Has the story always been about the dog?

Karen Kipp’s “The Rat,” about a punk and his rat (or a rat and his punk) is a glorious poem: putting together animal and human is the trope of modern popular and sentimental literature—Moby Dick, The Raven, or Dorothy’s adventure which begins when Toto is threatened with extinction by Mrs. Gulch (the Wicked Witch of the West). When Mrs. Gulch arrives with her legal document, Dorothy threatens to bite Mrs. Gulch there in the family living room—and we laugh nervously at this intimation of animal over human law.

As  God fades, dog takes its place. Not just us.  Toto, too.  Man used to slay dragons; now the dragon is cute and cuddly in every Disney film since Bambi.  It’s Man versus Nature—and now we root for the latter.

Contemporary poetry, however, is where all popular tropes go to die, where sentimental wishes are tossed to the fishes, where distorted, freaky sensibility is the rule, where the game is never played—only analyzed.

Still, there are contemporary poems that could be popular, that could be classics—if only given the chance. The problem is that po-biz hasn’t a clue which of its children are glorious and which are not.  Po-biz is bereft of executive wisdom.  Po-biz, when not publishing poems,  is a maggot-bucket of egos, unable to sort gems from dross—given its philosophical penchant for intellectually hating the popular.

We don’t know if “The Rat” by Karen Kipp is a poem deserving the palm, but it has elements of radical popularity.

Karen Kipp defeated Robert Lowell in Round One—it was a very close contest, but had that icon been born Robert Jones, it is a certainty none had ever heard of him.  Karen Kipp is not a name to strike fear in the hearts of anyone—but her poem, “The Rat,” should.

Sharon Olds is something of a po-biz icon.  Her popular appeal, however, is not based on animals, but rather on the helpless and vulnerable animal aspect of Man.  Olds finds our animal-in-the-human and exploits it like an MGM producer.  The human body as animal is Olds‘ forte’.  But in the battle between Man and Nature, Olds doesn’t simply root for the latter, like in a Disney movie.  I doubt she’s conscious of doing this, but finding the human is what her poetry does so well.   The  poem “The Request” depicts the last moments of a human life communicating and connecting.  Her poem ends:

She came over to him,
touched him, spoke to him, and he closed his
eyes and he passed out and never
came up again, now he could move
steadily down.

The family dog isn’t anywhere in sight.

Theme is not everything, of course.  There’s the body of the poem, and not since Poe has any real attention been paid to the physical attributes of the poem with method rather than pedantry.

The Olds poem has a better dramatic arc.  It has a better body.

Olds wins 78-69.

The concludes Round Two play in the South.  One bracket left: the West, and then we’ll have our Sweet Sixteen!



Let’s get this winners and losers business out of the way…

Here are the winners:


LISA LEWIS (d. John Ashbery) Responsibility
WILLIAM MATTHEWS (d. James Wright) Good Company
GILLIAN CONOLEY (d. Robert Creeley) Beckon
CAROLYN CREEDON (d. James Tate)  litany
GREGORY CORSO (d. Stanley Kunitz)  30th Year Dream
DORIANNE LAUX (d. A.R. Ammons)  The Lovers
LESLIE SCALAPINO (d. Jack Spicer)  that they were at the beach
BARBARA GUEST (d. Larry Levis) Motion Pictures: 4


KAREN KIPP (d. Robert Lowell)  The Rat
JACK HIRSCHMANN (d. Robert Penn Warren*) The Painting
EILEEN MYLES (d. Frank O’Hara)  Eileen’s Vision
WILLIAM KULIK (d. Czeslaw Milosz)  Fictions
SHARON OLDS (d. Robin Becker)  The Request
TESS GALLAGHER (d. Richard Hugo)  The Hug
STEPHEN DOBYNS (d. Jim Harrison)  Allegorical Matters
AMY GERSTLER (d. Norman Dubie)  Sinking Feeling


JACK MYERS (d. Seamus Heaney)  The Experts
PHILIP LARKIN (d. Joseph Duemer)  Aubade
BILL KNOTT (d. Robert Bly)  Monodrome
EDWARD FIELD (d. Donald Justice)  Whatever Became of Freud
MAURA STANTON (d. Anne Carson)  The Veiled Lady
ALAN DUGAN (d. Hayden Carruth)  Drunken Memories of Anne Sexton
HOWARD NEMEROV (d. David Ignatow)  IFF
MICHAEL PALMER (d. Yusef Komunyakaa)  I Do Not


