Happy to be the biggest fool



I was stepping out the door into a thunderstorm with a shoebox of poems when my husband asked where I was going.


“An errand for my blog,” I said.


He looked at the weather and looked at the poems bundled in a protective garbage bag and said, “Sometimes I think you’re a little crazy.”


Usually I don’t mind being called a little crazy.  It puts me in the good company of all the kooks and eccentrics I admire and enjoy.  Years ago I heard Irish writer Edna O’Brien explain herself this way:  “I’m not what you would call the sanest woman in the universe.  In fact I might have a little extra insanity.”  She wasn’t joking in the least.


But this time, “a little crazy” sounded less like “charming and creative” and more like “pointless and irrelevant.”


IMG_2283Sometimes I wonder why I do what I do. Why do I go out in the rain to a coffee shop to set up a display of give-away poems that will be moved by the management to a back corner where hardly anyone sees it?  Why do I slink around public parks or libraries waiting for people to leave so I can tape a poem to a bike rack or bench and take a picture?  Why do I go back to check if the poem is still there?  Why am I writing this post when I could draw in hundreds more viewers with pictures of my dog?


Maybe National Poetry Month has brought on this crisis of confidence.  With the National Poetry Foundation, teachers and bloggers all cheering Yes, poetry matters! so insistently that everyone suspects it doesn’t, a person several rungs down the poetry ladder, a person who doesn’t write poetry but writes about poetry, and not even writing about poetry for an academic audience who might possibly care but for a general audience who doesn’t, that person might feel a little sorry for herself.


after the snow
after the snow

It’s been a rotten April in Michigan, wet, cold and today actually snowing on the just-blossoming forsythia.  The month began badly with a gratuitously cruel op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the irrelevance of contemporary poetry.  Essayist Joseph Epstein, perhaps trying to reprise the uproar he caused twenty-five years ago with his essay “Who Killed Poetry,” wrote a follow-up piece on April Fool’s Day called “The Poetic Justice of April 1.”  Epstein writes that although he loves poetry, old poetry that is, poetry that’s already in the canon, poetry that’s been blessed by Harold Bloom I suppose, he finds more recent poetry worthy only of his considered contempt.  He writes,  “the biggest fools of all may well be those who believe that contemporary poetry matters in the least except to those who, against a high barbed-wire wall of national indifference, continue solemnly to churn it out.” Judging from the meager number of comments the essay generated, folks were just as indifferent to his rant.


Epstein is a great writer and he’s funny and smart, but here he underestimates the general public.   The searches on my blog offer a counter argument to his assertion of national indifference to contemporary poetry. Nearly every day someone is looking for a wedding poem or a children-leaving-home poem or a poem by Billy Collins.  Sometimes the search terms include a phrase from a poem and often those poems are contemporary.  Not everyone is looking for Yeats and Keats.  As poet Jane Hirshfield says (and I’ve quoted this in a past post, so forgive me for repeating it),


I think that in good times or bad times for poetry as a whole, people will always have periods in their lives when they turn to poetry. Dealing with grief or falling in love, people will look for a poem or perhaps write one in the attempt to sort through and understand their most powerful experiences. Or, for the occasions of large transition — a marriage or a funeral — they will ask someone to read a poem that marks and holds the feeling. One of the jobs of poets is to keep making those holding words available, so that when other people need them they will be there.”


And here’s another thing, Joseph Epstein.  This month my daughter sent me two poems given to her by two different young men, both graduating college seniors.  Granted the poems don’t exactly disprove Epstein’s thesis—one poem is actually a lyric and the other is by Emily Dickinson—but the fact that two guys cared enough about a poem to share it suggests that our yearning for meaning will always keep poetry, old or new, relevant.


The first friend, an engineering student, forwarded Lizzie part of a song by Rage Against the Machine called “Snakecharmer.”  I’m treating it as a poem because that’s the form he sent it in.  If he intended it to be experienced as a song, he would have sent a youtube video.  Here it is:


Father’s expectations,

soul soaked in, spit and urine

And you gotta make it where?

To a sanctuary that’s a fragile American hell

An empty dream

A selfish, horrific vision

Passed on like the deadliest of viruses

Crushing you and your naive profession

Have no illusions boy

Vomit all ideals and serve

Sleep and wake and serve

And don’t just think just wake and serve


I don’t understand the comma after soul soaked in but I love the incredulity of the question that follows:  And you gotta make it where?  The idea that the American dream is a deadly virus passed from father to son is a powerful one. For a college kid who doesn’t want to spend life in a cubicle, this poem is a rallying cry.


Her other friend had talked to her about trying to decide whether or not to become a priest. Perhaps by way of an answer, he sent her this:


Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church

by Emily Dickinson


Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –

I keep it, staying at Home –

With a Bobolink for a Chorister –

And an Orchard, for a Dome –


Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –

I, just wear my Wings –

And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,

Our little Sexton – sings.


