I look for words in the dark,
silently describing to myself
the particular conditions of the weather
on the morning I saw you most recently—
the wind, its patterned disarray—
my mind elsewhere, distracted, lyrical,
while the pianist plays an encore.
poems & poets
I look for words in the dark,
What you have not done
is without error. What you
have not said is beyond contradiction.
What you understand of God
was yesterday. Today a bicycle
waits, chained to a bench.
The success of this afternoon’s nap
is the dream of lifting seven boxes,
couplet: The couplet, two successive lines of poetry, usually rhymed (aa), has been an elemental stanzaic unit—a couple, a pairing—as long as there has been written rhyming poetry in English. It can stand as an epigrammatic poem on its own, a weapon for aphoristic wit, as in Pope’s “Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog which I gave to his Royal Highness” (1734):
I am his Highness’ Dog at Kew;
Pray tell me Sir, whose Dog are you?
The couplet also serves as an organizing pattern in long poems (Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis,” 1592–1593; Marlowe’s “Hero and Leander,” 1593) or part of a larger stanzaic unit. It stands as the pithy conclusion to the ottava rima stanza (abababcc), the rhyme royal stanza (ababbcc), and the Shakespearean sonnet (ababcdcdefefgg).
The rhyming iambic pentameter or five-stress couplet—later known as the heroic couplet—was introduced into English by Chaucer in “The Prologue to the Legend of Good Women” (
One evening, after my course on Asian North American literature, I struck up a conversation with two students. One of them asked what else I was teaching that term, and I responded that I was teaching contemporary poetry. This produced quite a divergent response:
“I would never take that class.”
“I would love to take that class!”
“No way. I hate poetry.”
“What’s wrong with poetry?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t interest me. It’s just too difficult. I feel like I can’t get a handle on it. It’s harder to get what you need out of it.”
“Really? I think it’s easier. There’s so many things you can talk about—tone, structure, imagery, style...What, are you interested in plot?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Teachers of poetry will no doubt find this argument familiar. In Asian American literature, however, the student who dismissed poetry enjoys the backing of professional Asian American literary critics. Like my poetry-loathing student, Asian
oral-formulaic method: Milman Parry (1902–1935) and his student Albert Lord (1912–1991) discovered and studied what they called the oral-formulaic method of oral epic singers in the Balkans. Their method has been variously referred to as “oral-traditional theory,” “the theory of Oral-Formulaic Composition,” and the “Parry-Lord theory.” Parry used his study of Balkan singers to address what was then called the “Homeric Question,” which circulated around the questions of “Who was Homer?” and “What are the Homeric poems?” Parry’s most critical insight was his recognition of the “formula,” which he initially defined as “a group of worlds which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given idea.”
The formula revised the standard ideas of “stock epithets,” “epic clichés,” and “stereotyped phrases.” Such often repeated Homeric phrases as “eos rhododaktylos” (“rosy-fingered dawn”) and “oinops pontos” (“wine-dark sea”) were mnemonic devices that fitted a