances slang fulfills Whitman’s ideal of a democratic poetics. To change the way we use a word is to change a small, but significant, part of the world.

Listen for slang in the different parts of your own world — at home and at work, with friends and family or with colleagues. You may catch yourself in the act of making the language new again.

            You may listen for slang, but what you’ll hear is poetry.


[i] https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/43063/where-did-the-slang-usages-of-cool-come-from

[ii] Stephen Booth, ed.  Shakespeare’s Sonnets.  New Haven: Yale UP, 1977.

[iii] Walt Whitman.  “Slang in America.”  North American Review (1885).

[iv] Michael Adams.  Slang: The People’s Poetry.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.

[v] Gwendolyn Brooks.  “We Real Cool.”  The Bean Eaters (1960).

[vi] https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/we-real-cool (Provide hyperlink in text if possible.)

[vii] Brooks.  Report from Part One.  Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972.

“An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks” in Contemporary Literature 11:1 (Winter 1970).

[viii] https://www.vox.com/2016/10/20/13346106/hillary-clinton-nasty-woman 

Lead image: Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas speaking at Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. | Photo / Carissa Russell

Column by Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas

“Education is not the filling of a pail,” reads the sign above my colleague’s desk, “but the lighting of a fire.”

These lines — often attributed to the poet W. B. Yeats — happen to articulate my own beliefs about teaching as well, but that’s not why I love them, or why I mention them to you.

I love that this sentence, ostensibly about education, is also an argument between metaphors. A search for the best comparison to help us understand, to grasp not just what learning is but what it is like. (Whether Yeats himself actually said it is a different argument.[i])

For the record, Yeats (or whoever) is wrong — at least literally.  As we know, education in the strictest sense is neither a filling nor a lighting. The Oxford English Dictionary supplies several definitions: “culture and development,” “systemic instruction,” and one obscure mention of the “rearing of silkworms.”[ii] But nothing about buckets or arson.

These definitions offer the letter but not the spirit of education.  For that we need the figurative language of metaphor: as when Robert Pierce compares knowing a poem to knowing a city, [iii] or when Mark Twain says that the right word is to the almost right word what the lightning is to the lightning bug.[iv]

Metaphor helps us see whatever we look at by making us imagine it as something else. Consider the shapeshifting metaphors of Margaret Atwood’s tiny masterpiece “[you fit into me]”:

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye[v]

A few millimeters of blank space change our whole notion of this relationship. The barbed hook of the simile gets under the skin, and won’t come out.

The eighteenth century Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa performs a similar bait and switch in this quicksilver haiku, translated by Robert Hass:

The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
with children.[vi]

The flood of meltwater becomes the rush of joyous children; our sense of the village becomes in a glance as new as their own.

In each poem we glimpse a vision of the world, only for the angle to change, revealing that all along we’ve been looking at something else. 

The lens of metaphor clarifies even as it distorts. We become familiar with what is strange by speaking of the strange in terms of the familiar. Or, as the poet Beth Ann Fennelly writes, “you are closest to something / when naming what it’s not.”[vii]

That paradox captures the urgency of metaphor — for poetry, yes, but also for language itself, for our experience of daily life. Metaphor is not merely a useful way to think; it is essential to the way we think.

In their 1980 study Metaphors We Live By, the scholars George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that

metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought in action.  [. . .] Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. [. . .] [T]he way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.

Lakoff and Johnson show us that we cannot imagine our lives without metaphor. Not in the way we “can’t imagine” life without a smart phone or rear backup camera, but that we cannot imagine our lives without metaphor because metaphor is what we use to imagine our lives.

Metaphor lends physical shape to a life of abstracts: we get over someone or put the past behind us. We rise to the occasion, but we fall in line, and asleep, and in love. Even that current favorite — “it is what it is” — engages metaphor by refusing it.

Metaphor also makes possible what I have called the “strange alchemy” of poetry.[viii] By this I mean the metamorphosis of marks on the page or sounds in the air into something else: the illusion of personal encounter that we experience when we read or hear a poem. The feeling that we are being addressed across the room or across the centuries.

The old alchemists sought to change one thing into another, to transmute lead into gold. They wanted to do with metal what metaphor does with words.

