Marilyn Hacker enjoys first seed status in the East bracket. She has a line which feels iconic and boasts an existential romanticism:

You happened to me.

What are we to say to this? If the singer Jewel, who dabbles in poetry, wrote this, what would poets and critics of high regard say?

This is not a criticism of Hacker. In the March Madness Poetry tournament, run by Marla Muse and Scarriet, there is no “criticism.”

There is only wonder.

We cannot escape the vague feeling that “You happened to me,” which is Hacker’s most famous quote, is not original.

Jim Weatherly, born in 1943—a few months after our poet, Marilyn Hacker—wrote a hit song for two different artists in the 70s (Ray Price; Gladys Knight and the Pips):

“You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me.”

You‘re the Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me,” hides the more interesting phrase.

Weatherly, the songwriter, can be found saying the following in The Billboard Book of Number One Country Hits:

“I thought it was really strange that nobody’d written a song with that title — possibly somebody had, but I’d never heard it — so I just sat down and let this stream of consciousness happen.”

Just as we now have the nagging suspicion that “You happened to me” is not original, so the man credited with “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me” felt the same way about his creation.

It makes one wonder if a greater poet (or songwriter), ages hence, will thrillingly, yet doubtfully, stumble upon:

You Happened.

You Happen.

Stephen Cole, the last seed in the East, counters with something a little more complex:

Where every thing hangs on the possibility of understanding and time, thin as shadows, arrives before your coming.

This, in its way, is somewhat like, “you happened to me.”

But Hacker refers succinctly, if powerfully, to the past.

Cole’s is tantalizingly and deliciously about the future, and the syntax of the sentence itself propels us into a future awareness—as well as the meaning: “time…arrives before your coming.” Like the essence of the line itself, “your coming” is forever deferred, and yet here.

This might be the time to ask, since we called the Hacker an “existential romanticism,” what is romanticism in poetry, and why is it important?

As the poet Shelley said, in his A Defense of Poetry, the “secret to morals is love”; in love we go out of ourselves and identity with another.

It is as simple as this: poetry brings two together: this is love, and this is romanticism, and this is always a virtue, not only in love, but in poetry, in language itself—whose purpose is to unite people, minds, intentions, etc.

“You happened to me” affects us on this principle; we witness, through language, you happening to me, and since we are all romantics at heart, we are moved both by the primitive idea and the concise manner in which the primitive idea is expressed.

This romantic/poetic principle resembles mathematics or physics: precisely how much force or attraction is produced?

Language can do remarkable things, but the question becomes, is it only language, or is it the language itself that lives, that has gravity—the language itself that loves you and me, and brings us together.

“You happened to me” is a marvelous example of language doing a marvelous thing—but only as language.

Does concision belong to language—or to concision?  The delight we feel when a great deal is said in a few words does not belong to language’s muscle, to language’s action, but to time, and time alone.

“Where every thing hangs on the possibility of understanding and time, thin as shadows, arrives before your coming” is a wonderful example of language itself doing a marvelous thing.

We think, then, Cole wins.

Marla Muse: Oh! I like it!







  1. maryangeladouglas said,

    March 16, 2016 at 6:37 pm

    “existential romanticism’ is a beautiful phrase a bridge that spans what hasn’t been spanned before. you could very well pick many of the lines from your essays as distinct and memorable except that it’s hard to do that when its your own work and a little embarassing, so I cheerfully assume the task, at least, if I may, in this instance.

    also the question remains how can any of us write truly original lines except that sometimes I look on words as musical notes and, as in music, the notes miraculously can be arranged and combined still, and apparently, infinitely in previously unknown patterns to register someting as yet, undiscovered; to recover from the clouds the light we thought had disappeared in us, from us,forever.

    sorry. too verbose. can’t help it. Scarriet is inspiring.

  2. noochinator said,

    March 16, 2016 at 9:15 pm

    “You happened to me.” is good — reminds me of one of my favorite lines, a woman’s six word answer to why she once loved a certain man: “He saw the me I didn’t.”

