The other day, I read a poem whose beginning I didn’t quite like. But, it was weird enough to keep me hooked to its very last line, which made me laugh out loud and reread the poem several times, appreciating it more and more with each go.
The piece is by poet Paul Violi, who published eleven collections of poetry during his lifetime and continues to be published after his death. Violi received two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, nearly every important poetry grant in the U.S. and taught English at Columbia University. So, he knew what he was doing.
When he chose to begin the poem below with “We,” or when he decided to put the word “Grammarians” in its title, or when he rambled for a bit, he knew what he was doing. He was winding up to deliver a wildly unexpected punchline.
It always feels good to laugh, especially if this laughter is the result of a carefully crafted poem.
Appeal to the GrammariansWe, the naturally hopeful,Need a simple signFor the myriad ways we’re capsized.We who love precise languageNeed a finer way to conveyDisappointment and perplexity.For speechlessness and all its inflections,For up-ended expectations,For every time we’re ambushedBy trivial or stupefying irony,For pure incredulity, we needThe inverted exclamation point.For the dropped smile, the limp handshake,For whoever has just unwrapped a dumb giftOr taken the first sip of a flat beer,Or felt love or pond iceGive way underfoot, we deserve it.We need it for the air pocket, the scratch shot,The child whose ball doesn’t bounce back,The flat tire at journey’s outset,The odyssey that ends up in Weehawken.But mainly because I need it – here and nowAs I sit outside the Caffe ReggioStaring at my espresso and cannoliAfter this middle-aged coupleCame strolling by and he suddenlyVeered and sneezed all over my tableAnd she said to him, “See, that’s whyI don’t like to eat outside.”
Thanks for sharing this poem. Wit gets short shrift in poetry today. There is much playfulness, but much of it seems to me arch and empty or logorrheic and dim. Wit used to be the raison d’etre of poetry, and maybe there was once an overabundance of it in English poetry, from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, which is why Wordsworth had to come along and restore feeling to poetry. This poem of Violi’s has both wit and feeling. He isn’t a poet I knew, but I will look him up.