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About this poet

David R. Slavitt was born in White Plains, New York, in 1935, and educated at Andover, Yale, and Columbia University. A poet, translator, novelist, critic, and journalist, he is the author of more than seventy works of fiction, poetry, and poetry and drama in translation. He is also coeditor of the Johns Hopkins Complete Roman Drama in Translation series and the Penn Greek Drama Series. His most recent collections of original poetry are Falling from Silence: Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 2001) and PS3569.L3 (1998). His latest translations are Sonnets of Love and Death by Jean de Sponde (Northwestern University Press, 2001), The Latin Odes of Jean Dorat (2000), The Book of the Twelve Prophets (1999), Voyage of the Argo: The Argonautica of Gaius Valerius Flaccus (1999), Solomon Ibn Gabirol's A Crown for the King (1998), Joao Pinto Delgado's Poem of Queen Esther (1998), and Ausonius: Three Amusements (1998). David Slavitt's other recent works include The Book of Lamentations: A Meditation and Translation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001) and Get Thee to a Nunnery: A Pair of Shakespearean Divertimentos (1999). His honors include a Pennsylvania Council on Arts award, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in translation, an award in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and a Rockefeller Foundation Artist's Residence. He lives in Philadelphia and is on the faculties of Bennington and Yale.

One-Word Poem

David R. Slavitt, 1935

Motherless.

Discussion questions.

  1. Is this a joke? And, if so, is it a joke of the poet in which the editor of the magazine (or, later, the book publisher or the textbook writers) has conspired? Or is it a joke on the editors and publishers? Is the reader the audience of the poem?
  2. It is regrettable not to have a mother. Is the purpose of the poem to convey an emotion to the reader? Does the poet suppose that this is the saddest word in the language? Do you agree or disagree? Can you suggest a sadder word?
  3. The Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary gives an alternate meaning from nineteenth- and twentieth-century Australian slang as an intensifier, as in “stone motherless broke.” Can you assume that the poet knew this? Does this make for an ambiguity in the poem? Does this information change your emotional response?
  4. If the assertion of the single word as a work of art is not a joke, then what could it mean? Is it a Dada-ist gesture, amusing and cheeky perhaps but with an underlying seriousness that the poet either invites or defies the reader to understand?
  5. Even if the poet was merely fooling around, does that necessarily diminish the possible seriousness of the poem?
  6. If we acknowledge that this is a work of art, can the author assert ownership? Is it possible to copyright a one-word poem?
  7. In writing a one-word poem, the crucial decision must be which word to choose and to posit as a work of art. Do you think the poet spent a great deal of time picking this word? Or did he simply open a dictionary and let his fingers do the walking? Does that diminish the poem’s value? Or is it a kind of bibliomancy?
  8. Should the word have been in quotes? Or is it quotes even without being in quotes? There is a period at the end of the poem. Would it change the meaning of the poem if there were an exclamation point? Or no punctuation at all? Would that be a different poem? Better or worse? Or would you like it more or less? (Are these different questions?)
  9. You can almost certainly write—or “write”—a one-word poem. But it would be difficult for you to get it published—almost certainly more difficult now that this one has been published and staked its claim. Is the publication of a poem a part of the creative act? Had the poet written his poem and put it away in his desk drawer as Emily Dickinson used to do, would this make it a different poem?
  10. Some poems we read and some that we particularly like, we memorize. You have already memorized this one. Do you like it better now? Or are the questions part of the poem, so that you have not yet memorized it? Will you, anyway? Do you need to memorize the questions verbatim, or is the idea enough?

Reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press from William Henry Harrison and Other Poems by David R. Slavitt. Copyright © 2006 by David R. Slavitt.

Reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press from William Henry Harrison and Other Poems by David R. Slavitt. Copyright © 2006 by David R. Slavitt.

David R. Slavitt

David R. Slavitt

David R. Slavitt was born in White Plains, New York, in 1935,

by this poet

poem
The one-way flow of time we take for granted, 
but what if the valve is defective? What if the threads 
on the stem wear thin, or the stuffing box or the bonnet 
ring leaks, or the joints to the pipe ring fail, 
and there's a backwash?
                         It happens.
                                   And
poem
He broke in, picking the lock, or having stolen 
a key, and he knew the code to disarm the alarm, 

some homeless guy, a crazy street-person, harmless 
you’d think, but you’re wrong: he likes it here, and he stays. 

He rummages through my closets and dresser drawers 
and tries on my clothing, which happens, of