Ron Koertge’s Poem, ‘Burning the book’

Okay, I stuck with it — trying to find some good poetry similar to Bukowski’s, or at least, poetry that hits me in a way that Bukowski’s does; it doesn’t have to be the same sort of gritty grime — and I found Ron Koertge’s poetry. Ha, I say “found” like I discovered it, but you know what I mean.

He’s a poet and young-adult novelist who grew up in Illinois, and teaches writing for children and young adults at Hamline University in Minnesota, according to the Poetry Foundation. Or at least, he did at some point. He’s 80-years-old now, so I don’t know if he still does.

Burning the book

The anthology of love poems I bought
for a quarter is brittle, anyway, and comes
apart when I read it.

One at a time, I throw pages on the fire
and watch smoke make its way up
and out.

I’m almost to the index when I hear
a murmuring in the street. My neighbors
are watching it snow.

I put on my blue jacket and join them.
The children stand with their mouths

I can see nouns—longing, rapture, bliss—
land on every tongue, then disappear.

See, I’m a romantic at heart, and I do appreciate poetry that touches on the romantic. I just want it to not be too flowery and overly metaphorical. Fortunately, this hits the right note for me.

First off, the anthology of love poems was only a quarter anyway, right? But it’s brittle, which could suggest two things. Either the anthology book has been passed through so many hands with so many people searching for love and its meaning that it’s now become brittle once it’s in his hands or perhaps, it’s become brittle due to modern sensibilities seeing it as being passé. Certainly, our author here seemed to find it … well, not agreeable.

But why burn it? If it’s already brittle, and you only bought it for a quarter, why the next step of burning it? Is it a metaphor for how love burns through our very being? Particularly the words he highlights: longing, rapture, and bliss?

At minimum, we know those things — longing, rapture, bliss — to be fleeting (so perhaps love is, too?) because they “land on every tongue, then disappear,” like an actual snowflake would.

However, there’s also something interesting about the juxtaposition at play: the neighbors are watching it snow (passive) and the children stand their with mouths open (active). That juxtaposition between passive and active hinges on the perspective of age, and perhaps how the older generation (the neighbors watching) have grown cynical and disillusioned with love, while the younger generation (the children lapping up the ashes) are still blissfully naive, ready to dip their toes into love’s inviting stream.

This is a beautiful, short, and simple poem about love. I read it as both cynical (he’s burning a book of love poems, after all) and still, hopeful in a way (the children sticking out their tongues for the nouns). Granted, if love is ashes and it’s catching on their tongue, I wonder if they are burning their tongue in the process, already being singed by love.

What do you think about this poem? Do you interpret it differently than I do? The analysis I do about these poems (and about other poems I’ve blogged about) are my first gut reaction to the poems. I’m not saying that’s the only way to read ’em.

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