Elaine Sexton, “Poetry & Smoke: A Manifesto”

This week, a new poem by Elaine Sexton (featured in this month’s issue of Fogged Clarity).


I am for a poetry that makes nothing happen.

I’m for a poetry that is too young to date, but too old to overlook.

I’m for a poetry that wants to paint.

I was thinking of those huge paintings by Francis Bacon at the Metropolitan last summer. There must have been about fifty of them. I was thinking of the colors, the wide open space in them, the intensity of their shapes after the stun gun of subject matter. I was looking at myself looking at the canvases, standing in front of them. I was seeing myself, later, in his studio, in the chaos of it. I was thinking of his workspace in relation to his work. Order from disorder. I’m for a poetry that makes order from disorder. And maybe, sometimes, takes it back.

There’s pleasure in some kinds of confinement, like, say, a correctional facility of your own design. But that’s not what a poem is, in my book, not exactly, not a correctional facility… but, I believe that’s where poems come from, quarters you make and inhabit for a while. You have to find a good place to spin in, like the silk worms in the stalls on the dusty side streets of Shanghai. They spin themselves into an elegant net for display, for the tourists. And the net is all a person can see standing there on the sidewalk, not the worms, which aren’t really worms at all, but invisible makers, in the end, that turn into moths, or become a shell of themselves in a jar on a shelf.

I’m for a poetry that sets out to make something clear, something visually, sonically, spatially pleasing. Not opaque. Not obscure. Not overly sensual, either. Not cloying the way X’s poems are (do I have to name names?) overly rhymed, inside and out, sensual for sensuality’s sake, poems that fall all over themselves, that make out with themselves, loving themselves and the sounds they make way too much, so there’s no room, no love left for the reader. I’m for the reader. I’m for leaving some room for the reader, a lot of room.

I’m for a poetry that is tart, that barks a little, and maybe, sometimes, a lot, a poetry that calls attention to itself… but then leaves you alone. You know, the way you feel when the neighbor’s dog down the hall has finally stopped barking. And there’s suddenly silence. And you never thought of silence that way before, of the word: silence. But there you are on the couch, grateful to the damn dog for barking, the dog you were, moments before, dreaming of feeding a bad ham to. But now, you love that dog, because now you can practically taste silence in the wake of his bark, a new taste, one you never tasted before. I’m for a poetry that does that.

And speaking of taste, I’m also for a poetry that still smokes. A poetry that sends signals, words that are signs with their smells still attached, a little ash, a little resin, still sticky, still holding onto their scorched antecedents. I’m for words arranged in a way that makes you think about where they come from, word origins, words that take you back to the beginning of something, even if it isn’t their real beginnings, the places they actually come from, but an original place, one you imagined into being. I’m for words that were orphans until you gave them a sentence.


ELAINE SEXTON is the author of two collections of poetry, Sleuth (2003) and Causeway (2008), both with New Issues (Western Michigan University). Her poems, interviews and essays, art and book reviews have appeared in American Poetry Review, Art in America, Bloom, O! the Oprah Magazine, Poetry, Poetry Daily, Pleiades, The Lambda Book Report and numerous other journals and anthologies. She’s a member of the National Book Critics Circle and teaches poetry at the Sarah Lawrence College Writing Institute. Her second collection, Causeway, was a 2009 finalist for the Publishing Triangle’s Audre Lorde Award.

Photo by Lorinda Sullivan.