“Poets Mistake Non-Poet for Fish in Barrel, Open Fire.”

Here is a bad bit of light verse published in this morning’s New York Times:

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Here is the Facebook pile-on by poets, some nationally renowned, that ensued. We rose up to defend the shade of John Ashbery and the immortal values of poetry:

FB pile-on

It goes on much longer. An umbrage orgy. Here’s why it’s embarrassing for us and for poetry:

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It was the NYT opening its pages to an ordinary reader. A non-specialist.

No one (including, at first, me) thought to check – everyone just leapt at the chance to pummel this light verster into submission to our post-modernity. It’s high-minded bullying. How are poets going to be critics of the culture if we succumb this easily to its ugliest temptations?

P.S. And here, of course, am I, doing meta-umbrage, its own temptation.


John Ashbery, 1927–2017

A great one gone from us today. Ashbery dead at 90.

His extraordinary proposition: that a poem is a poem.

So many years before I got that. When I did I saw in hindsight he had helped me to. (Haven’t yet managed to write one, but now I know what one looks like.)

No time for the post I want to write. So just this sweet bit from the NYT obit

Asked once about a poet’s proper relationship with his audience, Mr. Ashbery rejected the idea of deliberately “shocking” the reader, a tactic he compared to wearing deliberately outlandish clothing and which he dismissed as “merely aggressive.”

“At the same time,” he said, “I try to dress in a way that is just slightly off, so the spectator, if he notices, will feel slightly bemused but not excluded, remembering his own imperfect mode of dress.”

And this photo from same. Imagine the conversation they’d have had! or not!

Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Marianne Moore. At a party in 1967. Photo by Jill Krementz.

Take care of each other. We don’t get a lot of time.

Student work: Found poems

From my students’ found poems (posted with permission). I’m stunned by how good these are. I sense in some a little imitation of the Ashbery I gave as example—but a little imitation’s no sin.


Every little bone
Lost and found

Some sickness
Coming home
Stretching you

Still I have to wait
Giving you a chance to go on

Source: bits of overheard conversation on local buses.


Bring it to the boid. Where people do.
Moment of your. Ladies . . . ? Put antlers on my.
Can’t do it without. Don’t want kids.
Girls had to be escorted through the. Tilting it in besides using.
Fairly difficult to. Friends who couldn’t boil.
I can just carry. I lied I said I was.

Sources: the bus, roommates making dinner, the grocery store, a girl talking on the phone in the library, some girls in a parking lot.


My life in the garden. A professional creep.
Measuring mortality. Underestimated desperation.
The God of eggs. Drops hundreds on stupidity.
Leeching souls. Rotting citrus. Raining hedgehogs.
A glottal stop. The crazy’s back.
Can’t trust delusion. In a house of stray cats.

Sources [this list makes a companion poem to the first] [some names changed to preserve anonymity]:

1. Meghan working in our yard
2. Kayla liking to explore attics
3. Liz, population issues
4. Dr. C., on human tendencies
5. Evelyn making snack
6. Me, on calling a lock smith
7. Sam’s dramatic description of a professor
8. Brandin, on the rotting fruit in our fridge
9. Kayla’s friend got a hedgehog, misheard “training hedgehogs”
10. Kayla, it’s a sound in Arabic
11. Meghan, on Arianna’s return to our house
12. Marylin, warning us about Arianna
13. Boston, describing our housemates as kitties.


For New Zealand and
in Iceland over yonder
a bottle of wine . . . or two
so superficial
off the light like you.

Freaking cute!
My Hawks and future cowboy
perfect comment
so much ass
three times the national rate.

In your prayers, but
years from now
in the dark
a moment at the Texaco
tis the season to fawcking love this.

An Autumnal mood
Monday, like crazy
and outnumbered benefits
yummy Mexican, oh so texty
but fly as shit.

Source: Facebook statuses of friends.


All of us on the road from Scotland to Silverado.
The sound and the fury as I lay dying.
Sex lives of cannibals, basic logic.
Kama Sutra, great expectations.
Two years before the mast. The poisoners. The Italians. The great pyramids.
A tale of two cities. Mumbo jumbo.
To a god unknown. Welcome to the monkey house, beat reader.

Source: a bookshelf.


A dusty room. Deprived of sun.
Melancholy soul. Little sinks.

Against a rule. Being ignored.
The sun to night. To worlds of dark.
Of memories. With setting skies.

The patter of rain. A wound unmended.
Slept through. A candle blown.

Our sorrows in shades. Once a vessel.
And every song. A complicated knot.
About my regret. My every thought.

To never be found.

Source: Love and Misadventure by Lang Leav.


Letter openers. Cardboard cutouts. Ibuprofen.
Kites everywhere. A nap midday. Chocolate chip oatmeal cookies.
His Hungarian going? Dry erase. Pink computer.

Things that actually kill us. Educated math students.
Happiness shaved off the Neverending Story.
The Hello Kitty blanket tastes like burnt meat.

Sources: The West Wing, overheard conversations at a friend’s house, class lecture.


Sweet Everlasting Voices. may have Blamed. Word for Word.
left on. Loose Paper. an Aged Man. the Sea swept.
He drew. says the Ghost. live in the Peeling Mansion.
with feeling older. let the Tongue slip. swap our Lies.
They made You. to fear Them. praise this Mess. the Slow Rain.

Source: poems on the Poetry Foundation website.


Well the situation is
What’s wrong with the kids these
Staying high all the
Let’s forget these tragic
Days long ago

Hello folks
Drugs aren’t the
Let’s continue on
With the sex drives of teens

Monsters aren’t
The only thing
Giving these all
Away to fairyland
Drug dealers are too

So in the end
Nothing makes me
After this tragic
Floods in Florida

Sources: Listening to two or three media devices at once, tablet, desktop computer, phone, each on a different kind of media. E.g., one playing YouTube videos, one with live and old news, one streaming music.

Exercise: Found poem

A writing exercise from our unit on the phrase.

Write a poem made of found phrases. “Found” means you don’t make them up yourself—you see or hear them around you. “Phrase” means more than a single word, less than a full sentence. Choose one kind of source to take your materials from. A few possibilities:

  • bits of overheard (or misheard) conversation
  • first phrases of poems in an anthology
  • phrases seen in print ads (magazines, posters, billboards)

Avoid song titles and song lyrics—they tend to be clichéd and to make clichéd poems. Find a source that offers bits of language you feel eager to mess around with.

It’s okay to make small changes (e.g., removing a verb to turn a sentence into a phrase, or changing verb tense to make two phrases line up) but avoid introducing any words of your own.

You may not be able to make the sort of sense you wish to. Let the material lead and you follow. Instead of worrying about making sense—focus on setting up resonances.

An example, from John Ashbery’s “Title Search” (though not in fact a found poem it reads like one):

The Little Red Church. The Hotel District.
I’ll Eat a Mexican. The Heritage of Froth.
The Trojan Comedy. Water to the Fountain. Memoirs of a Hermit Crab.
The Ostrich Succession. Exit Pursued by a Turkey.
In the Pound. The Artist’s Life. On the Beautiful Blue Danube.
Less Is Roar. The Bicyclist. The Father.

(Most of these are phrases. Which ones aren’t?)