The word itself — metaphor, derived from the Greek — means “to carry or bear” “across or beyond;” its Latin cousin is the word translate, which means roughly the same. So metaphor translates our experience by rendering one thing in terms of another.

At its most basic, as Aristotle writes in the Poetics, metaphor is simply the “application of a noun which properly applies to something else.”[ix] “Simply,” I say — and yet to me this is the essential and profound mystery of poetic language. That we can say one thing, mean another, and somehow be understood as doing both at once.

War is hell. 

Time is money.

Love is a battlefield.[x]

Aristotle, meet Pat Benetar.

The paradox of metaphor is that by putting a mask on mere reality we unmask a more profound reality. 

The miracle happens when language and metaphor allow us to see ourselves in the other, and vice versa. The figurative language of poetry offers us that illusion of encounter with another, with the other.

I am skeptical of the idea that literature makes us “better people,” but if it can, metaphor is the vehicle. Metaphor is the only way I know to achieve the sort of empathy in which we exchange “I” for “Thou,” to experience the other as oneself.

One noun substituted for another, as Aristotle would say.  But the difference between poetics and ethics happens when we consider how to behave toward those odd proper nouns all around us, each of them an “I” in their own right, each wondering how to behave toward us. 

Only metaphor allows us to suppose what it is like to be them. If only for the instant of the metaphor, “I” becomes “Thou” and vice versa. You may remember Walt Whitman’s line: “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”[xi]

We see this alchemy at work in the Gospels too. The same Jesus who teaches in parables offers his disciples a more profound metaphor. When did we clothe thee? the righteous ask. When did we take thee in? Christ answers: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren,” “ye have done it to me” (Matthew 25: 37-40).[xii]

This is a lot to ask of poetry. More than the filling of a pail or even the lighting of a fire.

And yet, ever since the storied confusion of the tongues, language has been both the chasm between us and the metaphorical bridge across that distance. 

Those distances can be as long as thousands of years, and as wide as the world itself. And yet in poetry they are never more than a few words away.

Dave Lucas is the author of “Weather” (VQR/Georgia, 2011), which received the 2012 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. Named by Rita Dove as one of 13 “young poets to watch,” he has also received a “Discovery/The Nation Prize and a Cleveland Arts Prize. In 2018 he was named the second Poet Laureate of the State of Ohio. A co-founder of Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery and Cleveland Book Week, he lives in Cleveland, where he was born and raised.


[i] https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/education-is-not-the-filling-of-a-pail-but-the-lighting-of-a-fire-it-s-an-inspiring-quote-but-did-wb-yeats-say-it-1.1560192

[ii] http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/59584?redirectedFrom=education#eid

[iii] http://oac.ohio.gov/News-Events/ArtsOhio-Blog/PostId/341/poetry-for-people-who-hate-poetry-column-3

[iv] http://oac.ohio.gov/News-Events/ArtsOhio-Blog/PostId/347/poetry-for-people-who-hate-poetry-column-4

[v] Margaret Atwood.  “[you fit into me].”  Power Politics (1971).

[vi] Kobayashi Issa.  “[The snow is melting.]” Trans. Robert Hass.  The Essential Haiku (1994).

[vii] Beth Ann Fennelly, “The Impossibility of Language.”  Open House (2002).

[viii] http://oac.ohio.gov/News-Events/ArtsOhio-Blog/PostId/330/poetry-for-people-who-hate-poetry-column-1

[ix] (Poetics 9.3). 

[x] “Love Is a Battlefield.”  Performed by Pat Benetar (1983), written by Holly Knight and Mike Chapman.

[xi] “Song of Myself”

[xii] Matthew 25:37-40

Lead image: Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas speaking at Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. | Photo / Carissa Russell

Column by Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas

What makes poetry poetry?

Ask that question of a dozen poets, scholars or readers and you’ll get as many different answers, maybe more.  Some won’t be much help: “Poetry is the sort of thing poets write,” Robert Frost is said to have said.

            I’m sorry I asked.

If we struggle with poetry, this struggle to define it is partly to blame.  It would be easier if poetry obeyed certain rules — if we could trust it to rhyme, or appear in lines, or make sense.

Easier, maybe, but certainly less exciting: set a limit for what “counts” as poetry, and poetry will defy that limit, out of necessity or spite. Critics who fume “that’s not poetry” today will tomorrow be laughed out of the room.

