Why So Serious?

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Poetry is always starved for attention. It has been declared dead at least 200 times in the past hundred years. And with its every death comes a resurrection. This week, Elizabeth Alexander will become the fourth poet ever to read at a presidential inauguration—I'll take a close look at Alexander's poem on Slog on Inauguration Day—and if she does as fine a job as her body of work (particularly The Venus Hottentot) suggests, we could have a best-selling poet on our hands for the first time in years.

It's not all good news: Locally, poetry has been used for nefarious purposes. Poet Mark Doty's work was plagiarized by a letter-writing terrorist wannabe claiming to possess weapons-grade ricin and threatening to poison people in random gay bars. The chilling lines from the letter—"The targets won't care much that they'll be dead and nearly frozen, just as, presumably, they didn't care that they were living..."—were from a poem about dead mackerel on display in a market. On his blog, Doty expressed sorrow and shock at seeing his work appropriated and transformed into a death threat:

The poem was written in 1994, in the awful latter days of the AIDS crisis here, when there was no hope in sight and the losses just went on and on... now here are my lines twisted to a new context, and what was intended to suggest consolation is instead bent to an occasion for creating fear.

Now that poetry is appearing in so many newspaper headlines, in conjunction with coronations and an unhinged drama queen's harbinger of doom, it's important to remember that sometimes poetry can exist simply to make the reader laugh. Recently, New Mexico publisher Destructible Heart Press published a handsome chapbook called An Inaccurate Theory of Everything by Seattle poet Jeremy Richards. It's a perfect example of how a poem can be smart, affecting, and funny.

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The book opens with "T. S. Eliot's Lost Hip Hop Poem" ("Straight out of Missouri,/Harvard University in your face./I've got ladies in waiting all over/the place, singing each to each;/do I dare eat a peach?... For I will tell you/that I have scuttled across the floors of ancient clubs..."), and it continues with poems that start with a standup comic's sense of playfulness and land with a perfect dismount as something more profound. One poem theorizes about amnesia foam mattresses, the logical opposite of memory foam ("Who are you? ask the coils./Why do you feel so familiar?"), and ends with a meditation about how past relationships are inevitably forgotten ("The secret to balance is to fall/In every direction at once").

Richards's best lines meet at exactly the intersection of bitter and sweet: "She laughed, stared into the bottom of her wine glass, then/looked up and ruined the next six months of my life." It's the easiest thing in the world for a successful poet to become heavy with solemnity and seriousness. But now, when Seattle seems plunged in endless winter and doom, it's important to pay attention to the poets who can leaven the sorrow. recommended