ALLEN GINSBERG (d. Howard Moss) The Charnel Ground
DONALD HALL (d. Douglas Crase)  To A Waterfowl
RICHARD CECIL (d. Robert Hass)  Apology
JOY HARJO (d. Sylvia Plath)  A Post-Colonial Tale
JAMES SCHUYLER (d. Stephanie Brown)  Red Brick and Brown Stone
REED WHITTEMORE (d. Heather McHugh)  Smiling Through
STEPHEN DUNN (d. Sam Hamill)  What They Wanted
CAROL MUSKE (d. Charles Bukowski)  A Former Lover, A Lover of Form

* Robert Penn Warren resigned from the tourney

MARLA MUSE: Some of the losers I really don’t want to say goodbye to; the Milosz, the Justice, the Dubie, the McHugh…

The Bukowski…there’s something holy about his work, a wry honesty that few poets evince…I was thinking about the qualities that go into writing good poetry, both the New Critical qualities of the poem itself and those qualities the poet as a human being must have…

MARLA MUSE: The poet must say the right thing at the right time.

Or seem to.  Because in real situations in life, that’s a good quality to have: to be able to say the right thing at the right time, but for the poet, “time” can be years as they work on the poem, which distorts the meaning of that ability, the ability to say the right thing at the right time: if someone really has that ability in life, to really say the right thing at the right time, they wouldn’t need to fake it in a poem…

MARLA MUSE: Oh, you’re getting all Plato on me…life is real, poetry is fake

But isn’t it true, Marla, that ‘saying the right thing at the right time’ is not the same thing in life, as it is in poetry…poets can wait for the right time to pass, but in life, you can’t…the room is silent, and life calls for something to be said then, but to be a poet you can slink away and say something later…it doesn’t have to be at the right time

MARLA MUSE: The right time in the poem?

Yes, when you failed to say the right thing at the right time in life…

MARLA MUSE: But if we’re talking about qualities, the person who can say the right thing in a poem is probably the person who can say the right thing in life…

No, because if you can say the right thing at the right time in life, there’s no motivation to do so in a poem, for the poem is a shadow…life doesn’t let us wait years…

MARLA MUSE: But it does.  You are trying to connect life and poetry, you are trying to connect two things, and you can’t, and therefore you are saying nothing…

Am I?  So I shouldn’t have asked my original question: what qualities in life match those qualities in the poet…

MARLA MUSE: What about not fearing to go into an underground mine?  Does that help a poet?  To risk your life for somone else, does that have anything to do with being a poet?  I think we can only look at the poem.  I think the New Critics were right…

But Marla, you are beautiful!  How can you say something like that?

MARLA MUSE: Are we talking about poetry?

Thomas Brady is never talking about poetry, is he?

MARLA MUSE: Well, Tom, sometimes you do…

I’m thinking about that Bukowski poem, the car headlights, the remark by the mother, and the son’s joking, half-shameful, half-boastful response, and all the various parts in that Bukowski poem—isn’t the good poem when all those parts cohere?

MARLA MUSE: Bukowski lost! Why are you talking about him? Ah, you are recalling that debate you had…when you used the word “incoherent”…clever boy…you’re a New Critic, after all…

Yea, but the New Critics themselves were such narrow-minded, creepy—

MARLA MUSE: They hated the Romantics, that’s all, but that’s why you’re here, Tommy boy…

But right now this is not about me…congratulations, poets!


Karen Kipp fans erupt as her upset of Robert Lowell becomes official.

Karen Kipp joined Lisa Lewis in making upset history as she brought down the illustrious Robert Lowell in the first round of the 2011 Scarriet March Madness Tournament, 67-66, in overtime.

Kipp and Lewis still have a long way to go, but all agree they have struck a blow for women—and underdogs—by beating the best, Robert Lowell and John Ashbery.

These poems, “Responsibility” by Lewis and “The Rat” by Kipp, can go all the way: they are both wonderful poems, 16th seed, or no.

