The Sound You Make When You Die – Poets on Poetry

Grant Snider Does It Again!

Grant Snider Does It Again!

Big thanks to Barry Dempster, poet and editor, who posted this cartoon on Facebook today. Another remarkable cartoon rendering of poetry by cartoonist Grant Snider! In 2013 his cartoon Day Jobs of the Poets also zoomed around the net! ( I have included this cartoon at the end of the post.) And this guy, last time I looked, was training to be a dentist!!! Maybe I could ask him to tattoo some of his poems on my teeth!

His cartoon got me thinking of poems on poetry since his cartoon is “After Mark Strand”. (If anyone knows the Strand poem he is referring to please let me know.) I have included some “poems-on-poetry” favorites and one of mine which is a shameless take-off on Billy Collins much anthologized poem:


I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a colour slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
And feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Billy Collins from The Apple that Astonished Paris, University of Arkansas Press, 1996

I used Collins’ poem while leading poetry writing workshops at a high school a few years ago. Here is my “After Collins” version:

Put a Poem in a Classroom

And you might as well shake salt
on a leech or a slug. Chop the head
off a snake and show off the skin
in a case — talk about how beautiful it is;
or go to the house of a hunter
to see a lion, stuffed, on its haunches —
shot, before it could move or spring;
or park the Porsche in a warm garage,
jack it up, keep the tires off the floor;
or love a frog and never kiss it.

And for an x-rated version here is a stunner by the celebrated Canadian poet, the late Gwendolyn  MacEwan. For a definition of poetry this one takes the cake and any other metaphor (better than this one I hope) you can make up!

You Can Study It If You Want

One of these days after my thousandth poetry reading

I’m going to answer the Question right.

The question is Why Do You Write.

Every time I hear The Question I get this
purple blur in front of my eyes, and
I fear I will fall down frothing at the mouth
and spewing forth saliva and
mixed metaphors.

You can study it if you want, I’m just the one who gets to do it; or,

Don’t ask me I just work here.

You know the answer and still I have to say it:

Poetry has nothing to do with poetry.
Poetry is how the air goes green before thunder
is the sound you make when you come, and
why you live and how you bleed, and

The sound you make or don’t make when you die.

Gwendolyn MacEwan from Afterworlds, McClelland & Stewart, 1987

Thanks to American poet Dorianne Laux I have spent many hours reading American poet Ruth Stone who only achieved well deserved notice for her poetry in her eighties! Her answer to What is a poem? is this:

What Is a Poem

Such slight changes in air pressure,
tongue and palate,
and the difference in teeth.
Transparent words.
Why do I want to say ochre,
or what is green-yellow?
The sisters of those leaves on the ground
still lisp in the branches.
Why do I want to imitate them?

Having come this far
with a handful of alphabet,
I am forced
with these few blocks,
to invent the universe.

Ruth Stone (1915 – 2011) from What Loves Comes To, Copper Canyon Press, 2011

When I think of al the science on the elements formed by the death and collision of stars (the creation of iron, lead, gold and the like) I now will add, thanks to Stone, perhaps the most precious and heavy element of them all – words! Words that can describe a universe back to itself.

Snider Redux

Snider Redux


  1. Liz
    Posted April 11, 2014 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    Why do I write, what is a poem … these are the things I think all poets grapple with and try to write about at some point.
    I have tried but haven’t found it just yet, perhaps soon …

  2. Richard
    Posted April 12, 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Some poets don’t like poems on poetry but I treasure good ones!

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