God preaches, a noted Clergyman –

And the sermon is never long,

So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –

I’m going, all along.


Here are two guys, neither one an English major or aspiring writer, finding solace and satisfaction in poetry. Both found poems that speak directly to their life decisions, their philosophies, and their dreams.  How do you get more relevant than that?


All of which is a timely reminder of why I keep writing this blog.  This is my fantasy:  waiting at the train station or rushing through the grocery store, someone chances upon a poem I’ve left behind, reads it, thinks about it, and steps back from the frantic surface of life long enough to discover the poem’s relevance, which was there all along, hidden among all the irrelevant things we call important.



  1. donna savage

    Thank you Poem Elf. I always appreciate your musings and your sharing of interesting poems.

    I am going to send back to you a favorite of mine it is contemporary poem by Michael Blumenthal.

    Death of a Romantic But he did not shoot himself, and did not hang himself; he went on living. –Tolstoy, Anna Karenia

    Now I have entered into the general sadness of my frail species, having come to the dark corner of my own life, the harsh mid-point at which the self loses the previous grandeur of the self and the high, rarefied air of solitude comes to resemble, merely, a loneliness. I look out over the grey-green waters and watch the buoys bob with the bounties of their traps, I feel the dock rise and lower with the tides, and, whatever it is I have always prayed to, I pray to again, because it has come to resemble a habit, because it is the one transit from the life I have lived to the one I am moving toward, because I see now that even the silence is a kind of continuum, that we shall all come in the end to a place of our own making, that the voice which has always answered these prayers is answering still.

    Thanks for your emails it makes me know the pursuit of poetry is not a solitary endeavor. donna Savage Minnesota – the other place holding onto winter.

    1. poemelf

      Donna, I hadn’t heard of Michael Blumenthal and just read a few of his poems and he’s great. Thanks so much for introducing me…and this poem (is it a prose poem or are there line breaks? just wondering) is dead-on for me right now. Beautiful.

      I think we’re through the worst of the weather. Sunny today. Hope Minnesota is warming up too.

  2. Trish Rawlings

    I was equally moved both by poem elf’s latest and donna’s reply…what a beautiful selection, donna..

    Poem Elf, don’t for even a split second think your musings and introspections and selections and reasons for selections and digressions and spot-on perfect analyses–is that the plural of analysis?–and ramblings and biographical notes and photos and clippings and this and that and the other are not important and essential and hysterical and moving and stirring and relevant and calming and disturbing and off-the-point and on-the-point and who cares about the point because this is good stuff and we need it so don’t for a split second worry about being “foolish”. To steal from an old soul song, If loving what you do, poem elf, is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

    I join you and Donna in bemoaning the sluggish spring. It was so windy here earlier it was making my window screens go flap flap flap. It was as if the wind was mocking my optimism…

    I want to go find May and drag her here by her ears!

  3. poemelf

    Gee whiz, that’s sweet! Thank you so much for your kind words. I wasn’t looking for that kind of boost but it’s wonderful to get one from a great writer like you.

  4. afellowfool

    Your blog is so important for the very reason that you’re not writing for an “academic audience.” It’s at the university where so many things are analyzed until their beauty becomes obscured. I love your posts because you speak to the experience in such personal ways that the poetry is allowed to come alive and interact with the living world; they’re not memories of some political or social agenda nor static recordings of a place in time, but traces and remains of fellow humankind–relics of minds more gentle than our own.

  5. poemelf

    A long time ago when new historicism was getting popular in academic circles, I remember a professor talking to the class about a conference she’d been to…among the opposing factions were the “beauty” people and the “power” people. I always knew I was on the beauty side.

    Love the idea of poems as mind-relics. And thanks for your kind words!

  6. stormy1812

    love this! i would note that being the music fiend that i am, that i find that many lyrics are just poetry set to a musical background and seems to me that most if not all poetry has some rhythm to it anyway. also being that im such a music fiend, i love that lyrics, or poems, can find the words i can’t, which is why i agree with you about poetry always remaining relevant. i just told another blogger recently that putting words together, in whatever fashion, is not as easy as it seems or else everyone would do it. being a good writer of anything takes talent and is certainly an art form. those of us who can’t do that, rely on others to express for us what we cannot. as for that band, rage against the machine is definitely known for having strong lyrics so i suppose im not surprised to see that someone would see/feel it as poetry. seems to me there are much worse things to be a “fool” for then poetry or this blog. everyone is a “fool” for something, may as well make it poetry – something that gives you something in return – i hardly see that as foolish.