“Responsibility” and “The Rat” are both ‘APR poems,’ the kind of poem which favors the paragraph, the striking image, the social vision, a certain unity of narrative and atmospheric effect, over effete formalism and self-conscious experimentation.  In other words, the ‘APR Poem’ represents the common-sense revolution in poetry: poems accessible and expressive in a prose medium, and the best of these poems are like good cinema, an added expressiveness growing around the dead Romantic poem sunk in the ground.

An APR poem, or a ‘paragraph poem,’ succeeds most often when a singular vision is at work, when the poet is imaginatively sincere, and rather than indulging in the freedom of the form, makes it work by fusing various aspects together and acheiving harmony, not chaos.

In this case, the two women showed the men how it’s done: Ashbery and Lowell, though strong in individual parts, could not withstand the women’s grounded harmony.

One Scarriet March Madness official confided, “The guys were great, but they were show-offs.  The women were real.”

Congratulations, Lisa Lewis and Karen Kipp!

Oh, look, Marla Muse is getting all choked up!



OK folks, let’s get right to it…In the East… 16th seed Lisa Lewis comes out strong against 1st seed Ashbery, using his own desultory style against him, but with an intensity and focus that hems in his easy-going style and throws him off his rhythm…


It did no good to think, or to stop thinking. It did no good
To think in a straight line, a starburst, or a circle.
It did no good to think driving down the highway,
Or walking alone in a park with live alligators.
It was no use thinking what had happened, or what
Was going to happen. If there’d been one image
She could’ve dreamed to make the thoughts move over,
She would’ve bowed to its significance: a fallen barn
Against empty sky. Sidewalks strewn with clippings
In a suburban neighborhood where the residents walk
After the sun goes down. The silhouette of a man
Straightening his tie. But it did no good to speak,
Or to stop speaking. It did no good to look, or to stop looking.



And one wants to know everything about everything.
Such is my decision, though I will abide by others,
that goes without saying. Still, I fell off the sandbar
walking back towards shore, and that was a time of sorrow,
even of great sorrow, for myself and many others.
No, make that a few others. Whatever I was
trying to do automatically broke the hearts
of those in the seats on either side of mine.
It was wild like weather, yet you couldn’t just live in it,
you had to drool, your facial muscles had to twitch


Ashbery is really struggling…!  He seems confused…helpless!  Lewis is more in control out there right now…the alligators…the barn…the man straightening his tie…her images are simple and effective, they don’t feel forced, while Ashbery is not passing well at all…oh! there’s another stumble and a turover by Ashbery!  Lewis is using a pressing defense to dominate the usually cool and collected John Ashbery!!


Her eyes closed when she felt sleepy, and when she woke
Nothing was different. Her eyes opened when light
Shone through the window; the light was different
From the light that stayed on in the hall at night,
But nothing else was different. If the air was cool
That was the extent of it. If the air was close and warm,
That was the extent of it. She looked at her feet that paced
The wood floor for hours, getting nowhere. She looked
At the shape of her calves, thinner, harder from walking.
She looked at her knees, disappointing knees under
A layer of skin that just got thicker. She saw she had
The legs of an animal; she saw she had the hands
Of an animal. She looked in the mirror and saw she had
The snout of an animal, two holes to breathe through.
That was something to think about; but the trouble
With thinking was it didn’t go anywhere, there was
A shape inside her head like a loaf of bread,
Pressing so things went blurry. Then she thought
It must be time she was looking at, that’s why
She couldn’t see at a distance; she took out her pencil
And made a list of questions. Her animal hand
Scratched marks on paper her animal eyes couldn’t read.
Her animal eyes closed in the darkness, she had worked
Hard without thinking about it, and nothing
Was different. There was nothing to do but wait
For time to catch up. It was going to be a long wait,
What with the moon passing through its phases,
People dying without saying goodbye, decisions made
Without asking permission, and the body still
Just the shell that keeps something alive inside.
If she hadn’t waited so long already, she might’ve learned
To stop thinking about it, but she was in a hurry,
No one else holding, as she did, the hands of time.
It was as if she’d offered to sit by the sickbed of a loved one,
But the illness was long and debilitating, and the mind
Went first; and when the patient died, she wasn’t free
To go, but had to remain by the decomposing body.
It was just an idea she had, to sit by the body; but no one
Was there to release her from her duty, and no one
Could’ve convinced her that wasn’t her proper place.

