Helen Vendler titled one of her books, “The Music Of What Happens,” a quote from the poet Seamus Heaney, whom she greatly admires.

But music doesn’t happen—music which moves us has an inevitable quality, just as mathematical science reveals nature’s permanence to our rolling eyes, just as beautiful verses make their statement like stone.

Leslie Scalapino, vying for Sweet Sixteen against Carolyn Creedon, is the supreme poet of what happens.  APR excerpted Ms. Scalapino’s that they were at the beach—one of four long parts in their anthology The Body Electric, source of Scarriet’s 2011 March (May) Madness Tournament.  I laughed when I read this:

Beginning to honk, because a man in a car behind me looked as if he were going to take my parking space, it’s near shops, is crowded—I honked before seeing that he’s old.  And it appearing he hadn’t wanted the parking place.

Here is poetry that happens, and this is Scalapino’s genius—no poetry happens quite like hers.  It lives in the present—reading her poem you think along with her in the present.  If poetry is news that stays news, Scalapino is the most up-to-the-minute news of all, because no one immerses you in happening right now like her.

As we pointed out during her second-round victory,  Scalapino’s poetry is nerdy and helpless and sensitive—which makes her absolutely adorable; she is so much in the present, the poem always moving forward so engagingly and innocently and vigilantly and anxiously and hopelessly, that as ‘experimental’ as perhaps this is, I actually enjoy reading her.

It would be a mistake, however, to think of Scalapino’s poetry( “I’m not retroactive—corresponds to making jokes because it’s in the past”) as bizarre or mysterious, because it’s the opposite of that—it’s plain to an extreme degree.  It represents the anti-spiritual, the anti-intellectual, the plain person who just wants to belong to the world in a plain way.

If you want what happens, read Scalapino.

If you want inevitable, read Creedon.

We read “Litany” by Carolyn Creedon with wonder and horror.  Its end is contained in its beginning.  We knew her poem had to end this way.

The details of Creedon’s poem come to us, not as events that are happening, as in that they were at the beach, but as images from a dream, which we turn over in our minds long afterwards.

The Tom of Creedon’s poem will love the narrator nevermore.

The Scalapino washes over us.  It is essentially comic.

The Creedon haunts us.  It is essentially tragic.

This whole Osama Bin Laden business:  not only is it rooted in horror and tragedy, but it has a secret, conspiratorial aspect. There are temperaments that look for conspiracy—and here we might genius, or we might find paranoia.  Usually paranoia—but we never should dissuade genius.  A conspiracy of a conspiracy is a natural development, for facts matter less in puzzling politicial matters than the factions it inevitably creates, with one side content they do not believe in conspiracies, and the other side tortured that they do.

Creedon’s poem speaks to the torture, Scalapino’s to the blandness associated with existing beneath the status quo in a world of sense experience—a world without conspiracy that happens by chance.

Creedon’s poem thinks: it was inevitable that Tom would leave me.

In this torture is a certain kind of art’s highest pleasure.

Creedon defeats Scalapino 101-100.

It had to be.


I’m only Tom, cheering helplessly from the stands.


Tom, will you let me love you in your restaurant?
i will let you make me a sandwich of your invention and i will eat it and call
it a carolyn sandwich. then you will kiss my lips and taste the mayonnaise and
that is how you shall love me in my restaurant

Tom, will you come to my empty beige apartment and help me set up my daybed?
yes, and i will put the screws in loosely so that when we move on it, later,
it will rock like a cradle and then you will know you are my baby

Tom, I am sitting on my dirt bike on the deck. Will you come out from the kitchen
and watch the people with me?
yes, and then we will race to your bedroom. i will win and we will tangle up
on your comforter while the sweat rains from our stomachs and foreheads

Tom, the stars are sitting in tonight like gumball gems in a little girl’s
jewelry box. Later can we walk to the duck pond?
yes, and we can even go the long way past the jungle gym. i will push you on
the swing, but promise me you’ll hold tight. if you fall i might disappear

Tom, can we make a baby together? I want to be a big pregnant woman with a loved face and give you a squalling red daughter.
no, but i will come inside you and you will be my daughter

Tom, will you stay the night with me and sleep so close that we are one person?
no, but i will lay down on your sheets and taste you. there will be feathers
of you on my tongue and then i will never forget you

Tom, when we are in line at the convenience store can I put my hands in your
back pockets and my lips and nose in your baseball shirt and feel the crook
of your shoulder blade?
no, but later you can lay against me and almost touch me and when i go i will
leave my shirt for you to sleep in so that always at night you will be pressed
up against the thought of me

