Coat Rack

Writing Experiments

Rick Bursky

“Every word was once a poem”[1]. Every poem was once an experiment. I’m a pragmatic man. I’m a test pilot flying a fountain pen. Testing the limits of honesty[2]. I was going to begin by saying “watch me pull a rabbit out of a hat” but that’s the sort of malarkey I’m trying to avoid, the stiff collar, cleverness of prose (should I apologize?).

There’s a theory that professes honesty is a requirement of writing. Poppycock! I’m being impetuous. I’ll test this theory with three questions. The first, you’re strapped into the electric chair, as they put the wet sponge[3] on your head you think, A—you’re not guilty of whatever they convicted you of and this is the exact reason more people should oppose the death penalty, B—I should have written that you’re sitting in, not strapped to, the electric chair. These are questions that trouble writers. Writing is a landscape from which there is no return. Language is the pair of shoes you wear walking across that landscape. You can only say stuff like this in an essay for writers or else you come off too pretentious. The last choice, C—your last thought before lightning burns through you, “is language just a helium filled balloon?”

Writing is a multiple choice test.

Was there an ancient, Greek version of the poem “Experiments In Grief,” yes or no? According to Herodotus, grief was invented in 489 BCE after the first Persian war[4].

Writing is a history test.

Is there a seventeenth century painting titled “Grief” hanging in a Belgium museum?

Writing is a polygraph test.

Facts are delicate things.

There are two truths, what actually happened and the emotional truth of what happened. An example of the former, one rainy night she got up the courage to lose her virginity in the back seat of a car parked behind a supermarket closed after an earthquake[5]. The latter of the same event could manifest itself in the image of girl hiking up her prom dress and walking across burning coals.

Every word in “Experiments In Grief” is true, as are the words in all of my poems. I am a confessional—not a surrealist—poet. Every good poem celebrates, defends, and makes love to honesty. Great poems often require something else.

[1] Emerson

[2] On the limits of honesty, it’s believed that’s where poetry is found. But that’s just a theory.

[3] The sponge must not be too wet or the saline short-circuits the electric current, and not too dry, as it would then have a very high resistance.

[4] Roughly 6,400 Persians were killed. Actual Greek losses are not known.

[5] An example of a supermarket like this was the Ralph’s Supermarket on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, CA.

Rick Bursky

Rick Bursky's most recent book, I’m No Longer Troubled By The Extravagance, is out from BOA Editions. The poem, "Experiments in Grief" appears in that book. His previous full-length collections are Death Obscura (Sarabande Books), and The Soup of Something Missing (Bear Star Press). His poems have appeared in many journals including FieldAmerican Poetry ReviewGettysburg ReviewConduit and Iowa Review.


Illustration by Tom Moore. Tom Moore is an illustrator and visual artist currently living in St. Louis.