–Lisa Lewis


at least some of them. About the time the thought
of living in England occurs, and one succeeds in eating a
little asparagus and custard, the old guard revives its dug-in
positions. You knew about these. They were like lace and spring,
they went away but they never really did. They require a content
of mourning, and public relations. If a cock is being sucked
at a certain moment, it will not jiggle the seismograph, provoke regret
from one who is esteemed and dry, but rather break out disjunctedly
in another hemisphere, and people will start reasoning
from there on. The kid was only a gas-station attendant;
he couldn’t have been more than seventeen or eighteen, yet the evening
wind begins promptly to blow, the morbid goddesses sing
that a brooch came undone and pricked one’s finger, all silently:
so much for revanchisme. “But of course.” And like it says here,
cooperation is part of the school of things, only don’t get too close
to overboard, and be burned by the musing that sets in then.
Is that why cows live in clusters, why the foxglove
covers for the hay, and all gets done in a day like it was
supposed to, only there are no more feet to bathe?
I confess I was leery
the first time she told her story
but having heard it enough I can never get enough of what it was determined
should never be shielded from the rain or its attendant wetness;
by the same token they are always with us. Once I started
to count the ways I was indebted to the elk and its house
of night, some old saw had me battling again, kicking up moss
and letting it settle, along with other debris. No
one saw me when I came here; I swear it. You can have a handle
on me now, only don’t abuse it
too much or yet. The sky popped out of the oven
like a tin of blueberry muffins, and there’s so much to say.
Only I don’t feel I’m dry enough. Yet. Take ten,
there’s a good caddy. Go do someone’s bidding,
then meet me under the larch when the storm explodes. I’ll tell you then.

–John Ashbery

And that’s it!  Lewis wins, 56-47, with a swarming D.  Ashbery did come back to tie the contest with 4 minutes left, pulling out everything he had, even sex, but in the end, it wasn’t enough.  Wtith “But of course” it looked like Ashbery was going to get into a relaxed groove and make a run, but he faltered at the end. Lewis stuck to her gameplan throughout, while Ashbery never seemed to have a gameplan—yet everyone thought Ashbery’s talent would be enough.  The third-person “she” really worked well for Lewis, while Ashbery’s second-person was flat and forced: the “you” was never really present for Ashbery.  All of John’s subtle sexual references didn’t do the trick; Lewis showed a vulnerability that felt totally sincere; she was Joe Frazier to Ashbery’s Ali and kept pummeling away, and in the end, it paid off.

Lisa Lewis advances to Round Two.

Now let’s go to Marla Muse at the Robert Lowell v. Karen Kipp contest!


I fish until the clouds turn blue.
weary of self-torture, ready to paint
lilacs or confuse a thousand leaves,
as landscapes must.

My eye returns to my double,
an ageless big white horse,
slightly discolored by dirt,
cropping the high green shelf diagonal
to the artificial troutpond—
unmoving, it shifts as I move,
and works the whole ridge in the course of a day.

Poor, measured, neurotic man,
animals are more instinctive virtuosi.

Ducks splash deceptively like fish;
fish break water with the wings of a bird to escape.

A hissing goose sways in statuary anger;
purple bluebells rise in ledges on the lake.
A single cuckoo gifted with a pregnant word
shifts like the sun from wood to wood.

All day my miscast troutfly buzzes about my ears
to empy my mind…

But nature is sundrunk with sex—
how could a man fail to notice, man
the only pornographer among the animals?
I seek coolness unimpassioned by my body,
I am too weak to strain to remember, or give
recollection the eye of a microscope. I see
horse, meadow, duck and pond,
universal, consolatory
description without significance,
transcribed verbatim by my eye.

This is not a directness that catches
everything on the run and then expires—
I would write only in response to the gods,
like Mallarme who had the good fortune
to find a style that made writing impossible.

