I never expected math to help me become a poet.

I wouldn’t say I became a poet to get away from math, but when I declared an English major, I did hope I had escaped calculus, trigonometry, and the associated nightmares once and for all.

So I resented my school’s mathematics requirement. I dreaded returning to those enigmatic numbers—and worse, to the letters, the x’s and y’s I found illegible.

Grudgingly, I registered for a course called “Math and Creativity.” I hoped for more emphasis on the creativity, or at least for an easy A.

My first glimpse of just how creative mathematics could be came in our cryptography unit, where we broke basic codes to decipher a message from the poet John Keats: beauty is truth, truth beauty.

Then our professor, the late Dick Horwath, assigned some chapters from the British mathematician G. H. Hardy’s memoir, A Mathematician’s Apology (1940). Who knew we would readin a math course?

What I found there fulfilled Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetic challenge all over again: it changed my life.

“A mathematician,” Hardy writes, “like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas” (84).

I had struggled to believe that a mathematician was like a poet at all.  But Hardy continued:

The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s, must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colors or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.                                                                         (85)

All the math I’d ever done was either right or wrong (and usually the latter). Hardy spoke instead of the beauty of mathematics—not the answer itself but the elegance of its expression.

This I could understand. I loved poetry for the ecstasy of its language, but also because in poetry x could be x and y at once. I did not grasp how slippery those mathematical ideas—variables and constants, x and y and π—could be.

I did not yet know that light could be both a particle and a wave. Or that to observe particles’ behavior changes their behavior. I took science on faith.

Soon I learned that a certain “uncertainty” had marked the scientific world in the twentieth century and onward just as profoundly as it marks my humanist sphere of signifiers and signifieds in flux.

I learned that those worlds were the same world.

Even that line of Keats’s—“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—is a mathematical formulation, a metaphorical x=y, y=x.

The “equals” sign may be the bridge between what C. P. Snow famously called “The Two Cultures,” the sciences and the arts. Mathematicians and poets are indeed makers of patterns, observers and describers of relationships.  What, we ask, is like what?

“Poetry is algebra,” writes the poet and critic Benjamin Paloff. What the equals sign accomplishes in mathematics the metaphor achieves in letters: the demonstration of congruence among two elements previously thought separate.

I became an ardent convert to the notion of mathematical beauty.

I lingered in Professor Horwath’s office hours to discuss Harold Bloom’s theory of poetic influence in relationship to the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös’s collaborations with his contemporaries. My ideas were half-baked at best, but at least they were zealous.

I thought of Professor Horwath again, years later, when I began teaching a course called “Poetry for People Who Hate Poetry.” I hoped to win a few converts to poetry from a crowd of stem students.

I offered Albert Einstein’s famous formula for mass-energy equivalence, E=mc2. Einstein’s equation is poetic, I argued, because it so elegantly expresses an aspect of a profoundly complicated universe.

I felt quite pleased with myself, until a student scoffed. “Einstein’s okay,” she said, “but if you want real mathematical beauty, you need Euler’s identity theorem.” I stood there stumped—so I invited her to the board, where she wrote out eiπ+1=0.

The Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler used this equality, I later learned, to express the relationship between some of the most fundamental mathematical ideas. Something about constants and basic arithmetic operations and the balance of an expression equal to zero. Poetry in a language I could not speak.

The students murmured. Another spoke in favor of a different equation, and soon our discussion became a debate about the aesthetics of mathematics—the sort of argument I’d often relished in poetry workshops.

It was a moment out of the college brochures: math and poetry, the sciences and the arts aligned in the pursuit of truth—and beauty.

At the end of the semester, a student brought in a copy of something he called “his favorite poem.” It was not a poem per se, though it offers everything I seek in poetry: words to make us feel at once infinitesimal and miraculous.

The passage—from Carl Sagan’s 1994 lecture “A Pale Blue Dot”—refers to a photograph of our solar system, taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 probe from a distance of about 3.7 billion miles.  In the photograph, Earth is barely visible, a pale blue dot smaller than a single pixel.

This is just the perspective for Sagan to consider: 

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. [. . .] To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Sagan used to say that we are all “made of starstuff,” a cosmological truism to imagine ourselves remarkable.

And we are remarkable—in that we exist, in that we express our existence in words and numbers, periodic tables and blots of paint. Why anything exists at all is a bone in the throat of the philosopher and the physicist alike.

In the universe we are simply molecules, yours more or less the same as mine. All of us made of the same starstuff, the same mapped genome, the same cells and thin membranes, mostly water.

The cosmos expands—and may eventually collapse—regardless of that silliness we call “the self.”  Science tells us as much; poetry and the arts help us live with it.

In our brief instant amidst the infinite, we ought to remember, with Walt Whitman, that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

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: Image by sandid from Pixabay

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:



                        a)s w(e loo)k







                        S                                                                        a


                          rIvInG                                  .gRrEaPsPhOs)




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

“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