You’re a Poet, You Say?

By The Editors on 6.09.10

Guest contribution by Andrew Hudgins:

When strangers ask me what I do, I usually follow the lead of W. H. Auden, who said he was a teacher. So much easier than saying “poet,” and having to deal with the inevitable follow-ups: Have I heard of you? What books have you written? Do they sell that in bookstores? 

Those questions are just tune-ups for the really hard one.

“You’re a poet, you say?”
“What kind?”
“What kind?”
“Yeah, what kind of poetry do you write?”

I know I’m being offered an opportunity to promote an art that needs promotion and maybe sell a book or two. I know the question is coming, but like a recalcitrant student, I’m always unprepared.

If another poet asks, the answer is easy: “I write in blank verse about seventy percent of the time, mostly in the plain style, and often about history, my family, the South, and religion. But lately I’ve been writing a lot more free verse on the one hand, while working a lot more with rhyme on the other hand.”

That’s not the answer the guy was looking for yesterday, as he picked the label off his second bottle of Michelob at my brother’s Memorial Day BBQ in Albertville, Alabama. 

“Um, uh, well I write a lot of poems about history,” I said. History sounds serious. Writing about your family sounds too damn Oprah-ish. And I just don’t like to talk about the South to Southerners or about religion with pretty much anybody.

The history answer invited suspicion. It usually does. “Poetry isn’t about history,” say the dubious looks of my inquisitors. And I don’t want to explain about The Bible, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and Shakespeare’s histories. We poets and professors are all too ready to unleash the horrible harrumph, harrumph of elucidation. 

Self-defeatingly, even though I know nobody but poets care, I sometimes give the formal answer.

“I write a lot of poems in blank verse,” I say.
Blank verse. Blank stare.
“Oh, you know what it is. It’s the form Shakespeare wrote his plays in.”
“I think I’ve heard of it. In high school maybe, but I’m not sure.”

The explanatory harrumph, harrumph begins to gather in my throat like German troops along a border, so I move quickly along.
“Sometimes the poems rhyme.”
The conversation now divides like Frost’s two roads in a yellow wood.

First response: “I thought poetry didn’t rhyme anymore. I liked poetry in elementary school, but after that, when it stopped rhyming, that’s when I stopped reading it.”

Second response: “I thought poetry didn’t rhyme anymore.”  And then the wary silence invites you to explain why you didn’t get the memo about rhyme being old-timey. Are you like the kook at the office who still uses the mimeograph machine?

It’s hard to whine to the Michelob drinker that he’s asking you to label and limit your life’s work, when he’s just done that for you:

“Real estate.” 
“What kind of real estate?”
“Mostly commercial. Some industrial. But I have done residential when it falls in my lap.”

I wish I’d had the guts to simply say, “Here’s a poem,” and started reciting.  But that would be even less of an answer—like his reading a purchase agreement and expecting me to know what it meant about what he did.

Here on a blog for poets and poetry lovers, it is the only and best answer.

“The Names of the Lost” from the book American Rendering, and originally published in The Hudson Review:

The nights burned all night long that Freedom Summer—
ninety-four at midnight, eighty at dawn. Late June,
a high-speed chase. Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner

rammed off the road and hustled from their car.
Wayne Roberts asked, “Are that nigger-lover?” 
The nights burned all night long that Freedom Summer.

“I know exactly how you’re feeling, sir,”
said Schwerner. Roberts shot him in the heart.
They shot them all: Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner.

“You didn’t leave me nothing but a nigger,”
Jim Jordan griped.  “But at least I killed me one.” 
The nights burned all night long that Freedom Summer.

Ray Killen prayed a funeral prayer. The preacher
beseeched God’s mercy on these communists,
these agitators—Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner—

before they buried them, using a bulldozer.
The murderers, old men now, still walk the town.
The nights burned all night long that Freedom Summer.
Ask Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner.

* * *

Andrew Hudgins is the author of American Rendering: New and Selected Poems, Shut Up, You’re Fine: Poems for Very, Very Bad Children (illustrated by Barry Moser), and After the Lost War. He teaches at Ohio State University.


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1 Comment

D! said on 6.10.10 at 10:13am:

not being a poet i think it is easy to answer what you do – nothing is my usual answer – it does bring forth strange looks and questions i assume are not much baffled then when you say you are a poet.

i think answering the academic answer you presented: “write in blank verse about seventy percent of the time, ..” is actually great. i am sure this should shut most of people up..