THE RAT  —Karen Kipp

It used to be that the rat was a cynic. It used to be that the rat had trouble believing things. The other rats were ugly, especially his own young, who were pied and pink and whom he wanted to eat, if only his bitch-rat wife would have let him…Then a day came when it was different. A pudgy hand reached into his tank and stuffed the rat into its overcoat. The rat had been shoplifted. Soon he was riding the streets on the shoulder of a two-hundred and fifty pound punk with a sad-looking mohawk. Sometimes, in a dark bar, surrounded by other humans, the punk would stick the rat’s head into the beery cave of his craw. The rat thought he was supposed to be hearing something, but he never did. Eventually the rat had another idea—perhaps it was supposed to be the other way around…The rat put his pointy snout to the punk’s pierced ear. “Turn right, turn right,” whispered the rat, and the punk did. Then, “we’re out of cheese, we need to go to the Quickstop.” Sometimes the rat wanted to be with the humans. The more humans the better. “The Deadwood,” the rat would say, “let’s duck in for a beer.” In the smoky darkness, overlooking the warm mugs and the crowded ashtrays, the rat would say, “see that girl over there, you need to fuck her.” The rat was not a cynic. The rat could believe things. He had discovered his affinity for the other animals, and God, was the world glorious.

A very close contest!  Kipp recalls the art of Durer and Breugel somehow.  Her poem has a coherent narrative, atmosphere, vision.

Lowell’s poem lacks Kipp’s story, her poem’s cave-like unity, but Lowell features better individual lines, and finer observations, such as the exquisite:

“I fish until the clouds turn blue”


“…confuse a thousand leaves,/as landscapists must.”


“Ducks splash deceptively like fish;
fish break water with the wings of a bird to escape.”


“A single cuckoo gifted with a pregnant word
shifts like the sun from wood to wood.”


“But nature is sundrunk with sex—
how could a man fail to notice, man
the only pornographer among the animals?”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Lowell so painterly and astute and sensual and confident in his poetry as this.

“The Rat,” though, is a dark masterpiece, and Lowell, no. 1 seed in the South, and Kipp, the 16th seed, battle to the wire…!!

Lowell has all that experience!  The training with John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate, the teaching at Iowa with Paul Engle, the friendship with Bishop, the wives, the Pulitzers…

Lowell is fighting like a madman out there!

But Kipp won’t give up…

I can’t bear to watch!

Oh!  That wasn’t a foul!!!


Lowell, covered in rat-bites, staggers to the line to shoot two free throws with no time remaining…

Lowell’s not sure which god to pray to…is he praying to William James?

Every fan, every poet, every ex-Catholic, every editor for the New York Review, every celebrity, every one of Allen Tate’s lovers, every goddamn lunatic is on their feet…!

It’s a madhouse inside John Crowe Ransom Arena!!!!

Lowell takes the first shot…



Robert Lowell, the No. 1 Seed in the South, will celebrate his birthday as he rumbles with 16th Seed Karen Kipp.

Kipp’s poem, “The Rat,” is a menacing cartoon.

Lowell’s entry, “Shifting Colors,” is gentler, the water-color version of “The Rat’s” chiaroscuro, but will have no trouble bullying “The Rat.”  You don’t push Lowell around in the paint; maybe he misses from the outside sometimes, but he more than makes up with it with his rebounding.

Both poems use animals and gods to invoke the human.  It’s stunning, really, how similar in approach these poems are.

Will the master, Robert Lowell prevail?

MARLA:  Robert Lowell is a monster.

A monster?

MARLA: That’s all I’m going to say.

Marla, do you think Lisa Lewis has a chance against Ashbery in the East?

MARLA:  Well, she is nervous.  She’s a woman, after all.

Oh, boy…

MARLA: Ashbery’s not worried.  He’s a man…

Let’s talk about the Lewis poem, “Responsibility.”

MARLA: Well, OK.

It’s a raw, painful, vulnerable meditation on existence, pretty bleak….

MARLA:  Meanwhile Ashbery’s poem is breezy, amusing…

I think an upset’s possible…and now let’s look at the other two No. 1 Seed contests!  Seamus Heaney’s “An Iron Spike” v. Jack Myers’ “The Experts” in the North.

MARLA: Iron Spike v. The Experts.  I love it!

And, finally, in the West, Allen Ginsberg’s “The Charnel Ground” v. Howard Moss’ “Miami Beach.”

MARLA: Charming matchup…two little bald men… Charnel Ground v. Miami Beach…nice!

We’ll have more analysis, and of course, show you the poems.  A lot more coming up!

Meanwhile, Marla’s trying not to root for the women.  She’s trying to remain objective…

MARLA: I am.

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