Three Poems

Poetry / David Kirby


:: Stanza ::

It means room in Italian, but room itself  
means both enclosed area and open space,  
means confinement and as well as freedom.  
Let the poem say what it will, and let it go  
silent and speak again when it decides to.  
Let its words live under pressure: “in the very  
essence of poetry there is something indecent,” 
says Milosz, for “a thing is brought forth  
which we didn’t know we had in us,”  
and we jump back “as if a tiger had sprung  
out / and stood in the light, lashing his tail.”  
Poets, listen to your poem! It will tell you  
what sort of stanzas it wants to be whittled into:  
long, short, regular, random, or one alone,  
a stanza like a waterfall toward which  
the reader floats unknowing. First there is  
the river, tree-lined and tranquil, then  
the boulders that churn the water and whiten  
it with rage, then the precipice itself,  
and after that, the long flight through a mist  
that hides a future of which you know nothing,  
not a thing, only that it’s waiting for you,  
and you land in the still waters of the pool  
and sink to the bottom, and your feet touch  
everything that came before: ancient cities,  
shipwrecks, the armies of the dead. You rise,  
and the world is more silent than it will  
ever be again, and suddenly there’s sunlight 
and birdsong, and now you know everything.

:: I Should Have It to You by Noon ::

I’d like to write a love poem for you but I’m not sure you’d believe me seeing as how man is 
              ice to truth and fire to falsehood, according to Jean de La Fontaine, though where I come 
              from, we say that a lie can go around the world twice before the truth gets its socks on.  
Why? Because the more gaps and fissures in your poem or song or story or press release or 
              conspiracy theory or good or bad dream or academic or personal essay, the more room 
              for your audience to let their imaginations slither in.  
And who’d know that better than Jean de La Fontaine, as the most celebrated of his fables, “The 
              Grasshopper and the Ant,” can be read in two completely different ways?  
The first has the improvident grasshopper playing his fiddle and dancing while the industrious 
              ant piles up food for the coming winter. When winter arrives, the starving grasshopper 
              begs the ant for something to eat. But the ant says no, and in this way are we told that we 
              should plan for hard times. 
However there’s another reading in which the grasshopper is a merry fellow filling the air with 
              music and joy and the ant is a cruel old meanie unable to feel the least bit of compassion 
              for his fellow insect. 
“We laymen have always been intensely curious to know… from what sources that strange 
              creature, the creative writer, draws his material,” says Freud, “and how he manages to 
              make such an impression on us with it and to arouse in us emotions of which, perhaps, 
              we had not even thought ourselves capable.” 
Jean de La Fontaine answered Freud’s question two hundred years before Freud asked it. If 
              you’re that strange creature the creative writer, you do it this way: you set up a situation 
              and let it play out and refrain from commenting on it, because that’s the beholder’s job. 
              In the eye of the beholder, every entendre is double. 

This is why pornography will never be art. Erica Jong said that when you watch a porno, for the first 
              twenty minutes, you want to go home and have sex, and after that, you never want to 
              have sex again.  
John Waters says watching porn is like watching open-heart surgery. 

Sam Phillips, who recorded Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash at Sun Records studio in 
              Memphis, had a knack for steering his artists back to the growls and mumbles that not 
              only made them seem more neighborly to their blue collar audience but also allowed 
              listeners to enter into the music’s sense of playfulness.  
All those guys wanted to do was get away from farming and truck driving and become regional 
              stars who could play in small-town movie houses and high school gyms in the south, but 
              Phillips insisted they stay in touch with the parts of themselves that didn’t take so well to 
              upward mobility. 
When Carl Perkins of “Blue Suede Shoes” fame complained that a particular recording session 
              had been “one big original mistake,” Sam Phillips replied, “That’s what Sun Records is.” 
An interviewer asked Jerry Garcia why the Grateful Dead was so popular since the individual 
              band members never started or ended a song at the same time or played in the same key 
              and often forgot the lyrics, and Garcia said, “Well, you can’t please everybody all the 
I should have that poem to you by three p.m. 