Maybe Frost was on to something: maybe we should be less concerned with defining what poetry is and more interested in understanding what it does.

Poetry awakens us to the aesthetic qualities of our language.  Words are thoroughly weird: how is it that we have come to agree that these seemingly random sounds and marks mean what they do, that they mean anything at all? 

Yet words are everywhere, so we may take them for granted as familiar, practical tools.  Poetry reminds us how artful — how strange and sly — those words can be. And that language is a stage for the play between sound and sense, speech and writing, the literal and (as we’ll see in another column) the metaphorical.

For instance: poetry works in tension “between the written word and the spoken word,” as former U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Wright notes, either maximizing or minimizing the difference between them.[i]

Take Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.

All mimsy were the borogroves,

And the mome raths outgrabe. [ii] 

These lines blur the line between speech and song, sense and nonsense, until we forget the details of the story for the pleasure of its sounds. We don’t need a thesaurus to imagine the slime and burble of those “slithy toves;” we understand them sonically if not semantically.

Or consider William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” a poem that hews so closely to plain speech that an indignant student—a younger me, maybe—might object But I could have done that!  (I couldn’t have.)

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens[iii]

Here the distance between the written and spoken word almost collapses. But, like the charged field that repels two like magnets, that tension remains. All the poem’s ordinary specifics—the white chickens, the glaze of rain, the wheelbarrow itself—add up to an extraordinary, unknowable “so much.” How much depends? So much.

Each poem tiptoes its own tightrope: “Jabberwocky” between sense and nonsense, “The Red Wheelbarrow” between the humdrum and profound. The former finds the familiarity in language’s strangeness, the latter the strangeness of its familiarity.

Of course, when the language of poems so much resembles speech, it can become difficult to know, in the words of literary theorist Stanley Fish, “how to recognize a poem when you see one.” [iv]

In his essay of that title, Fish argues that what differentiates poems from other artifacts of language is not what poems do, but what we readers do with them. “It is not that the presence of poetic qualities compels a certain kind of attention,” he writes, “but that the paying of a certain kind of attention results in the emergence of poetic qualities” (326).

In other words, just about anythingcan be a poem if we treat it as a poem. 

I realize this is about as satisfying as Frost’s non-answer. By this logic you could, say, cut out a section of the newspaper and call it a poem.

You could, but Kenneth Goldsmith already did. Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing” takes whole swaths of text from the newspaper (or a weather report, or the radio broadcast of a Yankees game), and treats them as found art, as poems. Simply reading them as such pushes our question — “what makes poetry poetry” — to a logical extreme.

In The Weather, Goldsmith makes poems of the one-minute weather reports from WINS AM1010 in New York. From the opening of the “Winter” section:

A couple of breaks of sunshine over the next couple of hours, what little sunshine there is left. Remember, this is the shortest day of the year. [. . .] Not a bad shopping day tomorrow, sunshine to start, then increasing clouds, still breezy, with a high near fifty.[v]

Mostly I find this more compelling in theory than in practice, less interesting to read than to read about. But every so often Goldsmith’s poems awaken me to the aesthetics of a word or phrase — “what little sunshine there is left” — that I would otherwise have taken for granted.

Indeed, as Fish argues, when we change the quality of the attention we pay to our language, we begin to see — and hear — poetry everywhere.

Sometimes we hear it before we can see it.  I don’t know how many times I “read” Harryette Mullen’s “Kirstenography” in frustrated silence before I finally read it aloud, and felt the poem open before me:

K was burn at the bend of the ear in the mouth of remember. She was the fecund chill burn in her famish. She came into the word with a putty smoother, a handsewn farther, and a yodeler cistern. They were all to gather in a rosy horse in a piety sweet in Alligator Panorama.[vi]

Read these lines silently first.  Then say them aloud and listen.  From what had looked like an error-riddled transcription of another text emerge the challenges and pleasures of the poem. 

In order to read the “real” story — “K was born at the end of the year, in the month of December” — we must first misread the words on the page. We must instead hear what is not said. We must listen for words that are not there, words to which the poem only alludes.

