why do your poems give me a headache when I try to understand them?

I read to the entire plebe class,
in two batches. Twice the hall filled
with bodies dressed alike, each toting
a copy of my book. What would my
shrink say, if I had one, about
such a dream, if it were a dream?

Question and answer time.
"Sir," a cadet yelled from the balcony,
and gave his name and rank, and then,
closing his parentheses, yelled
"Sir" again. "Why do your poems give
me a headache when I try

to understand them?" he asked. "Do
you want that?" I have a gift for
gentle jokes to defuse tension,
but this was not the time to use it.
"I try to write as well as I can
what it feels like to be human,"

I started, picking my way care-
fully, for he and I were, after
all, pained by the same dumb longings.
"I try to say what I don't know
how to say, but of course I can't
get much of it down at all."

By now I was sweating bullets.
"I don't want my poems to be hard,
unless the truth is, if there is
a truth." Silence hung in the hall
like a heavy fabric. My own
head ached. "Sir," he yelled. "Thank you. Sir."

[William Matthews {1942-1997}, 'A Poetry Reading at West Point', from Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words that Move Them {Anthony Holden and Ben Holden, eds.}]


  1. Love, LOVE this, too. I belly-laughed at the awesome line you pulled out and wondered why it isn't the title?!... would be if it were mine. This poem makes me laugh, and cry, and laugh...

    1. I haven't read any more of William Matthews' stuff, so I'm not sure about his typical tone. I do love this one, which has such a visceral, lump-in-throat sweetness. I'm glad that it caught you, too!