    1. poemelf

      Sometimes I think lyrics (good ones anyway) have replaced poetry in the general public as the go-to form for expressing ideas/emotions in compressed language….just like movies have “replaced” novels as the preferred medium for telling stories.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

  7. cynthiamc1

    I’m a Robert Frost/Emily Dickinson/Rudyard Kipling girl – sometimes a poem says it better than anything.

    One of my favorites is from Robert Frost – Two Tramps in Mudtime. In fact it’s my mission statement.

    “But yield who will to their separation,
    My object in living is to unite
    My avocation and my vocation
    As my two eyes make one in sight.
    Only where love and need are one,
    And the work is play for mortal stakes,
    Is the deed ever really done
    For Heaven and the future’s sakes.”

  8. Bright Tuesday

    What a wonderfully thoughtful and personal post. Thank you for your insights here. Poetry is important, and sometimes the best way to share our humanity is through poetry. As an aside, my husband has written several poems for me over the years, and they mean more to me than anything.

  9. harulawordsthatserve

    Great post and I’m thrilled to find such an enthusiastic poetry champion! I feel sorry for Epstein because anyone who thinks modern poetry is irrelevant has lost their connection with life. We live in a world whose very structures and systems are collapsing. I love the classic poets but I also turn to those who find words to express what’s happening right now and can engage a modern audience and a modern psyche that rebels at poetry written in a language they’ve never been granted access too. ALL poetry is relevant, for poetry is the stuff of life’s most intense and unspeakable moments, for the good or bad.

  10. Trish Rawlings

    I recall a week at the U of Md at the time of the Kent State riots and while the Vietnam war raged. (My brother was healing in a Japanese hospital, young body made instantly old, tall self fed so many narcotics he developed severe constipation and had to deal with this in a stall sized for small people, the tiny feet of fretting and giggling Japanese nurses padding nervously on the other side, chattering in Japanese What to do? What to do?)

    Everybody that spring was very vocal and outraged and railing and long-haired and Earth-shoe-shod. Passsive verb forms were out! Classes were halted. We stopped traffic on Rt 1 and got ourselves tear-gassed. Blinking watery eyes, I clambered over the wall at the bottom of the big hill that flows down from the Chapel to escape the rolling plumes of gas and a thudding policeman headed my way, embarrassingly getting my pantyhose snagged on the rough brick before leaping to the ground on the other side.

    In the midst of all this heat and poetry fodder there was a Poetry Symposium with many fine speakers, including the politician who ran for president and was also a poet and whose name I forget.

    Another speaker was Robert Bly. Soliciting questions from the audience, Bly responded to a student who asked him why he didn’t write about the war. He said

    “Everything I write is about the war.”

    The audience sort of gasped in recogntion and delight, absorbing this, taking it in as one takes in the best poetry.

    How can anyone speak against poetry? Against something so small but that can run rings around the world? That perfoms magic, a little car out of which ten thousand clowns emerge? That can be about everything in seven words? Why is an outstanding phrase or line referred to as poetry, no matter from what source it’s been plucked? (Have you ever heard someone exclaim after hearing a speech, “Wow,that was sheer prose”?)

    How many quote or carry in their head lines of poetry for a lifetime who would never carry lines of prose, no matter how splendid? Passages from the Gettysburg Address are immortal not because they’re prose–but because they’re poetry.

    Why is it? I think it’s because poetry is the thing everything hopes to be found out to be.

      1. Trish Rawlings

        At the time I was in the midst of the first of many attempts to return to childhood–I’m fully in now, thanks, having finally wrenched myself around an especially tight corner–and was wearing my hair in pigtails. I’d hauled out my mother’s sewing machine and stitched up a series of jumpers with dirndl skirts and square bibs and wide shoulder straps. To go with them I sewed some easy-to-make peasant blouses with fat raglan sleeves and elasticized wrists. In short, I was straight out of HItler’s Youth or the Sound of Music, depending on one’s perspective.

        Most days I wore knee socks and penny loafers with the outfit, but that day I wore T-straps–you could still find them–and the about-to-die-for-the-cause anachronistic pantyhose. I can’t remember why, unless it was because the jumper that day was, um, “dressier,” made out of dark blue wide-wale corduroy I’d found at Britt’s for a dollar a yard and that looked like velveteen. I should have more properly worn thin little white socks with the T-straps but those always slid down the back of my shoes and I hated that…

        There she was, climbing up into her VW Microbus, headed to College Park, Pippi Longstocking, revolutionary!

        That day things moved pretty spontaneously–at least for me, as I hadn’t heard of a protest. Classes weren’t forming up, desks were empty. I remember someone shouting “They’re bombing Cambodia!” A classmate, brooding with me over our called class, told me in front of Holzapfel Hall that they were shooting students at Kent State.

