Paul Lake


Pro Forma

Certain poets, whose measures don’t seem to conform
To any known pattern, when pressed will explain,
They’re not tin-eared bards when they veer from the norm;
If their meters don’t scan and their rhymes crack and strain,
It’s not that the rhyme scheme’s too hard to maintain—
When their sonnet falls short a few lines, their refrain
Is to sing out in chorus, “The rules don’t obtain!
I’m a clever young artist subverting the form!”

Likewise, when a contractor building a dorm
Fails to bolt metal crossbeams or hammer in nails
And the floors start to buckle like ships in a storm
Then collapse, crushing hundreds, though agonized wails
Might suggest that the devil was in the details,
Don’t insist that the culprits be thrown into jails,
Show that you at least know what good building entails
For a clever young artist subverting the form.

So the next time you’re out and the air is aswarm
With pestiferous flies, and the staff smell like minks,
And your coffee’s served cold and your sherbet’s served warm,
And there’s spit on your entrees and piss in your drinks,
Don’t storm out in a huff, shouting how the joint stinks,
But instead flash the host, cooks, and servers sly winks—
Let them know you’re a modern food critic who thinks
They’re all clever young artists subverting the form.

Paul Lake was a Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University, where he received his M. A. He has taught English and Creative Writing at Santa Clara University in California and Arkansas Tech. Since 2006, he has been the poetry editor of First Things. His poems and essays have been widely published, and he has authored the poetry collections Another Kind of Travel and Walking Backward, as well as two novels, Among the Immortals and Cry Wolf: A Political Fable. In 1988, he won The Porter Prize for Literary Excellence, an award given to one Arkansas writer each year. In 2013 his poetry collection The Republic of Virtue won the Richard Wilbur Award and was published by the University of Evansville Press.