One-Word Poem
by David R. Slavitt
from William Henry Harrison and Other Poems


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?
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