This Be the Verse

This Be The Verse

By Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

This poem lures you in with profanity gleeful cynicism, but loses steam like a childish rant; by the end we see that blaming all our problems on our progenitors makes self-extinction the only proper solution, taken to its logical extreme. It’s difficult to steer out of the ruts they’ve carved in the road for us. It’s easier to say “I turned out all right,” and hand it down. Or to cop out and not have any kids yourself, perhaps out of fear or spite. Larkin packs a lot into this little poem. Which is what the best poetry can do. Distill an epic saga into a few paragraphs, or the whole history of humanity.

Rachel Hadas, my poetry teacher at Rutgers (and a fine poet in her own right) introduced me to this one. She tolerated my bombastic and colorful poems, written before I had a clear vision of what I was actually trying to say. Thankfully they are buried on a hard drive somewhere, never to see the light of day. One you can read is over at Gerald So’s excellent Crime Poetry site, The 5-2.

It’s called “Just Ice,” and whatever resonance it may have is owed to Gerald’s patience and skill as an editor. Some of the best hardboiled fiction, or minimalism—whatever you want to call the hard-edged grit song that rose from ashes of the Great War through Hammett, Hemingway, Jim Tully, and others—has the ring of poetry, and Gerald writes and curates some fine modern verse that keeps that song alive.


Belly Up to the Bar with Gerald So

Gerald So is the editor of The 5-2: Crime Poetry Weekly, a founder of Font, Hofstra University’s literary magazine, and both the former president of the Short Mystery Fiction Society and editor at Thrilling Detective. His poetry has appeared in Babaric Yawp, Defenestration, and Yellow Mama, as well as in Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Welcome to Belly Up to the Bar, Gerald. What can I get you?

GSo-CloserLook-180 GS: I’ll have a ginger ale.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: I bet Crime Poetry still raises some eyebrows, even though you’ve been doing this a while. Which is odd, because writers like Ken Bruen are often given the title “noir poet” as a compliment. Tell us a bit about why poetry is so well suited for writing about crime.

GSo-CloserLook-180 GS: Because it is concise by nature, poetry has a sense of urgency much like crime fiction. Every word, every line elicits a reaction driving toward a larger goal. Much poetry can be read as originating from slights, wrongs, or more serious harm poets have experienced. Poetry encourages us to focus emotion as tightly and powerfully as we can.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Poetry in general is more distilled. I think it was Faulkner, but I’ve heard it attributed to both Joyce and Hemingway, who both wrote poetry, that every novelist is a failed poet. My friend Drew Fader, who is also in Protectors, has told me of days where he’s struggled over a single word. Is poetry that much of a struggle for you?

GSo-CloserLook-180 GS: I struggle to gain perspective on my emotions and experiences, but that ultimately helps me as a person. To me, raw emotion on a page is too volatile to be a poem. The goal of any writing for publication is to reach an audience, and that requires refining one’s message to its most effective.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You taught at Hofstra, but now you write full time. How did it feel to take that plunge? I know fiction writers who’ve done it, and one tech writer and editor, but you’re the first poet. Do you write fiction or nonfiction as well, to pay the bills?

GSo-CloserLook-180 GS: My last teaching position was downsized, so I was sort of forced into writing full time, but it also felt like the natural next step. I also write fiction and reviews of books, TV, and film, and I create poetry ebooks because so few seem to make the effort to preserve poetic lines.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: I think poetry gets short shrift these days. Everyone knew Frost, just as Hemingway was popular in his time, but today it’s the genre writers that everyone knows. Stephen King, Harlan Coben, John Grisham. Do you think genre poetry could push the pendulum in the other direction?

GSo-CloserLook-180 GS: That would be nice. I honestly gave no thought to gaining attention when I began seriously writing poetry. It seemed to be the best form for some of my ideas, and now I can’t give up poetry in favor of fiction or any other kind of writing. It deserves my best, and as long as I’m here, I may as well try to advance its cause.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You headed the Short Mystery Fiction Society, who give out the Derringer Awards. I prefer short stories for punch, and wish there were more wide-reaching venues for them. What are some of the best short crime fiction stories you’ve read, online or otherwise?

GSo-CloserLook-180 GS: All-time favorites include Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective stories and Rob Kantner’s Ben Perkins. I like how Kantner weaves backstory between each Perkins story. I get the sense of a man living a full life. From my time editing Thrilling Detective, I enjoyed stories by Ray Banks, Russel McLean, Stephen D. Rogers, Sarah Weinman, Dave White, and Jim Winter.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: I read a lot of Nameless, Pronzini was always a great read. I wrote some poetry in college. Mostly free verse, stream of consciousness stuff that for me, worked better as prose. But I enjoy a lot of poetry, from the Iliad to what Amiri Baraka calls “low ku,” a play on haiku. What modern poets should we be reading? In addition to the ones you publish in the 5-2, of course.