Mullen’s “Kirstenography” reminds us just how precarious words can be, that — in Mark Twain’s famous phrase — the “difference between the almost right word and the right word [is] the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”[vii]

But what are ever the “right” words? Those we read or those we hear?  Those we say, or those we mean? The words we already have, those we invent, or those we still cannot find?

Poems offer no easy answers to these questions. But to ask them in ways that perplex and delight us, to use words to try to transcend words — these are just the sorts of things poetry can do. CV

Dave Lucas is the author of “Weather” (VQR/Georgia, 2011), which received the 2012 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. Named by Rita Dove as one of 13 “young poets to watch,” he has also received a “Discovery/The Nation Prize and a Cleveland Arts Prize. In 2018 he was named the second Poet Laureate of the State of Ohio. A co-founder of Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery and Cleveland Book Week, he lives in Cleveland, where he was born and raised.

[i] Charles Wright.  “Halflife.”

[ii] Lewis Carroll, “Jabberwocky.”

[iii] William Carlos Williams, “The Red Wheelbarrow”

[iv] Stanley Fish.  “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One.”  Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities.

[v] Goldsmith, The Weather.

[vi] Mullen, “Kirstenography”

[vii] Twain.  Letter to George Bainton, 15 October 1888, printed in Bainton, The Art of Authorship: Literary Reminiscences, Methods of Work, and Advice to Young Beginners (1890): 87-8.

Lead image: Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas speaking at Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. | Photo / Carissa Russell

Column by Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas

“I never got poetry,” someone says to me again. And I sigh.

Because I never got it either – at least not until I learned to stop worrying about “getting it.”

In fact, “get” – with its connotation of acquisition and possession – is the wrong word for what we do with poetry. It suggests that a poem is something we take in order to have or keep it. As if a poem were a half-gallon of 2 percent milk to be picked up on the way home.

Walt Whitman jokes about this approach to poetry in Section 2 of “Song of Myself”: “Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?” he asks. “Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?” Instead, Whitman urges a more sensory, individual reading of poetry:

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self. (i)

Whitman mentions another word that often complicates our experience of poetry: “meaning.” Meaning is the elephant in the poem’s cramped room, especially if that meaning is perceived to be “deeper” or “hidden.”

If we are supposed to get a poem, its meaning is what we are supposed to get. The poem has whispered us its secrets; the matter is settled for good, and we can move on to lunch and recess.

You might be all too familiar with this approach to poetry, especially if your experiences with poetry have taken place primarily in classrooms. Too many of us have been taught that poems resemble riddles to be solved rather than music to be heard or meals to be relished.

Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems? We may answer no, because we remember being told that our ideas about poems were wrong, that the author meant something else entirely, and that what the author meant was what mattered most.

By the time I got to high school, I was so conditioned to seek the meaning of a poem that when I read “A poem should not mean / But be” (Archibald MacLeish), I wanted to demand: But what does that mean? (ii)

The riddle – unraveling strategy might work well on the AP test, but I fear it diminishes the real value of poetry, the pleasure of its sounds, its potential to help us make meaning in and of our lives.

I think we need to change our approach.

I ask my students to consider the word meaning as a verb instead of a noun. That is: meaning is not something we achieve, arrive at, or get; instead, imagine that meaning is something we do, an active process through which we make sense of language and the world.

We may like to think of words as “having” definitions, the way we might have blue or brown eyes. In this model, words mean what “the dictionary” says they mean. But anyone who has ever argued about what particular shade of blue this or that blue is – navy, cobalt, midnight – knows perfectly well how slippery words can be.

So, just as “get” is the wrong word for poetry, I also believe that “What does a poem mean?” is the wrong question.

Robert B. Pierce, professor emeritus of Oberlin College, asks a better question in an essay called “How Does a Poem Mean?” That how is especially important because it changes the way we think about meaning itself.

Meaning is not a fixed entity, the answer to some trivia question we’ll never be asked. Meaning changes. Just think about what the seemingly innocent word love meant to you at age 8, and age 16, and what it means to you now.

If we must think of the poem as possessing a meaning, that meaning is neither the exclusive property of the poet nor of the audience. Meaning is a process in which we participate; we collaborate with the poet themselves to bring the poem to life between us.

