Of his poem, “I stopped writing poetry…,”  Bernard Welt, a Jeopardy! champion from Texas, writes in ‘Contributors’ Notes & Comments’ in the 2001 Best American Poetry (Lehman, Hass, eds) “‘I stopped writing poetry…’ almost didn’t get written, because—well, I’d stopped writing poetry.”

I stopped writing poetry…

Poetry gives no adequate return in money, is expensive to print by reason of the waste of space occasioned by its form, and nearly always promulgates illusory concepts of life.  —Flann O’Brien

No one is more confident than a bad poet.  —Martial

I stopped writing poetry
When I was just starting to get good at it. First
I got good at rhyme, so I cast it away.
Then I got good at line and stanza construction—
So good I hardly needed to say anything at all.
My meanings emerged
..                                           .in the spaces between.
So I got rid of that, too.  Metaphor, metonymy,
Allusive echoes of my betters—well, frankly,
I was whizz at that stuff pretty early on.
So I emptied out the file-drawers
Of rhetorical strategy, musical form,
Continuity or criticism of tradition,
And I just wrote.  Finally I found
I was writing…prose, like everyone else.
But it was prose with a difference: prose with a rich,
Totally hidden other life lying behind it, unglimpsed
(I think) by the reader.  Not like a prostitute
Who reforms and becomes a nun.  I’ve seen
The movie.  More like a nun who becomes a prostitute.

I stopped writing poetry
at 16 (seriously), then again at about 20
but only for six months, once again
at 27, that at 32, 35, 40 and 42.
I’ll keep you posted.

I stopped writing poetry
when I realized that I understood romantic and symbolist
poetry sound sculpture objective verse conceptual art
pure language the confessional and elegaic modes and still
everything i wanted to do in poetry pretty much everything
I wanted anyone at all to do had been done already and much
better by don marquis in the archy and mehitabel poems

I stopped writing poetry
when everyone else did—in the early 90s, when television
became more interesting than culture.

I stopped writing poetry
when they came and deactivated my poetry button

I stopped writing poetry
when I got married—I mean settled down—
since the laws of the state of Maryland do not allow me
to marry the love of my life—though I’m not here
to whine about it—and maybe marriage would ruin me
as it seems to have ruined others—but one thing I know—
it is certainly nice to have someone to blame
for taking it easy and resisting inspiration when it inconveniently
insists on arising occasionally no matter what you do
(PS thanks for the dashes Emily Dickinson)

I stopped writing poetry
because the last thing I ever wanted
was to develop the obnoxious false
self masquerading as voice the way artists
as soon as their style becomes identifiable
are stuck in it and in what it will allow them
to think style isn’t a correlative of personality
or a way to explore transcendent issues
that lie beyond mere worldly content style is
exhaustion ennui and fashion and death

I stopped writing poetry
when I received the praise of people I admired.
It’s a terrible thing to receive exactly the attention you want
when you are unprepared to admit you might deserve it.
Of the many ways in which poets are always going on
about how poetry not only receives inspiration from love
but imitates it in form and feeling, this just may be the worst.

I stopped writing poetry because I saw what it was doing to people’s prose style.

I stopped writing poetry—
well, basically, because I’m white. I don’t
like being white, it isn’t a choice I’d make freely,
and to get argumentative I don’t think it’s entirely fair
that I have to be white right now when it’s so 10 minutes ago
when if I’d been born fifteen years earlier most racists
would have considered me anything but, what with
the whole Jew-as-vermin thing, but OK, OK, I concede
the point, I culturally white, or whatever, dammit,
and in case you haven’t noticed, this just isn’t
white people’s moment, poetry-wise. Don’t even
get me started on the griot tradition and that stuff,
I mean, just look at rap—poetry that communicates
exquisitely within its chosen boundaries of class
and common interest, and hardly at all outside it,
except  for those to whom it stands as aspiration to cool.
Just like Shakespeare and Donne. What have white people
contributed to culture recently?  Postmodernism?  Please.
My own revelation came when I realized
Little Red Corvette meant more to me than any poem
published since the early 1970s. On the not-very
mean streets where I learned versification, poetry
wasn’t a mode of expression spontaneously developed
from living people’s lived experience, it was a regime.
Well, that’s over now. Get over it.

I stopped writing poetry
When I just ran out of steam.
It’s really not a whole lot
More complicated than that.

