The philosopher Hegel said an interesting thing about language: when we say “this” we refer to something very specific—and yet nothing is more vague than the word “this.”

The poet is forever not saying something—which is the agonizing and beautiful aspect of poetry poets either die from, or love, or both.

A playwright can write a character, and that character will never say “this” and be doubted, for there, standing upon the stage, the character can tell the audience where to look.

In a poem, a “this” must remain vague, for a poem is not, like a play, “acted” or “embodied.”  The poem will always be the letter read by the actor—and must depend on no body at all.

This contest features Terrance Hayes—who feels an obligation to be exact, swimming mightily upstream against the inexpressible flow of poetry itself, and Chumki Sharma—more satisfied to let poetry take her downward to the immensity of the mysterious sea.

Terrance Hayes:

Let us imagine the servant ordered down on all fours.

Hayes, who has recently won a major national award, is a black American who writes in and from this experience—this one, the one of being a black American male.

How much does a line of poetry know its author?

Can a line of poetry invoke a narrative?  And what kind?

Chumki Sharma:

After every rain I leave the place for something called home.

Sharma, a woman from India, who has two Pushcart nominations, and belongs to the New Wave of Calcutta poetry, writes from what seems a thousand experiences.

We see how much one of her lines can hold, for her language is the experience itself—it is not pointing to “this” rain, or “this” place, or “this” home, and yet we feel, most acutely, rain and place and home.  The rain either did not do enough, or it produced a flood; the leaving could be voluntary, or not; the home is “called” home and therefore could be home, or not.  Chumki Sharma invokes a great deal by being exact and inexact at once.

The subjective fever becomes ours—we “catch” what she is saying, even if we do not see the rain or the place or the home.

The rhythm of the line is exquisite—trochaic: DA-da, the melancholy rhythm of Edgar Poe: AF-ter/ EVE-ry/ RAIN i/ LEAVE the/ PLACE for/ SOME-thing/ CALLED HOME.

Sharma’s “i” (self) is “obliterated” (rhythmically) by “rain,” and her line, a purely trochaic one, finally resolves in the spondaic “called home,” a delicate double meaning: home is what it is called—and someone is calling her home.

Hayes is doing something completely different; he is inviting the reader to see something specific: “the servant ordered down on all fours.” The Hayes line trades in talk, not song—the Sharma, by comparison, sounds like an aria—although this line of Hayes does have a trochaic character, and also ends with a spondee: “all fours.”

Whoever “ordered” the “servant…down on all fours” is not the poet; a certain objectivity is the goal, even as the poet tells us, “let us imagine…”

It is probably unfair for these two lines to do battle—they are so different, and yet isn’t poetic language capable of existing always as poetic language?   Otherwise, how can we even know what a poem is, or discuss poetry?

Should we walk away from this contest?

No.  Bring it on.

Which line pleases us more—as poetry?

And can this answer be cruel—or unfair?

Who should we ask, after this rain has fallen, after this tale of the servant has been told?





  1. maryangeladouglas said,

    March 19, 2016 at 3:14 pm

    This rainy evening
    I stroll through the nothingness
    and visit the gallery
    inside my mind,
    move from one panting to another
    hanging on the lilac walls,
    old, older than this body of mine-
    a delight here in this painting,
    a shiver in the next.
    An old face. Some new tales.
    I tilt my head to the right,
    and in one life size oil painting
    I am an archaeologist
    bringing Pompeii back to life
    from the ashes.
    I tilt my head to the left
    and I am an astronaut
    suspended in space
    marvelling at the Blue Dot
    at a distance.
    I look down at the fresco
    where I am a hunter
    running across a tropical forest
    my gaze fixed on the target.
    I look up to the watercolour-
    here I am a convict
    in a high security prison
    plotting a daring escape.
    I am in all and none I own.
    After every rain
    I leave the place for
    something called home.

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 19, 2016 at 4:35 pm

      Thank you, Mary. After becoming infatuated with a line, it’s always nice to be greeted by—the poem.

  2. maryangeladouglas said,

    March 19, 2016 at 4:53 pm

    You know your unique approach to finding just one shining thread of a poem to follow into the poem itself is very refreshing. In the case of this poem by Chumki Sharma it was really astonishing as the poem I imagined the thread belonged to was so different from the one I found.

    It is also I admit it- Fun! to imagine the whole poem when you only have the one line and see if it corresponds.