In this model, “meaning” is not the answer to a trivia question: What is the capital of England? Instead, Pierce writes, to understand a poem “is like knowing a city, such as London. To know London is to be at home there; there is no set of pieces of information that constitutes my knowing the city, though information is part of the whole” (283). To know London, or a poem, we must first understand “that there is no one thing to know” (284). (iii)

To get to know a city, as Pierce suggests, you would need to walk its streets, sample its cafes, eavesdrop on the locals’ conversations. You would need to know where the museums are, of course, but you would also need to know how those museums smell, how it feels to stand in the cool marble halls.

To get to know a poem, you need to read it, ideally again and again. Better yet: hear it, say it aloud. Feel its sounds in your throat; try writing it out in your own hand.

Try it with Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” a poem you might indeed have encountered in a classroom. You might have learned that the poem portrays an adult’s conflicted memories about childhood and a distant, if dutiful, father. None of that is wrong, but none of it is enough.

Instead, say the poem aloud until you can hear in your own voice the crackling of the fire Hayden recreates with “b” and “l” and “k” sounds:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. (iv)

Write out those lines until your own fingertips touch the stealthily echoing rhymes of “blueblack” and “cracked,” “banked” and “thanked.”

Then go back and notice that sneaky “too” in the opening line. That one word allows us insight into years of the family dynamic in the poem. “Sundays too” – this day, like all days, “I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.”

If you can hear it too, then you have become the poet’s collaborator. You and Hayden are “meaning” the poem yourself. And I suspect you will wince all the more at the heart-wrenching repetition at the end of the poem: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

Forget “deep meanings.” The best stuff is right there on the surface, if we can stop taking it for granted.

What’s deep is the pleasure we can find if we stop worrying that something is hidden. What there is to get is the sense that the poem belongs to us just as much as to the poet, that we make its meanings together. That the poem can be the place where we meet. CV

Dave Lucas is the author of “Weather” (VQR/Georgia, 2011), which received the 2012 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. Named by Rita Dove as one of 13 “young poets to watch,” he has also received a “Discovery/The Nation Prize and a Cleveland Arts Prize. In 2018 he was named the second Poet Laureate of the State of Ohio. A co-founder of Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery and Cleveland Book Week, he lives in Cleveland, where he was born and raised.

(i) Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself.”

(ii) Archibald MacLeish, “Ars Poetica.”

(iii) Robert B. Pierce, “How Does a Poem Mean?”

(iv) Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays.”

Lead image: Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas speaking at Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. | Photo / Carissa Russell

Column by Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas

This is a love story.

This is the story that led me here, writing to you about how and why I fell in love with poetry, and what I think you can find there, too.

No story ever gets love – or life – quite right. We become who and what we become through the uncanny confluence of opportunity and habit, tactic and accident. How easily in hindsight chance and dumb luck and sometimes dumber choices come to look like fate.

How grateful I am, then, for the chances and choices of my sophomore year at John Carroll University. I had dabbled in poetry, as many teenagers do, writing poems about being misunderstood that were themselves impossible to understand. I had wondered if poetry might hold something I seemed to need – meaning, maybe, or beauty or wisdom.

But there, in George Bilgere’s workshop, I began to suspect that poetry might be not merely an interest for me but also a calling.

That spring, too, I fell in love – the romantic kind, complicated and hopeless – for the first time. She was older, brilliant and beautiful, and (to my astonishment) she was interested in me, of all people.

You know this story already, or a version of it. You know how it goes.

Over the phone, I read her the poems I was learning to love. We drove to the February lakeshore and kissed among the shags of ice. Suddenly all the songs on the radio were about us.

I was 19 that year, for just a year (i): still young enough to find profundity in the pop music that had shepherded me through adolescence, and only beginning to appreciate the language poetry offered, a language almost sufficient to all that I felt.

The first poem we read that semester was Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” translated from the original German by Stephen Mitchell. The poem offers us images of the headless, limbless sculpture of its title, but also of how the ruined figure of the god of light and poetry might have appeared in its former glory.

The poem does not distinguish between what is or is not there; in its language – “his legendary head / with eyes like ripening fruit” – even the absent can be present. And, as George urged us to note, we are not only seeing the sculpture, but being seen: “for here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.” (ii)

I did not understand, but I knew the poem was speaking to me. I did not know that countless poets, countless people, had read and felt that same challenge before: You must change your life. I knew only enough – at least enough – to listen.