I stopped writing poetry
When my friends started dying.  Some of my friends
Wrote beautifully about the condition of their illness,
And insightfully about mortality and their own impending
Death. Some wrote angrily about their invisibility
And created a literature of testimony in which we learn
What it was like to walk in the streets of American cities
As a ghost. Some wrote poems to memorialize their lovers,
Or to embarrass right-wing senators or arts funding agencies.
But I just counted 67 people I knew and was fond of
Who’ve died of “AIDS-related illness,” and not once
Have I genuinely felt I could respond to their suffering or death
In poetry. Is it poetry? Is it me? The era? I am willing to believe
That if Milton and Shelley and Tennyson could do it,
It can still mean something. Why should I think their ages
Made death any more manageable a subject than mine?
But whenever I sat down to try, I stopped in despair.
Whatever the political advantages of slogans
Of the time, it wasn’t the right words I looked for
But some way to make silence heard in lines
Of verse, and I never found it.
.                                                        .Now even that
Sounds like a device to me, like special pleading.
Fuck it. Just fuck it. Let someone else do it.

I stopped writing poetry
but I still love the stanza. All the other cool stuff—
tropes, the caesura, enjambment—I can live without.
But the stanza—wow.

I stopped writing poetry
after I went to my first MLA conference,
where they were attacking a way of reading
and understanding literature they called
“mainstream” and “dominant” that I’d never even
encountered. It was like what they meant by “book”
was totally different from what I meant by “book”—
as different as “washing machine” and “golf ball.”
I stopped writing poetry when it was eclipsed by criticism
for purely sociological and economic reasons.
I stopped writing poetry when people began writing
scholarly articles explaining how to read Frank O’Hara’s
Lunch Poems and it never occurred to them to mention
that you should read them during lunch. I stopped
writing poetry when it became popular. I realize
Robert Frost read at Kennedy’s inauguration but now
Ethan Hawke is telling Vanity Fair that he keeps
your book by his bed, and poetry as adjunct
to commercial culture and the veneration of celebrity
is so much more deliciously embarrassing for everyone
than even poetry in the service of the state.
I stopped writing poetry when taking it seriously
started seeming more likely to indicate
intellectual complacency than intellectual liveliness.
I stopped writing poetry when it got boring.

I stopped writing poetry
when the internet replaced the telephone
(since now that everyone has a phone,
and takes it everywhere, it’s obvious
the telephone is over). Ted Berrigan I thought
destroyed the sonnet by inviting the beloved
to just pick up the phone and call him
sometime—thus no more need to plead
and seduce through verse—so the channel
changed: it works both ways. Now we are all
(gay str8 bi-curious) pleading and seducing
in lower case as only freest verse used to
hitting reply b4 the intimacy of communication
has time even to register killing off poetry
by creating the first real audience for it in centuries.

I stopped writing poetry
because I promised to. I read something
at the Ear Inn around 1984 in which I encouraged everyone
to give up writing—as I engaged to—and it went over
real big. Afterwards any time I ran into any of the
poetry crowd they’d always ask me if I was still
not writing. I understood it was a performance piece
and so did they but I kept getting this gnawing feeling
I was abandoning a principle by continuing to write.
It was entirely superstition, like actually feeling sick
when you call in sick, but I suppose I have been a victim
of the terrible conviction that you must mean what you say.

I stopped writing poetry
when I had dedicated poems to everyone I knew, at least everyone I wanted to impress.
I promise to start writing poetry again as soon as I meet some new people.
Interesting people, anyway.
interesting people I can’t just come out and say things to, anyway.

I stopped writing poetry
but as satisfying as it has been to turn my back on it
as on a distant homeland fallen under the spell of a fascist party
still a breeze reaches me from time to time fragrant of verse
and suddenly I am as nostalgic as an exiled Russian
grand-duke waiting on tables in Paris in a screwball comedy
sometimes I wonder would it really be so terrible
If I wrote just one more line.

Depending on how you look at it, Welt’s poem is either a bunch of bitching or the most representative poem of its age.  What do you think, Marla?

I guess it’s a representative bitch.  A bitch to represent.   Also a bitch to play against in crunch time.  This poem could go all the way.

It’s many things, isn’t it?  AIDS elegy, ars poetica, confession…

Alan Shapiro is going to have his hands full with this baby.  Let’s take a look at Shapiro’s Sweet 16 entry, “Country Western Singer,” from the 2007 Heather McHugh volume, which some feel is the all-time best in Lehman’s BAP series.

Yes, Tom!  Right next to Alan’s poem in this volume is “The Death of the Shah” by Fred Seidel, which almost made the 64 team cut for this tournament but which was finally just a little too…creepy.  (shudder)

I love your aesthetic judgments, Marla.

They’re visceral.  What’s wrong with that?

OK, here’s the poem:

Country Western Singer

I used to feel like a new man
After the day’s first brew.
But then the new man I became
Would need a tall one too.

As would the new man he became,
And the new one after him
And so on and so forth till the new men made
The dizzy room go dim.

And each one said, I’ll be your muse,
I’ll trade you song for beer:
He said, I’ll be your salt lick, honey,
If you will be my deer.