    • noochinator said,

      March 16, 2016 at 9:22 pm

      Nearly a Valediction

      Marilyn Hacker, 1942

      You happened to me. I was happened to
      like an abandoned building by a bull-
      dozer, like the van that missed my skull
      happened a two-inch gash across my chin.
      You were as deep down as I’ve ever been.
      You were inside me like my pulse. A new-
      born flailing toward maternal heartbeat through
      the shock of cold and glare: when you were gone,
      swaddled in strange air I was that alone
      again, inventing life left after you.

      I don’t want to remember you as that
      four o’clock in the morning eight months long
      after you happened to me like a wrong
      number at midnight that blew up the phone
      bill to an astronomical unknown
      quantity in a foreign currency.
      The U.S. dollar dived since you happened to me.
      You’ve grown into your skin since then; you’ve grown
      into the space you measure with someone
      you can love back without a caveat.

      While I love somebody I learn to live
      with through the downpulled winter days’ routine
      wakings and sleepings, half-and-half caffeine-
      assisted mornings, laundry, stock-pots, dust-
      balls in the hallway, lists instead of longing, trust
      that what comes next comes after what came first.
      She’ll never be a story I make up.
      You were the one I didn’t know where to stop.
      If I had blamed you, now I could forgive

      you, but what made my cold hand, back in prox-
      imity to your hair, your mouth, your mind,
      want where it no way ought to be, defined
      by where it was, and was and was until
      the whole globed swelling liquefied and spilled
      through one cheek’s nap, a syllable, a tear,
      was never blame, whatever I wished it were.
      You were the weather in my neighborhood.
      You were the epic in the episode.
      You were the year poised on the equinox.

  3. maryangeladouglas said,

    March 16, 2016 at 10:34 pm

    it’s a very epic poem to start out from that beginning; I really like how the tide of it moves forward and then stops poised in the last line and this is frivolous I know but it amazes me that she even put dust bunnies in the poem and the epic tone was not in the least altered, of course she didn’t call them dust bunnies, but that was in fact, what they were. The phone bill part made me nervous. I was once left with a phone bill overseas for $900 by a guest no more guest to me.

    • maryangeladouglas said,

      March 16, 2016 at 10:41 pm

      I like the stockpots in there too, the lists and most especially the line “you were the weather in my neighborhood” which unaccountably makes me think of the Crowded House song “always take the weather with you.”. And the use of the word valediction in the title to me is pure genius.

  4. noochinator said,

    March 17, 2016 at 10:01 am

    Tom, can you give us some more info on Scarriet March Madness seed Stephen “Ole King” Cole? I’ve tried to find online the poem you quoted from, but to no avail…

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 17, 2016 at 2:00 pm

      Hi Nooch,

      He’s a fugitive poet on Facebook…let me look…

  5. thomasbrady said,

    March 17, 2016 at 10:04 pm

    The nurse of becoming

    So much anticipation…
    In the between-land
    Of winter and spring,

    The walk from
    The L train to somewhere
    In the city of lifted papers,

    The sun shining as the same sun,
    The last sun likely,
    The undoing undone,

    Memories on the moment
    Like Priyadarshni’s kiss,

    The pupa’s purpose
    And reckoning where
    The layers lie,
    Not yet exiting,

    Reality unmatched
    Into becoming,

    The summing up
    Of always more to come,

    Where everything hangs
    On the possibility of understanding
    And time, thin as shadows,
    Arrives before your coming.

    Stephen Cole
    February 16, 2016

  6. maryangeladouglas said,

    March 18, 2016 at 3:33 am

    This is truly a beautiful poem;reading it aloud it has wonderful music. I especially love in addition to the line cited, the line: “in the between-land of winter and spring”. Very evocative and in a quiet way.

  7. thomasbrady said,

    March 18, 2016 at 12:59 pm

    Stephen Cole was a thrilling discovery…on Facebook!!

    New King? Maybe!!

  8. maryangeladouglas said,

    March 18, 2016 at 2:06 pm

    Hope you find the fiddlers three too. If anyone can do it, you can. They probably write beautiful poems too.

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