David Ignatow had been at his kitchen table reading an article in The New York Times. “Did you ever hear of ‘Drop Weight?’ he asked, pointing to the newspaper. “Drop Weight is how they measure the strength of a rope needed to hang a man. If the man is too heavy, a thin rope will unravel. And, if he’s fat, and they measured wrong, the whole gallows will split apart, and the guy will drop down and still be alive. So, maybe a way to think of a good poem is like a man who’s hanged: The rope must be just right, and the apparatus strong enough, so the body drops, and the neck is snapped. One clean motion.”
We’d both been invited to read our poems at the home of H. R. Hays. “So, don’t read that Vietnam poem,” Ignatow continued, “unless you cut out all that adolescent bullshit about getting drafted and write something concise. Make your poem clean and make it snap!”
H. R. Hays was a poet and the early translator of Bertolt Brecht, and Spanish-American poets much praised by Robert Bly and others. Invited also were his neighbors, members of the Hamptons, Long Island poetry community, including Harvey Shapiro, editor of The New York Times Book Review, Allan Planz, poetry editor of The Nation and others. Ignatow warned: “You don’t want them thinking less of you, spoiling your reputation before you have one. Read the poem Hays asked for, the one about Eisenhower’s funeral.”
But, at Hays’ party, after I’d read the Eisenhower poem, the writers applauded and asked me to read an encore. I flipped through my notebook in a panic looking for something fit to read. Under the harsh light of the audience’s attention, the horrible realization settled on me that all the notebook poems I was so proud of were terrible! I’d been carrying around an impressive, overstuffed valise, showing off, but there was little good in it. All were truly bad except that poem about Vietnam Ignatow had criticized. I was certain if I found it, I’d prove Ignatow wrong.
I couldn’t find it. I flipped through the pages sensing the audience’s disquiet. At last, in a bid to keep their attention I recited it from memory.
The reaction was gratifying laughter and applause. Allan Planz came up to me and asked if he could publish the poem in The Nation. My first thought was that I had been right and Ignatow wrong: it was a great poem.
Later, in the car driving home, I recalled my triumph. I heard the applause, but as I played back my recitation, I noticed that the poem was quite short—much shorter than the one I’d shown to Ignatow, which must have been about seventy or eighty lines. What had happened?
I had titled it: “America Before the Revolution” and dedicated it to the “Bomb-Them-Back-to-the- Stone Age” general Curtis LeMay.
Driving along, I recited the poem as I remembered reciting it:
How I enjoyed
Your words last night
About this being God’s war. I was so excited
That I didn’t notice eating my mother
Who had fallen into her own apple pie.
What I recited had been only six lines long. What happened to the other seventy?
At home, I found the original version and read it through. Ignatow had been correct. Except for those first six lines, everything else was self-indulgent bullshit. It was as if, having written those lines and realizing that I had something there, I decided to take the opportunity to cash in on the listener’s attention by delivering a sermon.
Idiotic as my assumption had been, I realized that there was something inside me that had known the score all along. A silent editor who, if listened, would guide me in the right direction. Propelled by panic, I had recited only the necessary lines that, as Ignatow pointed out, would open the trapdoor to let the body fall and the neck snap. One clean motion. The invisible hangman: the better maker.
Sandy McIntosh is publisher of Marsh Hawk Press. This essay appeared in the spring 2022 issue of Marsh Hawk Review.