Tom, if I weep and want to wait until you need me will you promise that someday
you will need me?
no, but i will sit in silence while you rage. you can knock the chairs down
any mountain. i will always be the same and you will always wait

Tom, will you climb on top of the dumpster and steal the sun for me? It’s just
hanging there and I want it.
no, it will burn my fingers. no one can have the sun: it’s on loan from god.
but i will draw a picture of it and send it to you from richmond and then you
can smooth out the paper and you will have a piece of me as well as the sun

Tom, it’s so hot here, and I think I’m being born. Will you come back from
Richmond and baptise me with sex and cool water?
i will come back from richmond. i will smooth the damp spiky hairs from the
back of your wet neck and then i will lick the salt off it. then i will leave

Tom, Richmond is so far away. How will I know how you love me?
i have left you. that is how you will know

Carolyn Creedon


If modern poetry sucks, if the fences have been moved in and the major leagues are now the minor leagues, well this is all we’ve got; Byron is dead, Edna Millay isn’t modern enough, so take it away, Leslie Scalapino.  Her oddball poetry has a certain cinematic, ‘real-time’ attraction and though Matthews’ poem “Good Company,” is swell (the door, the stairs, the sheets/aglow with reticence and moonlight,/and the bed full to its blank brim/with the violent poise of dreams.) the truly bizarre “that they were at the beach” by Leslie Scalapino with its passive narrator and her passive grammar, has to be seen as the favorite in Round Two play.




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!



The unloved nerd in poetry is a tradition that only began recently: the Greek and Roman boasts, the Italian loves, the English ballad-making, poetry of wars and romances and images…love may have been crippled or mad in old poems, but T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock may have been the first to manifest what is now commonplace: the poet so estranged and miserable they create new aesthetics.

The nerd’s self-torture is an endless field for poetic creation.

The alienation of Leslie Scalapino’s narrator obviously shapes the writing:

that they were at the beach (excerpt)

Playing ball— so it’s like paradise, not because it’s in the past, we’re on a field;
we are creamed by the girls who get together on the other team.
They’re nubile, but in age they’re thirteen or so—so they’re strong.

(No one knows each other, aligning according to race as it happens, the
color of the girls, and our being creamed in the foreground—as part of
it’s being that—the net is behind us)

A microcosm, but it’s of girls—who were far down on the field, in another
situation of playing ball—so it was an instance of the main world though
they’re nubile but are in age thirteen or so.

My being creamed in the foreground—so it’s outside of that—by a girl
who runs into me, I returned to the gym.

—Leslie Scalapino

The adolescent team-sports setting is classic nerd territory: this is where we typically first comprehend that we are nerds.

The narrator lacks confidence—the vision is recorded not with clarity or gusto—but obsessively, with frequent repetition,desperately and passively: passive not only in terms of the narrator’s actions, but in the syntax itself: “my being creamed,” etc.

One gets the idea these are not aesthetic choices by Scalapino, but psychological ones.

Psychology eclipses art: this may be the key to modern art and the nerd artist.

Like pleasant melancholy discords in music, Scalapino’s poetry is deliciously self-wounding. There is something organic and cinematic about Scalapino’s work; an experiment in making poetry come alive, albeit on a fragmented, deranged, fearful, and obsessive level.

Art is not considered ill by society as it once was; brute life has been tamed by civilization and schools and art; but art, to succeed, has lost its ability to surprise, to radically differentiate itself from itself; the psychological ‘sees through’ art and life tamed by art, and the psychological vision returns life (and art) to scary sensation, to the elements of the primitive, the crazy, the longing, the way art must have seemed to the ancients when it emerged as tragedy.

Jack Spicer’s poem is nerd literature as well, from the title to the end:

A Poem Without A Single Bird In It

What can I say to you, darling,
When you ask me for help?
I do not know the future
Or even what poetry
We are going to write.
Commit suicide. Go mad. Better people
Than either of us have tried it.
I loved you once but
I do not know the future.
I only know that I love strength in my friends
And greatness
And hate the way their bodies crack when they die
And are eaten by images.
The fun’s over. The picnic’s over.
Go mad. Commit suicide. There will be nothing left
After you die or go mad
But the calmness of poetry.

–Jack Spicer

With “I don’t know the future,” Spicer invokes the first Great Nerd Poem, Prufrock’s “am no prophet.”

“Go mad. Better people than either of us have tried it” is nerdy defeatism.

MARLA MUSE: I find the Scalapino more interesting, though the Spicer has a certain Baudelaire Lite quality I like.

Scalapino is a force, and she easily defeats Spicer, creaming him, 91-66.

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