    I especially love the detail in the poem where she sees the walls of her mind as lilac coloured. It being Easter your extracting one filament of the thread out (to belabor my metaphor like a filament of spun sugar) leads one eventually, approaching the poem as I did my Grandmother’s panoramic Easter eggs (taking in small bits in at a time and in a mood of enchantment) where there is a little sugar isinglass window into a little scene inside the sugar egg only you wish that you could see the whole garden and not just the one frosted rose, bluebird, blade of grass and yet, you never will.

    It is a very wonderful way to look at poetry and not just take the whole poem on at once; I really felt that in relation to Chumki’s poem very much. I didn’t realize from the one line it would lead to the gallery of her mind.

    • chumkisharma said,

      March 22, 2016 at 3:36 pm

      Mary, always so kind to me 🙂 your words are like a gentle rain 🙂

      • maryangeladouglas said,

        March 22, 2016 at 4:31 pm

        Dear Chumki, I think you have not only a musical poetic gift but extraordinary insight that has to have come from your life experience. The thing I feel most in your poems (the ones I’ve read so far) is the psychological and spiritual freedom and sometimes even joy you find in making the poem the reordering of your internal world. I feel this also in myself as I read the poem. Write forever under God’s own grace and peace!

  3. maryangeladouglas said,

    March 19, 2016 at 5:03 pm

    P.S. That most mysterious line I find very powerful as it is fitted onto the line you originally chose to showcase, that is “I am in all and none I own” and is poignant especially as contrasted with Terence Hayes very formalist unusual and numbing poem on the antebellum south, written (at least to my way of thinking very much in the style of Wallace Stevens and unusually at a remove unlike so many other poems on similar scenes): “Antebellum House Party” whose line about the servant on all fours crouching you chose. The capacity of Poetry to contain so much at variance and registered and sounded at different depths by different poets from age to age is something overwhelming;something, which through following one line only into the poem as you say I have rediscovered today and feel rather stunned by. And in the beginning I was very resistant to looking at only one line and especially comparing lines. This has inestimable value.

  4. thomasbrady said,

    March 20, 2016 at 1:12 pm

    Mary, your appreciation is intoxicating. This was Nooch’s idea. A March Madness of Contemporary poet’s Lines. I am so thankful for his suggestion. Philosophy seeks tenaciously the Truth, the Whole, and yet the little things make up the Whole. God’s eyelashes the lines of poems.

  5. maryangeladouglas said,

    March 20, 2016 at 1:15 pm

    Good to give credit where credit is due to a good friend. “God’s eyelashes the lines of poems.” How can I not tip my sunhat to that line. Thank you!

  6. noochinator said,

    March 20, 2016 at 10:14 pm

    Antebellum House Party

    To make the servant in the corner unobjectionable
    Furniture, we must first make her a bundle of tree parts
    Axed and worked to confidence. Oak-jawed, birch-backed,

    Cedar-skinned, a pillowy bosom for the boss infants,
    A fine patterned cushion the boss can fall upon.
    Furniture does not pine for a future wherein the boss

    Plantation house will be ransacked by cavalries or Calvary.
    A kitchen table can, in the throes of a yellow-fever outbreak,
    Become a cooling board holding the boss wife’s body.

    It can on ordinary days also be an ironing board holding
    Boss garments in need of ironing. Tonight it is simply a place
    For a white cup of coffee, a tin of white cream. Boss calls

    For sugar and the furniture bears it sweetly. Let us fill the mouth
    Of the boss with something stored in the pantry of a house
    War, decency, nor bedevilled storms can wipe from the past.

    Furniture’s presence should be little more than a warm feeling
    In the den. The dog staring into the fireplace imagines each log
    Is a bone that would taste like a spiritual wafer on his tongue.

    Let us imagine the servant ordered down on all fours
    In the manner of an ottoman whereupon the boss volume
    Of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” can be placed.

    Antebellum residents who possessed the most encyclopedic
    Bookcases, luxurious armoires, and beds with ornate cotton
    Canopies often threw the most photogenic dinner parties.

    Long after they have burned to ash, the hound dog sits there
    Mourning the succulent bones he believes the logs used to be.
    Imagination is often the boss of memory. Let us imagine

    Music is radiating through the fields as if music were reward
    For suffering. A few of the birds Audubon drew are now extinct.
    The Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon, and Labrador duck

    No longer nuisance the boss property. With so much
    Furniture about, there are far fewer woods. Is furniture’s fate
    As tragic as the fate of an axe, the part of a tree that helps

    Bring down more upstanding trees? The best furniture
    Can stand so quietly in a room that the room appears empty.
    If it remains unbroken, it lives long enough to become antique.

    Terrance Hayes

    • maryangeladouglas said,

      March 21, 2016 at 12:50 am

      An incredible poem.

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