        Next thing I knew I was down on Route 1, where there was no traffic but oddly-angled police cars and bunches of kids. I saw clouds of what turned out to be tear gas and here came a plump policeman, running all his equipment loudly, hand securing holstered gun at his side, eyeballing a group of us milling about, more moved by the novelty of an empty highway, something we’d never seen before, than by war activities. We ran off it as he and the tear gas got closer.

        Suddenly my eyes were stinging and I was trying to get over the wall and my pantyhose had snagged of all places high up on the inner thigh….

        I must have presented an un-lovely sight as I hung there, riding the wall like Maria von Trappe masquerading as a cowgirl, skirt hiked up around my waist, T-straps dangling.

        The policeman who’d seemed to be aiming for me braked, hiked his slipping gunbelt up with his forearms, and gave me one of those frowns no female wants to receive. Then he turned away from what he probably decided was a lost Heidi, and headed back to the highway, where the scattered had re-convened.

        I freed myself and jumped down, with blurry eyes headed for the parking lot, wondering if I’d be able to see myself home…

        I really hadn’t done much in the way of protest, unless that can include things like making overweight Riverdale policemen chase after one, or frowning deeply down at a copy of The Diamondback, with its outrage over things happening in a country one couldn’t have pinned a donkey’s tale to given a hundred years.

        That morning as I’d climbed up into the VW bus I drove to school every day I’d not been thinking about war, I’d been wondering why my nice dark blue wide-wale corduroy jumper smelled like wet cardboard….

        Sorry to digress so. It’s your fault, poem elf, for getting me riffing!.

  11. zettestan

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I am in the midst of a rediscovering…of myself, of my present much more than my future. Poetry has always awoken a kind of living hum within me and I find that I am in desperate need of that.

    Also, I had long forgotten about that poem by Emily Dickinson. As a church employee in some fashion or another for years now, disillusionment has settled in. It is a blessing and a sorrow that leads to more torn veils. Ever closer, ever onward to truth within. What a beautiful reminder.

  12. Earl B Russell

    I like your attitude and your poems. It’s okay to be “a little crazy,” and “little” is of course a relative term. I was born on April Fool’s Day, giving me a license to be “a little crazy” and to be proud of it. 🙂

    As far as your drive to get your poems out, don’t let the weather interfere. You’re motivated and committed, both good things.

  13. foreverwithlucy

    Poetry mattered most to me when I was lonely at school. I’d read it and write it (my poems were never any good) as a way of collecting and organising my thoughts. I’ve appreciated it’s power ever since and admire those who write it most, as a poem or a lyric. Love the end bit “steps back from the frantic surface of life long enough to discover the poem’s relevance, which was there all along, hidden among all the irrelevant things we call important”

  14. studiolightblue

    Here’s a quote for you (and me and all the other ‘little crazies’ out there).

    “Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light”.

    Thanks for the post, I really enjoyed reading it!
    Lee (aka Light Blue)

  15. Doug

    There is no real problem. It’s a matter of focus, point-of-view, and translation. Labrador Retrievers have barked out many fine poems though they will hunt down the birds of instinct and eat them. This dismays many not fluent in the canine vocabulary. But we do eat chicken and they the pheasants — much in common. There is nothing more romantic than paw prints in a Spring snow and the shedding of black hair on the carpets and chandeliers. Why can’t rhymes be fetched? I’ve bought all the Woof Poems and pealed the bark off the Wronged trees and collected the right sap from maples. Dogs like pancakes too.

      1. Doug

        Well yeah, you’re perfectly right: poetry is a hairy problem. And as you say there is not always a red carpet:
        “Why do I go out in the rain…set up a display of give-away poems…where hardly anyone sees it? Why do I slink around…tape a poem…check if the poem is still there?”
        Well yeah, you’re perfectly right: poetry is a hairy problem.
        I’ve read my poems aloud in Central Park, in Times Square, near the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on 72 second street east and west, near Carnegie Hall. Everyone sees me and nobody does. I’ve given out my book and web address at the “train to the plane” which goes to JFK airport, and though on rare occasions I’ve gotten applause and feigned interest, no one buys anything, poetry month or not. I’m not all there. I don’t know why you’re not all there. It’s probably best to shout into the wind because the wind listens… No need to slink around because even in plain sight, nobody cares…Oh yeah, the carpet thing is not good… Maybe when you’re slinking around you could wear dark glasses and bring your dog and I’m sure people won’t mind if the dog reads a poem or two and sheds some insight onto the meaning of life…

  16. So Here's Us.... life on the raggedy edge.

    Thank you for your hearty defense of contemporary poetry. It’s so true, that we turn to it when life is intense and overwhelming, when other words just don’t quite cut it. At all the lowest and highest points of my life I’ve written poems. Some very badly, but the impusle remains. There’s something about it…

  17. bdh63

    Great post. I love poems, new and older. I love how even a few words are worth a musical breath before the next line begins. Glad there are still people obsessed with poetry in the world.

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