The HyperTexts

Jack Butler

Jack Butler is an American poet. Here in his own words are Jack Butler's thoughts on the "state of the art" and his own poetry . . .

I caught a love of the music of poetry from Shakespeare first, and then not in order or in completeness: Wyatt, Marvell, Herrick, Tennyson, Browning, Donne, Hopkins, Hardy, Housman, Yeats, Frost, Wilbur, Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, Robinson, Stevens, and others of that caliber. I taught myself to sing sonnets and villanelles for the sheer joy of it. Imagine my surprise when I first hit graduate workshop and learned that form was supposedly passť. Before that, I had never made a distinction—free verse or formal—it was all poetry, the voice lifted in one sort of song or another. Now I discovered there was supposed to be something wrong with this performance that brought me so much delight. And something wrong with me for loving it. I could never buy that noise, but it leaves its damages anyway. I am a noise-scarred singer, but by god I still hold the true note.

Jack Butler is a writing coach with impeccable credentials. He has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and has had eight books published. He has also been published in The New Yorker, Atlantic, and New York Times Book Review . To learn more, please click here.

For Her Surgery

Over the city the moon rides in mist,
scrim scarred with faint rainbow.
Two days till Easter. The thin clouds run slow, slow,
the wind bells bleed the quietest
of possible musics to the dark lawn.
All possibility we will have children is gone.

I raise a glass half water, half alcohol,
to that light come full again.
Inside, you sleep, somewhere below the pain.
Down at the river, there is a tall
ghost tossing flowers to dark water—
jessamine, rose, and daisy, salvia lyrata . . .

Oh goodbye, goodbye to bloom in the white blaze
of moon on the river, goodbye
to creek joining the creek joining the river, the axil, the Y,
goodbye to the Yes of two Ifs in one phrase . . .
Children bear children. We are grown,
and time has thrown us free under the timeless moon.

A Break in the Weather

The sunlight won't take no for an answer.
It slams in the window, it slams in the door.
It slams open a door in the floor.
It slams at the wind like a slowmoving cow
to get moving, get moving, get moving now:
Make the young pine bow like a dancer,
and waver, and bow, and waver, and bow—
make waves in the grass that hurry like rabbits.

It makes waves in the wind and waves in my habits.
All of that yellow and color and blue without scruple,
and dabble and dollop and rinse and stipple—
it makes for a wideness of vision and stringence of pupil.
It bothers my hair and it bothers my brain.
It refuses to give me the time to explain.

You are expected to get out and ramble,
and you'd better do while you've got the chance or
you'll never be good for a guitar or gamble
or bankshot or bottle of bourbon again, sir!

The Mathematician

Steven loved to multiply,
and multiplying somethings was a something
Steven liked to do—
and he would try, and try, and try,
but the somethings he would multiply
were never what his teacher
or his preacher
or any other logical creature
thought he ought to do:
an apple times an orange times a syringe times a truck
is interesting
but isn't two plus two.

"Four," said Steven sullenly,
"and three by three
is nine
and even duller.
I stultify and pine
till I can multiply a book
times a giggle times a wink
and cross it with a color."

Why he would multiply examples, given ample
time, or a needle times a sample
of a new non-carbonated cherry-flavored drink.

"There's hardly any limit to the things that scamp'll try!
A trampoline, a grape,
a daisy times an ape!
Why, Steven, why?"
his exasperated teachers and his parents used to cry.

"Well . . . I like to multiply,"
was his reply,
and they would moan.

"And if you multiply a sum,
that's good for handling money—
but interest isn't interesting—
whereas a dewdrop times a drum
or burlap times a stone . . . "

And everyone who loved him would hold his ears and groan.
"Steven," they told him, "this simply isn't funny.
You've got to learn to figger."

"Whereas," he said, "with numbers, when you cross them,
they get bigger, ever bigger,
but never any different (except for odd and even).
Whereas with diamonds times a butterfly
or horses times the rain,
you can tell you're out-of-doors,
though the product is, of course,
a little prickly to explain."

"And that's the sort of thing I like to multiply,"
concluded Steven.


Because the floor and air were cold, she waited
until the covers warmed her to undress,
then slipped naked in a rustling lightlessness
except for a blue shimmer that palpitated

like an especially hesitant firefly
over her glimmering skin: A stroked cat's ear,
touched in a properly crackling atmosphere,
will so illumine its gesture. But why

insist on classification of the spark?
What does having a name for it change?
Thinking of it is still wild and sweet and strange—
my young wife flashing softly in the dark.