He said, I’ll be your happy hour,
And you, boy, you’ll be mine
And mine won’t end at six or seven
Or even at closing time.

Yes, son, I’ll be your spirit guide;
I’ll lead you to Absolut,
To Dewars, Bushmills, and Jamesons,
Then down to Old Tangle Foot.

And there I’ll drain the pretense from you
That propped you up so high;
I’ll teach you salvation’s just
Salivation without the I.

To hear his sweet talk was to think
You’d gone from rags to riches,
Till going from drink to drink became
Like going from hags to bitches,

Like going from bed to barroom stool,
From stool to bathroom stall,
From stall to sink, from sink to stool,
From stool to hospital.

Now the monitors beep like pinball machines,
And coldly the IV drips;
And a nurse runs a moistened washcloth over
My parched and bleeding lips,

And the blood I taste, the blood I swallow
Is as far away from wine
As 5:10 is for the one who dies
At 5:09.

This is a smooth poem.

Bernie Welt’s gotta play ‘in-your-face’ defense to throw off Shapiro’s text-book shooting rhythm.

Welt’s expansive prose takes on Shapiro’s elegant rhyme.

Classic matchup.

Here’s the tip:

Bernie takes the early lead.  His title alone carries so much interest.  Bernie is saying what we think, but don’t say—at least not in poems.

Alan’s having trouble with this defense.  Is his poem finally too ‘country western song’ facile and clever?  He looks a little confused out there, Marla.

And so on and so forth till the new men made
The dizzy room go dim.

That’s weak…’And so on and so forth…’ you can’t have banal language like that in a poem of precise rhymes.  And the seductions of drink are falling into cliche: “dizzy room go dim.”

Meanwhile Welt is scoring easy buckets.

I stopped writing poetry
when everyone else did—in the early 90s, when television
became more interesting than culture.

Big lead for Welt!

The rhyme of “Absolut’ with ‘Old Tangle Foot…’  Ouch!

Welt leads 49-28 at the half.


Second half.  Shapiro needs a rally.  This won’t do it:

Till going from drink to drink became
Like going from hags to bitches

Welt continues to score:

Ted Berrigan I thought
destroyed the sonnet by inviting the beloved
to just pick up the phone and call him

A one-sided contest, Marla.

It’s never over until the nightingale sings.

Shapiro makes his move:

Like going from bed to barroom stool,
From stool to bathroom stall,
From stall to sink, from sink to stool,
From stool to hospital.

Good rhyme, alliteration, assonance…Shapiro cuts into Welt’s lead!  But is it too late?

A steal by Shapiro!  A drive…good!…and fouled!  Welt starting to show frustration!  Shapiro completes the three point play from the line, but he’s still down by 13.

Now the monitors beep like pinball machines,
And coldly the IV drips;
And a nurse runs a moistened washcloth over
My parched and bleeding lips,

And the blood I taste, the blood I swallow
Is as far away from wine
As 5:10 is for the one who dies
At 5:09.

A great finish by Shapiro!    But it’s not going to be enough…

Welt wins, 99-90.

Welcome to the Elite 8, Bernie!


  1. thomasbrady said,

    March 23, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    We apologize for the little dig at Fred Seidel.

    We never intend to be mean to anyone here, right Marla?


  2. Bob Tonucci said,

    March 28, 2010 at 10:08 am


    Alan Shapiro

    What was it like before the doctor got there?

    Till then, we were in the back seat of the warm
    dark bubble of the old Buick. We were where
    we’d never not been, no matter where we were.

    And when the doctor got there?

    Everything outside was in a rage of wind and sleet,
    we were children, brothers, safe in the back seat,
    for once not fighting, just listening, watching the storm.

    Weren’t you afraid that something bad might happen?

    Our father held the wheel with just two fingers
    even though the car skidded and fishtailed
    and the chains clanged raggedly over ice and asphalt.

    Weren’t you afraid at all?

    Dad sang for someone to fly him to the moon,
    to let him play among the stars, while Mom
    held up the lighter to another Marlboro.

    But when the doctor started speaking. . .

    The tip of the Marlboro was a bright red star.
    Her lips pursed and she released a ring of Saturn,
    which dissolved as we caught at it, as my dad sang Mars.

    When you realized what the doctor was saying. . .

    They were closer to the storm in the front seat.
    The high beams, weak as steam against the walled swirling,
    only illuminated what we couldn’t see.

    When he described it, the tumor in the brain and what it meant. . .

    See, we were children. Then we weren’t. Or my brother wasn’t.
    He was driving now, he gripped the steering wheel
    with both hands and stared hard at the panicked wipers.

    What did you feel?

    Just sleet, the slick road, the car going way too fast,
    no brother beside me in the back seat, no singing father,
    no mother, no ring of Saturn to catch at as it floats.

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