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.


[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] (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).


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.





[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).


[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

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

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