You must change your life. Change my life how? Change it to what? What does this strange, urgent demand have to do with a damaged sculpture of Apollo? What does it have to do with me?

I did not know then. Nearly 20 years later, I still do not know. But I keep asking the questions.

After the relationship failed – of course it failed: I did become a poet, after all – I found I needed poetry all the more. I needed words that had never been said; I needed as much to hear them as to say them.

I needed someone to say what I felt in words I could not muster for myself. So when I heard Leonard Cohen sing:

I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
And love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah (iii)

I understood, and I knew I was understood, too. I was seeing and being seen from all places.

The semester ended and I went home for the summer. In my old room, posters of Dan Marino and Tupac Shakur, photographs from my senior prom looked on instead of an archaic torso. I was shocked to find that the person to whom these things, these effects, belonged had disappeared into someone else. You must change your life.

A month earlier, she sat listening at my own poetry reading. She met my parents. She gave me a copy of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Now it was summer and she did not call; all summer long she kept not calling.

I went to the beach. I bummed cigarettes, snuck beers and waxed philosophical. I flirted with old flames, resented them for not knowing the person I had become with her, resented them for not being her. I listened to sad songs; wrote sad, bad poems; and read everything I could – except “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

And there was poetry – my sanctuary, and the stone in my shoe. Suddenly, I couldn’t remember a time before it or imagine a life without it.

Like Cohen’s hallelujah, I was both broken and grateful. Like Rilke’s Apollo, there was a new, strange wholeness in what was broken. Or maybe it was simpler than that, something beyond the reach of a clever phrase and all the years between.

A life is not a story. It’s too chaotic, messy and unresolved. We form order from that chaos: I say “form” because our English words for both poetry and fiction derive from different Classical forms of “to make,” the Greek poesis and the Latin fingere, “to form or contrive.”

I did not know this then, but while I read and wrote and loved and grieved, I was forming a life. I wish I had understood that she was forming one just the same, a life as real and broken and precious as mine.

We make language out of sounds and marks, we make stories of our lives in order to understand them and to be understood. We seek the essential moments that seem bridges between there and here, wherever we may be.

You probably know all this already, your own version of it. You may remember the moment when you found yourself saying hallelujah for all the broken shards that even the luckiest life is made of. Or maybe the moment is still to come, when someone stops you cold to say, “You must change your life.” Which, whatever the story, is where the story begins again. CV

Dave Lucas is the author of “Weather” (VQR/Georgia, 2011), which received the 2012 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. Named by Rita Dove as one of 13 “young poets to watch,” he has also received a “Discovery/The Nation Prize and a Cleveland Arts Prize. In 2018 he was named the second Poet Laureate of the State of Ohio. A co-founder of Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery and Cleveland Book Week, he lives in Cleveland, where he was born and raised.

(i) I’ve stolen this line from the songwriter Griffin House, who sings in “Missed My Chance”: “I was seventeen just for a year.”

(ii) Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” Trans. Stephen Mitchell.

(iii) Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah.” Various Positions. 1984. I can’t remember if the first version I heard was his live rendition from “More Best Of” (1997) or Jeff Buckley’s cover, from “Grace” (1994).

Lead image: Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas speaking at Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. | Photo / Carissa Russell

Column by Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas

“I, too, dislike it.”
– Marianne Moore, “Poetry”

But you don’t hate it.

At least that’s what I hope you’ll discover as you read this column.

I don’t want to convince you that you should love poetry. I want to convince you that you already do.

If you know by heart the lyrics to your favorite song, you already love one kind of poetry. You love another whenever you laugh at a joke or groan over a bad pun. The jargon of your profession and the slang you speak with friends are poetry. So are the metaphors we use to describe this world we all are trying to understand.

For instance: We are so immersed in poetry that to hate it would be like a fish hating water.

Silly and inexact as it may be, that simile – this is like that – is a poetic gesture, a comparison that attempts to present an abstract idea in concrete terms. My metaphor might not be good poetry, but it’s still poetry.

Poetry is a name for the pleasure we take in the language we hear and speak, read and write. We savor words for their music as well as what they mean, the wonderful alchemy of their sound and sense together, even as we use them for the most mundane, practical purposes.

We find poetry in poems, of course – “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” – but we find it elsewhere, too.

