a poem that nobody can understand

“I’d like to be on record as saying that anybody can write a poem that nobody can understand.” –Ted Kooser

Thanks Ted, time to distill some of my recent works which are perhaps examples of the types of poems anybody can write (and nobody can understand). Time to focus on what it is about Billy Collins, David Budbill and other poets who demonstrate great restraint, don’t allow themselves to be carried away or lost in language but are direct and specific and most importantly, are understood.

There’s that type of poetry which I admire and believe is essential in engaging a broader audience for poetry which so often is dismissed as difficult or even incomprehensible. However there are other types of poetry, which require some literary background, whether in linguistics, in literary history/criticism, etc that certainly are challenging to the average reader but that like any great work of literature, worth pushing through the initial challenges to grasp. Some of these challenges are syntax, line break, structure.

I just re-read and have been trying to respond to Danish poet Inger Christensen’s poem alphabet which is certainly challenging due to the juxtaposition of the natural and the made made objects of a post-atomic world but also due to the structure which brings in not only a recursive abecedarian progression but also the numeric Fibonnaci sequence as shown in the first 3 stanzas below.

apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist

bracken exists; and blackberries, blackberries;
bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen

cicadas exist; chicory, chromium,
citrus trees; cicadas exist;
cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cerebellum

Another structural challenge unfamiliar readers of poetry site is syntax and line breaks which can lead to an uncertainty of the narrative intent. This practice isn’t random or fanciful but intentional and artful as shown in these two short excerpts by Brenda Shaughnessy and Olena Kalytiak Davis.

from Artless

is my heart. A stranger
berry there never was,

Gone sour in the sun,
in the sunroom or moonroof,

No poetry. Plain. No
fresh, special recipe
to bless.

Brenda Shaughnessy, Our Andromeda


Reader, toward you, loud as a cloud and deaf, Reader, deaf

as a leaf. Reader: Why don’t you turn
pale? and, Why don’t you tremble? Jaded, staid
Reader, You—who can read this and not even

flinch. Bare-faced, flint-hearted, recoilless
Reader, dare you—Rare Reader, listen
and be convinced: Soon, Reader,
soon you will leave me, for an italian mistress:…..

Olena Kalytiak Davis, Shattered sonnets love cards and other
off and back handed importunities


Buddy Tabor teaches me to fillet a halibut

in an interview
i ask him what he thinks about
when he paints houses?

nothing, he says
i just go blank

you never write songs
or poems to occupy your mind
while working those hands?

nope, he tells me
when you get as old as me
it’s a relief, the silent mind

i’m deep into
pearl-rope sockeye

light fading
no-see-ems swarming
the hands, the knife
magnificent red
salmon flesh

hands- automatic
despite the slime
but my mind’s not

not now
not ever
i’m remembering Buddy
how we ran into each other
down at the harbor
after a morning
full of stories
recording an interview
for the radio

both of us lured down
to the water by the
hand-painted sign
by the road
a boy and his father
working side by side
deep lines in the sea
bringing fish to boat
from boat to table
no middle men

Buddy bummed to find
they are only selling
whole fish
the smallest 25 pounds

so we split a fish
and drive over to my place
on Douglas

i’d grown comfortable
enough in a short time
speaking with this
peculiar poet i admired
to admit I didn’t
know how to fillet a halibut

Passing my knife
he makes short work
talking his way through it
a song for the fish, for me

carving it up, negotiating
some sort of a split in which
he comes out ahead

payment for this
life lesson, his tutelage
Buddy takes home the heavy filets,
the cheeks

Buddy’s been dead for years
this salmon in my hands
only days

I remember telling Buddy where i lived,
Which crooked house on the hill?
Him laughing, telling me
“a guy asked me to paint
that house years ago,
When I gave him the estimate
He told me to go to hell!
I told him that roof is a widow maker,
It’s gonna cost you something.”
His old house-painting-partner
Is painting my neighbor’s house
In this late summer dusk

To hear audio from the interview I did with Buddy back in 2008 check out the Letters from the North archives.


Found this found poem at twitter where i rarely roam as the shack_poet. Thanks Emily Wall for the prompt.

knife found in muskeg, peat, rust
browned blade fashions paper lantern into wings
my departure under their power
requires no jumper cables

Dear Poet Project

This piece evolved from the Dear Poet Project, a program of the Academy of American Poets. Participants were encouraged to write a response letter the author. Poet Jennifer Vernon suggested crafting the letters in the form of a poem. This is my response to Toi Derricotte’s poem, Cherry Blossoms. The italicized line a branched heaven is borrowed from Derricotte.