What do I know of geese high in the wind?
Only what people have told me.
I have heard them—by clear water, the sky beginning to show
in the thinning leaves.

That soft far calling—what is it most like?
The cries we make at love?
Children a few yards over?

Bodies dividing the night, their small freight of heat.
How much will does each wingbeat take?
Certainty flickering in me
like a needle, I speak my opinion: Adjust, adjust.

If it is music, it is necessary music.
I am pleasantly haunted.
They survive.


Great love goes mad to be spoken: You went out
to the ranked tentpoles of the butterbean patch,
picked beans in the sun. You bent, and dug
the black ground for fat, purple turnips.

You suffered the cornstalk's blades, to emerge
triumphant with grain. You spent all day in a coat
of dust, to pluck the difficult word
of a berry, plunk in a can. You brought home
voluminous tribute, cucumbers, peaches,
five-gallon buckets packed tightly with peas,
cords of sugar-cane, and were not content.

You had not yet done the pure, the completed,
the absolute deed. Out of that vegetable ore,
you wrought miracles: snapbeans broke
into speech, peas spilled from the long slit pod
like pearls, and the magical snap of your nail
filled bowls with the fat, white coinage of beans.

Still you were unfinished. Now fog swelled
in the kitchen, your hair wilted like vines.
These days drove you half-wild—you cried,
sometimes, for invisible reasons. In the yard,
out of your way, we played in the leaves, and heard
the pressure-cooker blow out its musical shriek.

Then it was done: You had us stack up the jars
like ingots, or books. In the dark of the shelves,
quarts of squash gave off a glow like late sun.

That was the last we thought of your summer
till the day that even the johnson grass died.
Then, bent over sweet relish and black-eyed peas,
over huckleberry pie, seeing the dog outside
shiver with cold, we would shiver, and eat.


I will create a device (said the mechanic)
so that when vectors, like flies on a horse,
attack, you will keep steady course.
It will deliver incredible moment
simply by spinning in glimmering rings.
Tick-a-lock, I will say, and open a door:
I will enter, I will descend that long corridor,
and working by touch in the dark, and singing,
I will install my felix machina.

Then, though you go from dark planet
to dark, an arc like fish on the wing,
you will know your own weight:
Though the universe whirl in confusion around you,
your own whirring heart will hold true.

Song of the Long-Distance Man

Suppose that on a summer day
I'm jogging in my gray sweat-clothes
down the shoulder, when suddenly
you blow by in a red GT,
calling and laughing (I say suppose),
and dwindle ahead. My answer goes,
I have my own velocity.

The clock ticks on remorselessly,
3600 ticks an hour,
sixty a minute. Doctors say
a healthy pulse is seventy
or less—most men average more.
My resting heart-beat's forty-four.
I have my own velocity.

The XL-10 can break Mach III,
a cheetah sprints at sixty per,
and glaciers, in a century,
trudge forward only feet. They say
C is the final barrier,
unbreakable. And I aver
I have my own velocity.

Though world-acknowledged, on tv,
his face on Time at twenty-two,
a power among the powers-that-be,
he stirs me to small anomie.
Though some with starlets come and go,
I have my lovers, and they know
I have my own velocity.

"The times are changing," so they cry,
"And we must help to drive them on."
They lift their torches to the sky,
where each receding galaxy
(the theory goes), each brilliant sun
hurtles to oblivion.
I have my own velocity.

Sonnetto for Bent Nail

Oh I have studied them, where any sane
man'd just buy a box of sixteen common.
And laid them on a board, and gone to help a woman
stop sobbing, at least in such deadly, gulping pain.
You can't hammer a bent nail flat again,
but you can estimate its ways, and summon
a good join somehow, if joinery's your demon.
Why that's better than store-bought I can't explain.
By main sweat you make a tight floor, a roof appear.
It isn't enough. Things stink, her dreams have dirty
feet, and ticks fatten behind the baby's ear.
This is the last nail. Do you hear
how these eleven years out of our twice thirty
sing under the hammer, how the tune changes gear?

The Mantis

The preying mantis in the living room
has lost a fore-claw. He has been here for
two days now. And it may be loneliness—
as I keep house, keep up appearances,
cleanly and self-solicitous, eating salads—
as if I were important to myself
in your absence—it may be loneliness,
or the lost claw, or else my weariness
of the lamp's mosquitoes, but I find I like him.