GSo-CloserLook-180 GS: Of the top of my head: Sharon Olds, Kim Addonizio, Donald Justice, Edward Hirsch, Ada Limon, Sandra Beasley…

Tom Pluck BeerTP: I look forward to checking them out. Do you think comparing music and poetry is valid? Obviously they are not always the same, but can be. I think the music always wins over the lyrics. Example, “Born in the USA” being used patriotically, when it’s about a Vietnam vet getting treated like garbage by his country. Are there any musicians you’d honestly call poets?

GSo-CloserLook-180 GS: I do think it’s valid. The best poetry has musicality behind its words and structure. I’m not up on current music, but two names that come to mind are Don McLean and Jackson Browne.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: It’s last call, my friend. What would be your last meal?

GSo-CloserLook-180 GS: I’d go to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Is that cheating? Okay. I’d have a steak, baked potato, and root beer.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Thank you for dropping by, Gerald. You opened my eyes to what poetry can do, and I hope this interview does the same for everyone reading it.

BW Beer Mug

Prepare to be Stupefied

I have a li’l shorty in the excellent new issue of Stupefying Stories, a speculative fiction magazine edited by Bruce Bethke. The best review I’ve read of it is by Wag the Fox: “You can no longer say they don’t write ’em like that anymore,” and I’m proud to be a part of it.

You can buy it for Kindle here:

Stupefying Stories: Mid-October 2012

I also have a poem in Gerald So’s anthology,  The 5-2: Crime Poetry Weekly, Vol. 1 which is now available on Kindle, collecting one year of crime and noir poems from The 5-2.


The 5-2 Crime Poetry blog tour – Keith Rawson’s $25

Welcome to the 5-2 Blog Tour kick-off! Thanks to Gerald So for having me. He runs a great site, and helped immensely when I submitted my poem, “Just Ice.” Hell, he edited so much that I should give him a co-author credit.

Admittedly, I was skeptical when I heard the term “noir poetry.” I’m not sure why. I’m sort of an old crab when it comes to mash-ups and transmedia, and that had the same ring. Then I read a few poems at Beat to a Pulp by Gerald So and others, and I realized I was being a stubborn ass. Poetry can be all about emotion, and that’s one reason crime fiction resonates with me: the strong emotions inherent in criminal acts. Whether it is violent or not, in every crime someone feels violated.

There have been many excellent poems since Gerald opened up the 5-2: Crime Poetry Weekly, but the one that resonates with me most so far is Keith Rawson’s $25. If you haven’t read it, go read it now.

It’s a very simple narrative which eschews over-description. He uses penny and nickel words to great effect. In a poem about giving blood, he doesn’t even use the word phlebotomist, which is admirable. I’d have given in to temptation, tried to rhyme with it, and messed the whole thing up.

Instead, we’re treated to a face “blotchy with whiteheads,” and a voice like “a cat’s tail slammed in a rusty screen door.” If you haven’t pictured this nurse with the needle in her hand, you’re not paying attention. In the end, it’s not the imagery that gives it power. That’s just the foundation. It’s the honest apathy of it. I gotta pay the rent, lady. And it’s too much trouble to rob you, so stick the needle in.

I wasn’t surprised when I read Keith’s bio and he said that it was based in reality. It has that ring to it. The inexperienced would dramatize it, appeal to our dignity. “Look man, I’m selling my blood. I’m reduced to that.” But someone who’s been there knows there’s an apathetic sadness to it. A resignation. I could sell my sweat or my blood. I’ve learned that in the end this is easier than sticking you up. I’ve been down that road, he says, using no words at all.

And that’s poetry, baby.

Here’s the schedule for the rest of the blog tour.

© 2012 Thomas Pluck

Suspect Has a History

Crime writer Jack Bates has a poem at The 5-2 entitled “Suspect Has a History,” inspired by long nights listening to his police scanner. Gerald So, Alison Dasho and I recorded a reading of the poem. I play the cop. I didn’t have a donut to eat while recording it, but I did my best. It’s a fine poem that captures the sense of futility first responders feel when dealing with folks who just seem to have it in for themselves.

Suspect Has a History

© 2012 Thomas Pluck
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Just Ice

Gerald So runs The 5-2: Crime Poetry Weekly. You might think poetry and crime fiction don’t mix, but he’ll prove you wrong. I first read his work at Beat to a Pulp, and the tone he evokes in these simple poems is quite striking.

I’ve been developing a story called “The Ultimate Dis,” and the basics of the storyline came off as poetic imagery to me, so I wrote a poem of it as an exercise. Gerald liked it and sent extensive edits- the original poem is about twice as long- and we cut it down to the bone. I like what we came up with.

You’ll get to hear me read it, if you chose. To me, I sound like Fozzy the Bear from the Muppet Show, but he gets readings from most of his contributors, and I decided to give it a shot. So if you want to hear Fozzy lay his feelings bare, this is your chance.

JUST ICE at the 5-2: Crime Poetry Weekly

© 2011 Thomas Pluck