Dear Toi,

I ran down to the river, where breath and blossom and the river’s muddy smell braided spring into branches (each tree’s hair). River-run and leaf-buzz in the air, my hard-hands touched the tree where its heart bulged beneath smooth black bark. On everything and everyone in this grove, covered with a light dusting of pollen or dream and I found, like you, so many people in various states of celebration, some more aware of the fleetingness of the bloom, these tiny affairs between bud, bloom, bee and cherry.

Oh blossom
this breath of mine
returning your fragrance,
giving back to you
your sweet breath.

Oh blossom
and my cool inhalation
the warming of this micro climate,
micro moment
where we come close,
but don’t

But rather grow colder
unspring, unblossom,
return again to bud,
return to march
when we were both barer,
both reaching
for what light could be had.

Even bare, Toi,
these cherry trees
and our outstretched arms
and hands
and fingers
and grasping
are a branched heaven.
A blossom fluttering

Earth spinning,
swift cyclone
of seasons,
of moments.

A bee in a blossom
dreaming cherry dreams.

Jonas Lamb
April 11, 2013
4 inches fresh snow this morning

The Continuing Bewilderment of Fatherhood

Well we’ve made it almost 4 months into round two and I’d have to say that bewilderment continues to be the most constant theme in life since the arrival of our first adventure, Finnegan.  Having spent a few hours walking around town yesterday and on our bellies on the living room floor, Oscar, my second son and I are really tuning into some common ground.  We both like to talk, a lot, both of us a bit incomprehensible at times, we both like to sit in silence after reading aloud the seemingly simple verse of ancient Chinese Zen masters.  We are amazed at the infinite small print of existence and the role we play in attempting to draw meaning from these details while seizing on the occasional opportunity to write our own additions to these operating instructions of life.

And it was during this amazing afternoon spent searching for the “Go Wilde” button on my little boy, Oscar that I realized how much I was going to miss this guy and Finn when I seized on such an opportunity to rewrite the fine print of existence and treat myself to the Poetry Workshop at the Wrangell Mountain Center later this summer.  These guys change so quickly as do we all.  I read last night in a great sci-fi novel Machine Man by Max Berry that our bodies, all of the cells that make the fine print of our physical presence in this world, are completely regenerated every 7 years, we are in fact completely different physical beings now than we were 7 years ago.  So not just the boys will change significantly during 3+ weeks we are apart, my wife too will no doubt have rewritten some of her fine print too when we are back together in Juneau.  But despite this hesitancy to take advantage of a great opportunity to spend a week writing, embracing solitude and living by the inkblood, I know this workshop and this trip is essential in keeping my fine print telling a good story, or at least giving good instructions.

I remember struggling with identity and purpose quite a lot when I first became a father.  Shifting from egocentricity to allocentricity did not come easy, would I be able to maintain enough of the time I needed for myself to write while selflessly devoting myself to my new family?  The answer wasn’t forthcoming but I feel confident now, nearly 5 years in that balance can be found.

Dan Beach-Quick will be leading Strangeness: A Poetry Workshop in Accuracy’s Paradox, at the Wrangell Mountain Center and I was looking around trying to get a feel for his work and came across an essay he wrote for the New York Times a few years back and it was this essay, Modern Love: Disassembling my Childhood that got me writing this post and really thinking about the gifts we are given, the ones we overlook when they arrive due to too much anticipation, the ones we mistake for burdens, the ones we give.  My family is the gift that gave my life a certain purpose an easy answer to the big questions (the one that I never really believed 42 was a reasonable answer for).  The question this spring, as I gear up to rework my habits as an undisciplined poet and get to work again, is this year’s big gift the chance to go to this workshop or the chance to again appreciate all of the small gifts that come to me every day?  Ones that begin with a cry of “Daddy I need you” or a smile and silence when I pick up sleepy Oscar from the warmth of the comforter.

“I felt like a child myself, sitting on the floor next to the undone puzzle. A child with a child of his own. Parenthood, for me, occurs in the paradox of being a father and a child at once.”– Dan Beachy-Quick  from the essay, Modern Love: Disassembling my Childhood

The Eating Book

‘Let’s be done reading, Dad.  Let’s tell stories.’

So I begin…

‘Ok, this one starts in a tiny library in a tiny town.  And the library is so small it fits in a trailer which is great because the librarian has a big truck and sometimes he’ll hitch up the library and take it on the road to other communities on the island that don’t have libraries.   Continue reading