That blank, triangular, revolving head;
the eyes, so pupilled and so horrible
(they always make me momentarily
infer intelligence, alert, demented—
and then the recoil to a greater horror,
that zero touched when likeness makes us reach
too far): These all have fallen to their truth,
become familiar. The lamp prints his thin shadow
now on the wall, the books, and now the chair-arm,
and I don't mind.
                   And it is mostly the claw
I think, the lost fore-claw: For now, you see,
he is in disrepair without resort.
My mind trembles before a brink I will not
imagine—neither surgery nor friendship . . .

And he will not flinch, but sit and wait
for the unwary mosquito fat with blood
to rip and not be able to hold on to
and set spinning lazily to the far floor.

Lightning and the Lightning Bug

In troubled and troubling July, crowded with too much
yellow broken and bleeding green in leaf-shelf,
too much blue piling thick with four sorts of cloud in half
an afternoon: in such
backlogged heat and stack vapor pleading sleep,
I saw the usual storm come from nowhere,
from the breezes that stir at spider's knees. Lying there,
lost in our own small keep,

the little loft I'd built, watching its window blaze
and branch, and space go ribbed and black and bright,
and the after-window linger on my loosened sight,
drift everywhere on my gaze
until it faded or the real exploded
from blackness past it, I saw a slow green spark
skating on the pink flare of that superior arc.
And one was rage, one coded

longing, or so I'd have it. Redress of power by power's
the huge stage-show, but many of us are small
and startled, and do not threaten to rattle the planet at all.
Still, some of it is ours.
The underveining of a leaf perhaps merely,
brought out of night a moment. Time has its start
where water-drops ride the water because the rain is hard.
Thunder speaks. But not clearly.

Lights Out

I'm sitting up late in May in Arkansas.
A spider prowls the floor.
I'm closing in on what I'm hunting for,
a phrase as sweet as music, hard as law.

The spider hunts in my synthetic day.
His shadow jigs three times his size,
confusion of blotted W's.
I cannot think of what I meant to say.


A table abuts a tree, a shaky table
in my unstable binoculars: the world's unstable,
I realize—it isn't just
my wobbly elbows on the linen-chest
under the window, or my slap-dash woodwork
that makes everything jerk
in the double circles of this peculiar sight.
The yard's cross-hatched with patches of differing grass, the light
glistens on ravelling green where spring winds revel
and contradict, and zilch, zero, nada is level
in heaven, on earth, or anywhere between:
Clouds race across each other in screen on weltering screen
of sunset air, and, layer by layer, alter
the filtering glories, and make their shadows race and falter
and follow the hollows and hummocks. A swiveling smoke,
far-off, a mist with too much torque
and metamorphosis, resolves to grackles,
a flurry of freckles
swerving in curves of single intent.
They see an umbra I still can't,
night rolling in to swallow all
construct of floor and corner and wall
in relativities, the scattering funnels of stars, in one of which
we wheel and vary and pitch
in fleeting incidence,
in differential radii. And since,
right now, it's quitting time, you will be leaving the city
to zoom to me, my lover and pretty
translation of axes, swinging around dip whoop
through slopes and valleys and over the last hill-top,
your twin beams bouncing off glittering water flexing in ripples
downhill to rivers in darkness my pupils
will soon be widening for, in which I will put aside
this playful foreshortening. My table's a failure, a cock-eyed
approximation not good enough
to bring in out of the rough-edged weather: and if,
just now, we find we've made
a marriage or three no neater, why be afraid?
Whether it's sin or synthesis,
let's rock and roll on staggering feet
to the rumpled plane of a plain white sheet
and plant each vertex with a kiss.

The Theory of the Rose

There are no seas or stars wilder than those
imagination offers. There's no rose
that multiplies its petals from the five
the briars have, in cirques of flame live
on the livid air, unless there is a rose
beyond the rose there is. The wild rose blows
and goes its ways, sends jagged pleasure through us,
the thrill of original power. Does something to us
worth doing. The fat, elaborate, and final
product, more fruit than flower, inspiring its vinyl
dimestore mock-ups, may put us off, may seem
somewhat too crowded, too artificed a dream:
It's only the flower of having taken thought
and trouble, the double-double-double-wrought
theme of each wave's wild singular sing-song.
What is more rare, original, or strong
than thought? Star-novelties or seas' repose,
surprise, rise all where the briar-rose rose:
Fiery water and watery fire relapse
on their impulse. Someone thinking Perhaps
it would not be wholly unforgivable
to float a beginning, a nebular glow, and tell
what it wishes to be, not what it must,

is, as I style it, part and particular thrust
of how the new continually excels
itself, to become not merely something, but something else.