I do know two things about writing a love poem or any poem, for that matter. The first is that 
              you can’t try too hard, and the second is don’t fake it. 
Tom Waits says, “Writing songs is like capturing birds without killing them.” 
Alastair Reid once said that he read a master’s thesis someone had written on his poems, and the 
              thesis said that most of Reid’s poems were about rain. What a terrible epiphany! If you 
              know most of your poems are about one thing,  you might be tempted to make them 
              about something else, and think of all the awful poems that would ensue. 
A poet friend of mine who lives in another country wrote that “I am still baffled by America. . . . 
              I cannot understand why there is such a love affair in the country with a joyless 
              obfuscatory poetry that wears out its welcome, for most of us, ultra-rapidly.” 
If you like to write about rain and you’re good at it, write about rain. 
Something else about trying too hard is that you might be successful, and then where would you 
              be? When Erik Satie was asked about the fact that Ravel had turned down the Legion of 
              Honor, he said: “It’s not enough to have refused the Legion d’Honneur. The important 
              thing is not to have deserved it in the first place.” 
As far as faking it goes, you’ll just look silly. In Thomas E. Ricks’ novel Fiasco, a colonel 
              compiling a report is described as “pasting feathers together, hoping for a duck.” 

Let me tell you about this poem I’m writing for you.  
It’s going to be terrific. It’ll be like a Cole Porter musical. It’ll be like the sack of Rome. It’ll be a 
              regular deluge of a poem: there’ll be music, costumes, angels, scenery, food, vivacity, 
              and weekend charades. 
It’ll be chockful of the finest images available to any poet anywhere. Every image in it will be as 
              fabulous as the one in Le Chien Andalou where the lover is advancing on the pretty girl 
              who’s ready to swat him with a tennis racket but drops it and just stares at him in 
              amazement when, out of nowhere, he shoulders two ropes and starts dragging two priests 
              across the floor, and the two priests are tied to two pianos, and on the two pianos are two 
              dead horses.  
Religion, art, lust, beastliness: the whole movie’s in that one image, including the lover’s 
              inability to do what he came there to do in the first place, which is to woo the pretty girl. 
You know, I’m going to feel pretty stupid if I put a lot of time and energy into this poem I’m 
              writing for you only to have you say, “David who?” 

As if! Of course you love me. You adore me, in fact. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that 
              you’re writing a poem for me yourself at this very moment, even though you don’t know 
              how to do it any more than I do. 
Let’s try this. Let’s forget that we don’t know what we’re doing. Who does?  
Dante didn’t. Dante has spent a sleepless night making his way through the dark forest and is 
              exhausted before his poem even begins.  
So he turns back when he encounters three snarling beasts, but Virgil tells him he has to go 
              through the fiery center of the earth and contend with minotaurs and flesh-eating harpies 
              and ice giants and Satan himself before he comes out on the other side and finds Beatrice, 
              if he’s lucky.  
Dante is still exhausted and now he’s terrified as well, but off he goes. 
Forget the poem. Give me your hand. Take just one step with me, then one more. Let’s be like 
              Dante. Let’s do it. Let’s do it scared. 

:: Low-Effort Thinking ::

Did you know that when mob bosses want somebody killed, they get the one of the victim’s
              friends to do it?  
That way, if you go to your friend’s house to kill him and are seen entering by a nosy neighbor  
              or if, after the deed’s done, investigators find your fingerprint or a strand of hair, it can be 
              explained away.  
“I was just dropping off some cannoli,” you could say. “He looked okay to me. Said he had to  
              get his taxes in and find a math tutor for his kid, but otherwise, fine. Is there a problem, 
This is what’s called high-effort thinking.  
The opposite of high-effort thinking is low-effort thinking, which leads to political conservatism 
              according to the scientists who tested that hypothesis by conducting two experiments, one 
              boring and one not. 
The boring experiment consisted of assigning one group of volunteers to react to items on a list 
              of liberal and conservative statements such as “Large fortunes should be taxed heavily” 
              and “A first consideration of any society is property rights.” 
Meanwhile, a second group was given the same task but instructed to listen simultaneously to a 
              tape of tones varying in pitch and to count and record the number of tones that preceded 
              each change.  
Ha, ha! I’d go batshit, too, wouldn’t you, reader?  
Or at least I’d make conservative choices, as everyone in the second group did. 

Popcorn movies as well as most bumper stickers and t-shirts tell us that decisive action by one 
              person saves the day, but in reality, usually that gets you jack diddley. 
No, no. False starts, trial and error, teamwork: human progress is built on these.  
And patience. Wittgenstein said, “Philosophy is like trying to open a safe with a combination 
              lock: each little adjustment of the dials seems to achieve nothing, and only when 
              everything is in place does the door open.” 

