Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Poem: Harryette Mullen

It's been said that Maya Angelou could read a random page in a phone book and make it sound exciting; but I can think of only a few poets who could actually take those lines of names or ads or both and make a compelling poem out of them: Harryette Mullen. Of course Harryette works with other tools than phone book entries, but you are liable to find all kinds of strings and hidden operations in her work--some are more overt than others. I don't think that she'd consider herself part of the OuLiPo family, but she is definitely in a funky conversation with them. What I particularly love about Mullen's poetry is that it manages to be simultaneous playful in multiple sense and socially engaged, which is something that whole schools of poetry have aspired to but only intermittenly managed. The poem below is a very good example, and I thought, in tribute to Phebus, that I'd stick with another great Cave Canem-affiliated poet today.


They just can't seem to . . . They should try harder to . . . They ought to be more . . . We all wish they weren't so . . . They never . . . They always . . . Sometimes they . . . Once in a while they . . . However it is obvious that they . . . Their overall tendency has been . . . The consequences of which have been . . . They don't appear to understand . . . If only they would make an effort to . . . But we know how difficult it is for them to . . . Many of them remain unaware of . . . Some who should know better simply refuse to . . . Of course, their perspective has been limited by . . . On the other hand, they obviously feel entitled to . . . Certainly we can't forget that they . . . Nor can it be denied that they . . . We know that this has had an enormous impact on their . . . Nevertheless their behavior strikes us as . . . Our interactions unfortunately have been . . .

Copyright © Harryette Mullen, from Sleeping With the Dictionary, University of California Press, 2002.


  1. Thanks, John. This is one of my favorite Mullen poems. I particularly like to hear her read it, as the tone carries so much of the meaning.

  2. Mendi, I did hear Harryette read this poem once, and You're right, the tone does carry so much of the meaning. But the ellipses by themselves, the aporias that conclude each statement, also carry so much force. I remember a poet I know not even realizing the amount of critique in here until I pointed it out, but he still loved the poem. Layers, she works in so many layers...