Desire and imagination meet
somewhere on a back street
and make their way to a room
where the vases are full of bloom
and the floorboards crossed with light.
And what they do there
is prayer
if I have it right.

The heroes of what's next, sea, star, and stem—
this dithyrambling rose I cut for them.

Graduation Present

Here's Daddy's love: take it, it's pink.
Congratulations. I know you think

the roads are open now, you twist
the key to power at last, just

as you knew you would. Goodbye to law,
the tiny town of Always No,

so serious and so absurd,
the little figures mouthing a word

that might be Careful, or else might be
Love, or Responsibility:

inaudible in any case
under the beautiful guttural bass

of something new and perfectly tuned—
your own authority, profound

with finish. Go on, see how she runs,
so long. No thanks to us: No one's

given you anything, my sweet.
You've just been given to the street.


She's checking the luggage again, buckling up.
The boyfriend starts the little red Cavalier,
hangs a left at the corner: They're out of here,
they're off to college.
  You let a small sigh slip,
and turn, as I thought you might, a quick half-step,
to fold with me. You shake with loss, with clear
sweet sorrow, with letting go.
   I read, once, we're
identical to rings, our prototype
the torus, gullet and skin a single map,
one surface, continuous.
   We're messier
than any topology, but I would swear
I've seen, somewhere in you, that glimmering shape
the soul must have, a loop of pure bright hope
scattering daughters to the ringing air.

The Crickets of Quantum Zero


When I was a child, they sang outside the door.
—It wasn't really singing, but a high
repeated pizzicati, I forget why.
Sex, probably. Before the night, before
the huge red sun sank low, and then sank lower,
they started. They sang till moonrise, they sang till I
was lost in dreams. And if I woke to cry
from fear, or because my throat was sore,
they were still singing. All across the South,
wherever we moved, they sang home to me.
In this dry country now, I toss in bed,
deafening, the stale taste of age in my mouth.
My hearing chirps with a virtual stridency,
with silence. And I am strangely comforted.


There is in her a source some few will meet,
like drunkards remembering water can be sweet—
a splash of vision, generous
as clean clear fluencies over moss.

And somewhere else, rock-click, and the sting,
hooked high in air, of a scuttling whiptailed thing.

And if you find the first, find how to stay.
God help you if you wander far away.

No News at All

The weather isn't news unless extreme,
though the news is a kind of grumbling weather—
fortunately far-off and dwindled, tinny,
as voices remembered from a dream.
Men need freshness most. What can offer any?
Not memory and history together.

Only what's outside skin or brain
can make a difference to what's caught in it.
That difference might be nothing more than light,
the rusty odor of dust freckling with rain,
or the rain-drops, dust-floured, dusty white,
that roll about like mercury a minute.

Green Fire

What element is it makes fire burn green?
I think of it feathering from copper screen
thrown out because corroded fragile
to an old wire incinerator, with detergent
boxes and dry-milk boxes and toilet-paper
spindles, the funnies, kleenex, all the week's gradual
fall-out. This is not that shroud-like vapor
bluing a bunsen's mouth: That fire is too pure, too urgent—
all it seems to know how to say is Learn.
What this fire says is something less stern.
Have a good time, maybe, or What was I just saying?
Some contaminant must be to blame,
since it is never the main flame,
but a rider, or aura, or rare lightning playing
inconstantly over the steadier yellow
(grass blazing on a hill somewhere,
or a sunny river run fanned and shallow)—
so sweet, so temporal a green,
almost the burnt-out, bare
branches of spent esteem will fret and flare,
and the world will come to mean what it ought to mean.

The Cloud Chamber Blues

I don't really mean to prove a thing
with any words I say,
or half-imagine stopping change,
or think to half-delay

oblivion with a tune: I'm sure
that flesh returns to earth,
that none of the lovely can endure,
and I wouldn't waste this breath

if I could mitigate decay
for Larry Johnson, ban
danger from Lynnice, or stay
death from Marianne—

But every smile I see appears
a phase of waning moon:
a thin bright line against the stars,
full darkness coming soon.

