Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: Where the poem comes from: Lloyd Schwartz

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Where the poem comes from: Lloyd Schwartz

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I met Lloyd Schwartz eight years ago. It was two nights after the twin towers fell and we were two of four poets reading at Borders at Downtown Crossing. The reading had been planned long in advance. As it turned out, the room was filled with people in search of the solace poetry might offer and the comfort of being together.

Since then I ‘m always delighted to have a chance to hear him, and the poem he’s given me to share with you here, Proverbs from Purgatory,” is a favorite. It is from his book “Cairo Traffic.” Lloyd is the editor of the Library of America volume of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and is the Pulitzer-Prize-winning classical music editor for “The Phoenix.” and a reviewer for NPR’s Fresh Air.

Just seeing the words on the page lets me hear Lloyd’s quiet, measured reading that brings out the gentle humor and poignancy of the work. Here is what he says about the poem:

“I think one of my most peculiar poems is one in my last book called “Proverbs from Purgatory.” It’s a series of twisted old maxims and hints at but never reveals a narrative. It has several sources. My late friend Michael McDowell (who wrote the screenplays for Beetlejuice and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie) would return to Boston with tales from the dark side of Hollywood, often quoting various Hollywood figures. ‘I know this town like the back of my head’ and ‘I’ll have him eating out of my lap’ were two amazing lines I wanted to do something with.

“They also reminded me of a game I used to play in high school, where we’d mix up a couple of proverbs to see how funny we could make them. Perhaps the greatest version of this impulse is Blake’s ‘Proverbs from Hell,’ from ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ (“’he cistern contains, the fountain overflows,’ ‘If a fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise’; ‘Enough!—or too much’; and of course, ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’). I was hoping that through this ‘processing’ some new wisdom might emerge—I once introduced the poem as ‘a pre-Postmodern exploration of the instability of language.’ Then along came W, our un-elected leader, to prove that the inability to make logical sense, however hilarious, was either utterly useless or truly dangerous.

“Around the time I started to work on the proverbs, some friends were involved in an incident that threatened to open large rifts in that particular social fabric. Without ever becoming explicit references, many of the perverted proverbs about friendship in the poem surely emerged from that situation. (My poem ‘A True Poem,’ which begins, ‘I’m working on a poem that’s so true, I can’t show it to anyone,’ was another poem stemming from that experience.) At the same time, a couple of friends (Gail Mazur, Robert Polito) also suggested several additions to the poem that I found irresistible.

“I think it’s both my funniest poem—I love to read it aloud because it gets laughs—and probably also my darkest. And if both aspects of it are true, then maybe it’s a success. It was first published in ‘The Paris Review’ in 1995, and in a 1996 interview in the magazine ‘Civilization,’ George Plimpton, the ‘Paris Review’ editor, talking about humor in literature, mentioned that it was one of his favorite poems in his latest issue. It’s one of the ‘reviews’ of my work I value most.”


It was déjà vu all over again.

I know this town like the back of my head.

People who live in glass houses are worth two in the bush.

One hand scratches the other.

A friend in need is worth two in the bush.

A bird in the hand makes waste.

Life isn't all it's crapped up to be.

It's like finding a needle in the eye of the beholder.

It's like killing one bird with two stones.

My motto in life has always been: Get It Over With.

Two heads are better than none.

A rolling stone deserves another.

All things wait for those who come.

A friend in need deserves another.

I'd trust him as long as I could throw him.

He smokes like a fish.

He's just a chip off the old tooth.

I'll have him eating out of my lap.

A friend in need opens a can of worms.

Too many cooks spoil the child.

An ill wind keeps the doctor away.

The wolf at the door keeps the doctor away.

People who live in glass houses keep the doctor away.

A friend in need shouldn't throw stones.

A friend in need washes the other.

A friend in need keeps the doctor away.

A stitch in time is only skin deep.

A verbal agreement isn't worth the paper it's written on.

A cat may look like a king.

Know which side of the bed your butter is on.

Nothing is cut and dried in stone.

You can eat more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Don't let the cat out of the barn.

Let's burn that bridge when we get to it.

When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Don't cross your chickens before they hatch.


Throw discretion to the wolves.

After the twig is bent, the barn door is locked.

After the barn door is locked, you can come in out of the rain.

A friend in need locks the barn door.

There's no fool like a friend in need.

We've passed a lot of water since then.

At least we got home in two pieces.

All's well that ends.

It ain't over till it's over.

There's always one step further down you can go.

It's a milestone hanging around my neck.

Include me out.

It was déjà vu all over again.

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Blogger Mim said...

Know which side of the bed your butter is on.
I like this one a lot. Lloyd's poem made me smile.

September 1, 2009 at 1:22 PM  
Anonymous JJ said...

This is a wonderful poem. It is not only very funny but wise and sad too.

September 1, 2009 at 3:12 PM  
Blogger Ellen Steinbaum said...

Exactly why I love it. It makes me smile, too.

September 1, 2009 at 4:26 PM  

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