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Limited-Use Poetry

My mother has been writing poetry. I’m not sure for how long; it seems to be a recent thing, though I guess it could have been going on all her life and she’s only recently come out about it. She has been reading at a local cafe in Arizona, where it appears she’s been exposed to poetry slams. She comes home and she recites some of her poems to us in a rhythmic way that owes a backhanded debt to rap. I was trying to explain this to someone yesterday, and they were weirded out by the fact that my whitey-white mom had any connection to rap. No, no, no, I said, it’s not like that. It’s to be expected that she’s been exposed to rap; she used to listen to Public Enemy, and she was the one who introduced me to A Tribe Called Quest. She’s always been ahead of the curve.

It’s that she’s reading her poetry in a way that brings to mind how she used to rap us awake on Saturday mornings, lolloping along to Mama Said Knock You Out turned up to eleven. She’s always missed some subtle rhythmic idea, something to do with emphasis. She ends up sounding like rap written for cartoons. The Pokemon Rap. I told her the other day she needed to listen to Eminem. His phrasing is clever. Maybe I’m wrong, though; maybe it’s Shaggy she needs to listen to, or someone else with Caribbean influences, who leaves the beat cradled and swaying like, um, testicles in their sac.

Mom’s poetry itself is not bad, though. I mean, it doesn’t come off as bad to me. In fact, I find it quite moving. She writes about our family, about my sisters and me, about her divorce from Dad. Quite frequently she writes about our pets in very unsentimental ways. Stuff about piss and reflexes.

It’s unusual for me to not tear to pieces any poetry that’s handed to me. I have a history of being inappropriately cruel about bad poetry, or awkward public poetry. My high school friends and I developed an intricate set of rules for writing unkind parodies of the poems of a girl I knew who foisted books of her poems on other people. Lately I’ve been raising hell over at about some of the turgid love prose that gets posted over there.

So much poetry is so bad. So much of it is so personal that it loses its heft out of the gravitational pull of the person who wrote it, becoming just another junk meme loose in the atmosphere. And so few people understand that. I’ve always thought, and I’ve implied here before, that I think poetry is frequently best left as the therapy it so often is for so many people. I just don’t like to have other people’s poetry inflicted on me. It used to just be unpublished poetry; I didn’t trust anything that hadn’t appeared in sanctified print. Having trained with Martin Espada, I can’t bring myself to read the soporific stuff in the New Yorker, either.

But my mom’s poetry just fascinates me. I learn so much from it. She wrote a poem about me comparing me to a brain tumor. I had never really known how she thought of me before that. (It’s not as alarming as it sounds, I promise.) My mom was a hands-off parent who let me and my sisters come up with our own ideas and plans for ourselves. She’s mellow, and generally keeps her thoughts to herself.

Today I read a poem she wrote about our guinea pigs dying and I broke down in tears. It was the missing piece of one of my own stories. I remembered the tortured note in my dad’s voice, but I didn’t remember that my mother had been there that day, at all. I didn’t know she thought she could have stopped it if she’d been there. I didn’t know how she thought about her chores and about keeping the house running.

It was good. The metaphors seemed effective; the lapse into rhyme in the poem’s center seemed to make sense. Was it publishable good? Suddenly I found I couldn’t get distance from a poem.

What revision does this require? What about a new category — limited-use poetry? Poetry that has a practical impact on only a few people? What prose is not of limited use? Today Janice and I were talking about Mark Twain; we both agreed his prose was unbearably mannered to our ears, but I was saying I needed his messages right now anyway. We briefly debated whether a work should be assigned to students after its prose has outlived its shelf-life.

This piece doesn’t have an end. I have a headache. Mom, stop saying your stuff isn’t as good as the rest of the stuff in that compilation.


  1. kermix wrote:

    Actually, I think your mom needs to listen to Kool Keith. Chuck Z would certainly approve.

    Anything prior to Matthew, but preferably his Doctor Octagon album, Doctor Octagonecologyst.

    Monday, December 30, 2002 at 6:11 pm | Permalink
  2. kermix wrote:

    Oh, and I figured out the reason we were entranced by Roni Size’s bouncy-ball vocal flow: it is literally _swung_ over a _straight_ beat. Three over two, in a sense.

    It took me a few tries to duplicate the effect before I figured that rhythmic piece out, but then it made perfect sense.

    Monday, December 30, 2002 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

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