Saturday, December 27, 2008

List Poems

I was introduced to my first list poem, “Silent Poem” by Robert Francis, as a junior in high school, and I fell in love immediately. Here was a poem without verbs, a twelve-line poem, each line comprised only of four compound nouns. It was a poem whose form seemed to match its content perfectly; 48 rustic nouns without a verb or punctuation created a sense of stillness, but the fact that they were all compound words gave it a physicality, a thickness that almost made the images palpable.

While in college, I discovered the poems of Campbell McGrath, another listmaker who was not afraid to leave the verbs out from time to time. His debut collection, Capitalism, included two poems, “What They Ate” and “What They Drank,” about the dietary practices of the American colonists, that were comprised entirely of lists and also rhymed. His second book, American Noise, contained a prose poem, “Sunset, Route 90, Brewster County, Texas,” which in a single 14-line sentence attempted to catalog the light of a particular time and place and ended up as nothing less than a prayer.

I started collecting such poems, photocopying them out of literary magazines and library books, and keeping them in a manilla folder where I could return to them whenever I wanted, and disappear into those small nouny worlds. As a teacher, I showed my students the different ways a list could be a poem (while always making sure they understood that not every list was a poem—far from it, in fact, which is part of the beauty of these things). It seemed a way to make poetry less intimidating, to emphasize the music of language and de-emphasize that adolescent search for the deep hidden meaning of a poem that seems to drive so many teenagers away from poetry.

I haven’t taught that poetry unit for a few years now, and had given my pursuit of such poems a break, hadn’t even thought about them for a while, and then today, in middle age, while waiting for my kids to arrive to open their Christmas presents, I stumbled on this wonderful, brief poem by Lola Haskins, four spare and beautiful lines on beauty and aging.

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