"A History of Something"
For the pilgrims, turkey was what was in style.
They dressed up like guns.
Tonight, it’s macaroni with oregano,
tomato, and ham, and the kitchen light
comes from the butter and cheese. You’re
sitting where you always sit. Every night
at dinner you’re sitting with
the phrase, “down the hall,” because
you look down at the dark hall
from your chair at the kitchen table
and wonder if it’s snowing.
Your toes turn a certain way
and you say, “ears.”
You sit on the floor
and try to play cards, but
before you know it,
you’re smushing the Jack
of Diamonds and the Queen
of Hearts together and
making them have sex and also
making the Queen of Clubs
watch, thinking, Jack’s got that
weird little beard I always knew
he was up to no good—
the Jack of Hearts
would never do it with the Queen of Spades she’s
in a totally different plotline wait
till the king finds out.
You go to your piano lesson. You
stink. You try to play,
“Surrey With The Fringe
On Top,” for the entire
no one that will ever listen.
at twilight, the city
buses you have no reason to ride,
you feel immoral,
just from walking
in the cold, smelling something
like smoke, and maybe if you
had a bus routine,
where you waited, and used quarters
to buy just rice to eat for dinner,
you’d be closer to god?
so stuffed them into Google Translate to see what kind of a party came out. It’s a good party, I think:
"The Handsome Man"
To walk through the woods I found you
tied to a tree and half unconscious.
My god what was your beautiful,
focused on your sword like swords do.
In an effort to bring you back to life I stepped
seven times around the tree in my
matchless squirrel fur coat. you seemed
distracted, though, by the parade
of lepers in the past trudge sang of
Oh woe is me, my feet feel cold,
I find my tons nowhere.
I took off my coat and dressed
like a rooster with a cruel eye
and taxable plumes. There you are, Manfred!
told you, while evaporated cords.
You put me under your arm
and was prepared to do something to kill while I
struggled to do with my mouth. your pants
A note before I answer: people seem to wonder a lot about this poem, perhaps because it was in the New Yorker and Best American Poetry, and so it reached a wider audience than some of my other poems. Anyway, this is not the first time I’ve become aware of a desire to know more about it, so I thought I might as well oblige. If you want to read the poem itself (and the wondering about it) you can take a look at this reddit discussion.
I can tell you a few things I had in mind as I was writing the poem, but the poem might have other ideas of its own. (I hope so.) The program that got me started off here was actually Logo, an educational game that taught kids some of the rudimentary elements of programming. There was a little turtle, and you’d give it a command like “RIGHT 90” and it would turn the turtle ninety degrees to the right. Or you could tell it to make a line, and to make the line a certain color. It gave me an immense feeling of power as a child.
Of course, that was just the beginning point. Pretty quickly the poem moves away from the reality of Logo, and into other imaginative possibilities. The poem develops its own logic. It’s an easy program, okay, that’s real, but (and the poem needs a “but,” a problem) what if it had a sad ending? I like the idea that there could be sadness in geometrical patterns, sadness in a line on a screen. So much sadness, in fact, that it makes people cry.
So now the poem is really moving. In the developing logic here, this crying (which originally felt like a side effect) now seems to be its reason for existence: “This program is designed to make people cry.” That’s something I discovered by following where the poem wanted to go.
And the rest of the poem proceeds in much the same way. If x, then what next? Where can we go from here? My imagination was captivated by the thought that a programmer would want to both make people cry and then to “step away when they are finished.” This is not possible. No artist can create something that will consistently elicit such a specific set of behaviors from an audience. I mean, you might get some people to respond in such a way, I suppose, but this program the poem’s invented wants to make everybody respond by crying and stepping away. It’s a weird combination. It’s a very demanding program.
Now that that whole idea’s swimming around, the poem gets a little variation: diagonal lines, which lead to diagonal crying. I do not know what it would mean to cry diagonally, but I suspect it would be incredible.
So what happens next? There’s all of this crying—what for? Well, it turns out, to make music. Somehow the crying the program elicits (a whole room of people crying) meshes together into some kind of harmony. And perhaps this is the real purpose of the program: not the crying, but the music.
But then it turns out that even that is not the real purpose! The music is so beautiful that it gives one the feeling of getting out of this room, away from the screen, into a goddamn canoe! This is an amazing program!
And at that point the canoe scene really takes over. It’s not actually happening, you’ll note. The seventh couplet tells us it only “feels like” this, but because the poem sticks with this scene through the end of the poem, it takes on a greater feeling of reality.
And by the end of the poem the user of the program is back in control; the water is “however you like it.” This little fantasy’s of my own (and the poem’s) making, but it should feel like there’s room for your own desires in it, I think.
So that’s that. There’s no one unifying meaning to the poem, but instead there’s a series of actions it executes. It moves by wondering about possibilities, picking one, and following through. It’s a poem that wants to make things happen, and so it does. Perhaps you could think of it as a ride, rather than a symbol of something else. Rides are more fun.
One last note—I cheated a little with the title. I suppose it should have been called “Logo,” but “BASIC” felt more connected with the lake imagery at the end, so I gave myself some wiggle room.
Hope this helps, and thank you for spending so much time thinking about the poem!