And since I cannot save a thing
from heaven or from hell,
I'll save a word or two, and ring
the changes like a bell.

Second Comings

Winter spring and summer fall
the leaves go down and come back up.
The creek we followed fed a pool
a small secluded place to stop

where sun and rain and moon and wind
drove down the days and raised them up
and bleached dead ashes deeper and
stove in beer-cans, which, like ships,

shipped sand and listed: A leaf detached
itself and fell, and for a time
switched whenever the eddies switched,
a fraction of unbaffled flame.

We spent all morning at laugh-and-run,
at isn't-it-warm? and salt-my-tail.
Somewhere upstream bituminous stone
touch by touch unbuttoned from shale

and water rippled and soft coal
lay scattered on the sand by us:
They say that plants compress to coal
through centuries of terminus . . .

And sunlight kindled root and bole
and branched out bright against the sky,
and fire will blossom forth from coal,
yield warmth, and please the lover's eye . . .

And noon came on and went on by,
and shade by blue transparent shade
the night returned, and she and I
built fire on marks of fire unmade.

Attack of the Zombi Poets

One morning they were everywhere: the lawn,
the cafeterias, the swimming pools.
They chatted at the parties, went on and on.
They taught the little children poetry-in-the-schools.

"What's the strangest thing you can think of?" they said.
"Let's listen to the silence, loosen the knots
that hold the night together, pretend we're dead."
They reviewed each other's books by carload lots:

"It is not indefensible to declare
so-and-so is conceivably among
(though this last book's a falling-off) the four
or five dozen of our most promising young . . ."

They spoke of subtleties and of nuance,
twelve shades of gray to sketch a loss of nerve,
as if their rigor were the only dance,
and hardballs at a hundred didn't curve.

All masters of the verbal knowing nod,
the merest ghosts in their own work, and proud
they'd done away with bad old ego (God
help those who said what they meant or laughed out loud),

they still were their own only subject—could
not praise without considering that praise
was suspect in our century. What good
devising (sure, they could) some elegant phrase,

when Angel de Pilotes, a close friend,
lay prisoned down in South America,
a victim of the junta, and the end
(not unexpected, because of a bitter flaw

in Love itself) of another relationship
began to announce itself in studious frissons?
Their fathers died off at a remarkable clip:
Oh remorse—but my true father is Villon.

Their favorite pronoun was we, their second you:
as in, "We understand that poetry
has as its subject, poetry: the new
poetry can never . . .", but not as in "We

all went out to Big Bend last week and Pappy
cooked beef stew Provencale and the wind blew
a tent down and ate my hat and I was happy";
as in, "You ask the phone for a date. You/

laugh when it/ says Yes. You/ whisper, Sorry,
wrong/ number.
You/ laugh, laugh, thinking/ how, soon
your/ mysterious caller will/ die", but not as in, "Carry
the garbage out right now, you dead-ass goon."

Their favorite verbal clearly was the gerund,
mostly for use in titles: Burning the Ladder,
Letting the Birds Grow Feathers, Saving Air,
Tearing the Shirt, to name a few that matter.

Their cadence was the musical phrase, the breath,
a natural measure, and breathlessly they each
broke free of iambic five, succeeding forthwith
in somehow manufacturing a speech

so spitless, airless, and dispirited
that stones would sigh and computers weep to hear.
They got back to nature, but when they did
nature was never there: Oh it was clear

the wind blew emptily under an empty sky,
propelling them jerkily into drink and sex . . .
One morning they were everywhere, but why?
What mycological cycle had hit apex?

They ate Cleveland and then they ate L. A.
They had it all, at last, and it all made
good subject matter: "The aftertaste of clay . . . ."
And when one put a pistol to his head

to ratify his impact on the scene,
or walked out to the middle of a bridge and fell
(though the bridge stood), the others would stir and keen
the disappointment of the particle,

the distances and horror of the word.
—No doubt about it, the situation stank,
in fact was hopeless: No poetry occurred
thenceforward thereafter, and the screen went blank.

So much for the matinee. Now day and smoke,
traffic, the vacant lot's wild sassafras
cracking the sidewalk up with a green joke,
the sun-stunned onions in the silly grass.

The HyperTexts