Case in point: it’s 1967, and Albert King is in the Stax studio, and the recording session for his 
              next album is almost done. Thing is, they need one more song.  
Now William Bell is in the studio as well, and Mr. Bell has a verse, a chorus, and the bass line to 
              a new song worked out, and when he tries them out on Albert King, the bluesman likes 
              what he hears and asks for the rest.  
Well, there is no rest. So Mr. Bell goes off with Booker T. Jones of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, and  
              they stay up all night and finish the song, which they call “Born Under a Bad Sign.” 
The next day, everybody comes back to the studio, and here’s where the story gets good.  
“Albert King couldn’t read,” Mr. Bell says in the course of an interview about the incident. 
“You mean he couldn’t read music?” says the interviewer. “A lot of musicians can’t read music 
              —Paul McCartney can’t read music.”  
“No, I mean he couldn’t read!” says Mr. Bell. “Couldn’t read English. Couldn’t read words. So I 
              stood next to him in the studio and whispered each line to him, and he sang it.”  
Amazing, huh? Or maybe not.  
If you’re a musician, especially a successful one, almost certainly not. 
Good musicians always take their time, and the best musicians listen to others.  
As they learned their craft, the Beatles played a stint at a Hamburg club called the Indra which 
              was managed by Bruno Koschmider, described by Beatles’ biographer Bob Spitz as “a 
              florid-faced man with a preposterous wig-like mop of hair.”  
Koschmider would yell “Mach schau!” (“Put on a show!”) during the boys’ lackluster 
At first the four musicians laughed and staggered around, knocking over mikes as they made fun 
              of the silly German man. But when the audiences went crazy, the boys saw the value of
              “putting on a show” and became the band that changed the world. 

And now for the fun experiment.  
Mixed-sex groups of experimenters waited outside a bar and asked potential participants if they 
              would complete a short survey on social attitudes and then consent to being tested for 
              blood alcohol levels. 
Ha, ha again! Can you imagine how much fun it was for the psychology students to accost a 
              bunch of drunkos and ask them to agree or not with statements like “Production and trade 
              should be free of government interference” and “Ultimately, privately property should be 
The drunkos didn’t care; they were drunk. 
The drunkest among them registered more conservative attitudes because alcohol limits 
              cognitive capacity and disrupts controlled responding while leaving automatic thinking 
              largely intact.  

By the way, if you’re wondering if conservatives are all dumb-asses, the answer is “Not quite.”  
That’s from principal investigator Scott Eidelman, who devised both the boring experiment and  
              the fun one.  
“Our research shows that low-effort thought promotes political conservatism,” says Dr. 
              Eidelman, “not that political conservatives use low-effort thinking.” 
Those undergraduates must have had so much fun interviewing those drunkos. 
“Excuse me, drunko, would you agree that rich people have the right to shove as much money up 
              their backsides as they like?”  
“Huh? Oh, yeah, and guns and cocaine and—BLOOOOORCH! Excuse me. Say, who are you anyways?”  
Oh, Jesus. I better not laugh again or I might not be able to stop. 

From the writer


:: Account ::

A few years ago, I noticed that I was get­ting tired of some of my favorite poets and couldn’t fig­ure out why. After all, they were still writ­ing great poems. Then I got it: they were writ­ing the same great poem over and over. To avoid the same­ness that can mire the work of any artist who has been going at it as long as I have, I began to think seri­ous­ly about rein­ven­tion. In 2016, I fell hard for the short, punchy poems of Jack Gilbert. Then two years lat­er, I was swept off my feet for the umpteenth time by Ginsberg’s “Howl” and began knock­ing out poems that one might call cousins to that canon­i­cal work. And last sum­mer, I redis­cov­ered Frank O’Hara while look­ing up some­one else. You’ll find exam­ples of all these poem types here.


David Kir­by teach­es at Flori­da State Uni­ver­si­ty. His col­lec­tion The House on Boule­vard St.: New and Select­ed Poems (LSU Press, 2007) was a final­ist for both the Nation­al Book Award and Canada’s Grif­fin Poet­ry Prize. Kir­by is the author of Lit­tle Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Con­tin­u­um, 2009), which the Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment of Lon­don called “a hymn of praise to the eman­ci­pa­to­ry pow­er of non­sense” and was named one of Book­list’s Top 10 Black His­to­ry Non-Fic­tion Books of 2010. His lat­est books are a poet­ry col­lec­tion, More Than This (LSU Press, 2019), and a text­book mod­est­ly enti­tled The Knowl­edge: Where Poems Come From and How to Write Them (Flip Learn­ing, 2021).