In this column, you’ll encounter traditional and nontraditional poems alike. But I also hope that the words we will share, both in poems and about poems, can welcome you to the pleasures and challenges – the poetry – of words, wherever we find them.

Let me offer an example: I also teach a college course called “Poetry for People Who Hate Poetry,” from which this column has evolved. On the first day of class we introduce ourselves: name, major, hometown, etc. But then I ask each student a strange icebreaker. What is your favorite word?

They hesitate. What an odd question. They look for the door. Just pick one, I tell them. It won’t be etched in stone; you don’t have to get it tattooed on you. So – if a bit suspiciously – they do.

“Serendipity,” they say. “Defenestrate.” “Home.” “Dream.” Their responses often divide them into two camps. Some choose a word because they “just like the way it sounds.” Others select a word that holds some personal meaning for them in addition to its “dictionary definition.”

Readers of poetry tend to divide along similar lines, as the poet and critic James Fenton has observed. There are “those who, confronted with what appears to be like a code, insist that they must crack it, and those who are happy to listen to the spell, without inquiring too closely what it might mean.”

That “spell,” as Fenton calls it, was cast on all of us long ago. It is the spell not only of poetry but of words themselves. We love the way words sound; we are bound to them by what they mean.

Poetry happens – in metaphors or jokes or in poems themselves – at that place where sound and sense blur into each other.

We may not realize that we are under the spell of poetry because poetry is made of ordinary language (if language can ever be ordinary). Some words we use to toast a wedding or to bless the dead; others we use to order a pizza.

Language is the medium of our speech and thought and being, so it is natural that we would take pleasure in it. It is also natural to take that same pleasure – not to mention its profundity – for granted.

Poetry indeed offers us pleasure, but it can offer much more than that. I believe that poetry can be a way of making meaning of our lives and of the lives of others.

We do this with words, even as words themselves remain a mystery. Stare at any word for a while, say it again and again to yourself, and it becomes a foreign language. Its meaning bleeds from it, and the word reclaims its original and utter strangeness.

“Every word was once a poem,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1844. “Every new relation is a new word.” Emerson is being a bit poetic himself here, if not entirely obtuse. I think he means that, just as Adam and Eve named the animals in the story of the garden, so we find ourselves always in the act of trying to name our world.

Twenty years ago, the word “bling” was just a clever nugget of slang from a half-forgotten hip-hop song of the 1980s. Now, thanks to the Cash Money Millionaires and digital media, we find it in the Oxford English Dictionary, the definitive record of the English language. I can even type “bling” into Microsoft Word without worrying about the red squiggly line warning me of a spelling error. It is a part of speech, a kind of poetry.

If indeed poetry is a name for the pleasure of language, it is also a way of trying to name the world.

Simple sounds in the air or marks on a page become profound human comedy and tragedy, the scripts for our most beautiful and awful acts. These marks and sounds can be Hamlet and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”; they can be “Mein Kampf.”

How those marks and sounds become so much more is a process of transformation that remains miraculous to me even now, some 20 years after first falling in love with poetry. They remain my way of making sense of my world, of myself and of you – stranger, reader, friend – too.

Not all of us read poems. Not everyone needs poems. I believe we all need poetry, though, because we need language. We need to communicate, and we need just as much the pleasure and meaning it can offer to our lives.

Some people find such meaning in their faith, in logic or science, in a career or a political ideology, or some combination thereof.

I never found the meaning I needed in those places. I do find it in poetry, in the art of language itself. I find it when Walt Whitman writes “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” or when Toni Morrison says “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”

This is why I want to share poetry with you in whatever form we might find it. I hope you will find some of it in reading this column. I hope you will find even more in listening to the words you hear and those you speak every day.

There and here, I hope you will find a kind of poetry that you can love, or even some that you have loved all along. CV

Dave Lucas is the author of “Weather” (VQR/Georgia, 2011), which received the 2012 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. Named by Rita Dove as one of 13 “young poets to watch,” he has also received a “Discovery/The Nation Prize and a Cleveland Arts Prize. In 2018 he was named the second Poet Laureate of the State of Ohio. A co-founder of Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery and Cleveland Book Week, he lives in Cleveland, where he was born and raised.

Lead image: Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas speaking at Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. | Photo / Carissa Russell