Welcome to POEMHACK, a regular feature in which I dig into poems often-rejected, long-stunted, and not-living-up-to-their-potential, and try and figure out why they’re not working. I’d love to look at the poem of yours you love that other people don’t seem to. If you’re into it, check the guidelines at the bottom of this post.
“This poem started as a sonnet about 18 months ago and has since expanded to a longer, more narrative piece; something keeps drawing me back to it, although multiple versions have been rejected. Any rumination on it would be greatly appreciated.”
A complicated person is a great subject for a poem—Frank Bidart’s best work, Sexton & Plath & Berryman’s self-portraits, Ai’s whole deal—and I dig this boxer. He’s not wrong—he’s good at talking! He’s good at beating the shit out of people, apparently. And, to the credit of the poem, he’s well framed: too pathetic to be imitable, too violent to be entirely sympathetic, and his pre-interview psych-up echoes getting pumped for a bout. It’s not hard to keep thinking about him, and, more surprisingly, to hope he does okay.
The last two lines swerve away from some of the heaviness while still working with the poem to bring this character more into focus. “End-y” endings that kind of flutter their fingers and make New Age-y sounds are a pet peeve of mine, and this ain’t that.
The poem really finds its strength in the second half, after the cuteness of the scene starts getting cut with darkness. “I never killed a man before…But I think I’m gonna like it,” simply hits harder than “I’m gonna be the colorfullest color man ever.” “…stomping his son’s rabbits like rodents” is just great. Oh!, the Communion of Meat.
What’s not working:
I’m getting told a few things too many times, especially how punch-drunk this dude is (…Mike Tyson? I don’t know anything about boxing…). The title, “Concussed,” the questionable clothing choices, the false bravado, the unhinged behavior, the “butchered scripture/ and flashbacks from old cartoons” of his talk, his plea for reassurance, his inability to dress himself, jab jab jab jab jab jab jab jab. I’m convinced! And being re-and-re-convinced leaves me restless. And it’s like, I know already. I’ve heard this before. I get this about him. I’m aware. etc.
The most interesting parts of this TED Talk by book designer Chip Kidd go into this.
The best parts of the poem are kind of jagged, but the form and the framing-story flatten it out. The present-day narrative is interesting mainly for the arched sycophancy of the speaker, but it’s used to draw me gently from one life-episode to the next. Similarly, the single-stanza, similarly length-ed lines telegraph that these episodes are on the same level of emotional intensity. “Here we are, back getting dressed, this guy’s a psychopath, now he’s putting on a tie, his brain looks like dust bunny, oh his shoes…” This poem shouldn’t be gentle! In the words of Tyson—whom I’ve been googling since the last paragraph—“I want to kill people. I want to rip their stomachs out and eat their children.”
What I’d do if I was you:
I want to accentuate some of the brutality of the story by stripping some of the punctuation and capitalization away, replacing “thirty” with “30”, using irregularly numbered stanzas, and varying the amount of information contained in the lines. I don’t care about the mom being a character, so she’s demoted to a reference. The speaker is most interesting when he’s Kato Kaelin, so I’m keeping the (pseudo-ironic) sycophancy, losing the more quotidian activity.
That’s it for the first POEMHACK–thanks for reading! I’m finding myself way interested in other ways through this poem–are there things you’d have done? Words to be added, redacted, beveled, or re-lighted? Please let me know in the comments!
If you’d like me to take a look at a poem of yours that’s getting no love but you don’t know why, please send it to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the subject “POEMHACK”. By doing so you acknowledge that it’s your own unpublished work, that you give me the right to post it here and do whatever I like to it, and that I am just a dude talking about one poem of yours, not your entire career or potential as a poet! Any poems I choose to write about will be posted anonymously, but feel free to out yourself in the comments.