John Baldessari, “Wrong,” 1966-1968
Mr. Van Ess bought 14 washcloths?
Fourteen washrags, Ed Van Ess?
Must be going to give em
to the church, I guess.
He drinks, you know. The day we moved
he came into the kitchen stewed,
mixed things up for my sister Grace—
put the spices in the wrong place.
—Lorine Niedecker, out of New Goose
not offend Pythagoras
—Louis Zukofsky, out of “A-19” (”A” 13-21,
the white wrong numeral on the wall
can't take it off with the clock
down with the clock it . . .
on the board-couch with brass, kindergarten clench joints
backed violet rip into the gas valve
it hemmed & snowed
the wrong way
—Clark Coolidge, out of “Fed Drapes” (Space,
. . . but what of the details of common perception language endeavours when written to devour? ‘Wrong words, how can we tell but we can.’ Little slips of the pen become spells calling demons (nomadic) from the spillage constantly threatening religious and secular authority. Excessive mistake or mystique? The pen stalks letters or pens talk or they did until as children were warned in the 1950s Biro’s invention killed the art of fair writing an example perhaps of the fall as broken enchantment re-enacted. ‘Theoretically starlings could compose in counterpoint’ shows how theory might reveal the way things used to be. An alien voiceprint, let’s suppose, which records that speech was the only substance the visitors identified on earth and no more connected with the practice the locals call ‘writing’ than painting a picture or blowing through a tube. Not as such to be considered as a sign as of commandment. Here as elsewhere the letter Y makes supplication . . .
—Alan Halsey, out of Dante’s Barber Shop (De Vulgari Eloquentia)
There is sometimes a miniscule playing card on the floor, it is
facedown & blue with stars
And you will never turn it over. To complain of money will ruin
your conversation; if you do not
Complain of money there is probably something wrong with your life.
Perhaps you should
Call money “green zinnias.” “For a few hundred more green zinnias
I can fly to Rome at
The end of June.”
—Alice Notley, out of “The Prophet” (How Spring Comes,
to the humbug, whose name is so amusing—very young and ve-
ry rushed, Caesar crossed the Alps on the “top of a
.” We are not daft about the meaning but this familiarity
with wrong meaning puzzles one. Humming-
bug, the candles are not wired for electricity.
Small dog, going over the lawn, nipping the linen and saying
that you have a badger—remember Xenophon;
only the most rudimentary sort of behaviour is necessary
to put us on the scent . . .
—Marianne Moore, out of “Picking and Choosing” (Observations,
. . . the water breaks up into seas, lakes, rivers, runlets,
a few noticeable configurations, short of perplexing multeity:
the mind rides the cycle from all things enchanted and
summoned into unity, a massive, shining presence, to all
things diffused, an illimitable, shining absence, confusion
the wrong zone of intermediacy, a lack of clarifying extremes:
the week of windy cold comes and removes the last hangers-on
from the trees and heaps them against hedge, fence . . .
—A. R. Ammons, out of Sphere: The Form of a Motion
One goes on asking questions. That, then, is one
Of the categories. So said, this placid space
Is changed. It is not so blue as we thought. To be blue,
There must be no questions. It is an intellect
Of windings round and dodges to and fro,
Writhings in wrong obliques and distances,
Not an intellect in which we are fleet: present
Everywhere in space at once, cloud-pole
Of communication. It would be enough
If we were even, just once, at the middle, fixed . . .
—Wallace Stevens, out of “The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract”
(The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens,
Yet even where things go wrong there is more
drumming, more clatter than seems normal. There is a remnant of energy
no one can account for, and though I try
to despise my own ways along with others, I can’t help placing
things in the proper light. I am to exult
in the stacks of cloud banks, each silently yearning
for the upper ether and curving its back, and in the way all things
seem to have of shaping up before the deaf man comes . . .
—John Ashbery, out of “In My Way / On My Way” (Hotel Lautréamont,
. . . You sap. If we imagine the facts otherwise than as they are, certain language games lose some of their importance, while others become more important. Butterflies churn the air. The meaning of a word like the function of an official. Modal rounders. One could be wrong intentionally, but without deceit. The sharp shadows of a low sun, the light smack against the white housefronts. Each day there’s the bridge. Every word is either current, or strange, or metaphorical, or ornamental, or newly coined, or lengthened, or contracted, or altered. The salute of the fireboats. Weathercock, scrimshaw. Panama Exposition . . .
—Ron Silliman, out of Ketjak
. . . I still fear to mention the blue
flowers. They scared me most and I
prolong other talk. There were fields of
them around the place, all blue, all
innocent. The artificial is always innocent.
They looked hand-made, fast-dyed, paper.
They nodded ominously in the sun, right
up to the edge of the concrete ramp, a
million killing abstractions, a romantic
absence of meaning, a distorted prettiness
so thorough that my own eyes rolled up
in fear for their identity and I involuntarily
cried at the thought of tiny mirrors where
the object is lost irretrievably in its own
repetition. Is this how beauty accompanies
fear so it can escape us? Do you think these
flowers could be auctioned tintypes or souls
outside hell? Is blue what they mean by
“shun posterity” and “the price of fame” and
“fear of death”? Have I learned it wrong?
—Frank O’Hara, out of “A Letter to Bunny”
(The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara,
. . . Boots, plows, cheese, burls. As for we who “love to be astonished,” the night is lit. Remarkably to learn to look. My father would say I’ve a “big day” tomorrow. Words are not always adequate to the occasion, and my “probably” sounded hopeless. It’s real, why, so, it’s wrong. I mentioned my face because I am made that way wonderfully like a shadow I do not despise. But if I don’t like the first dress I try on, I won’t like any . . .
—Lyn Hejinian, out of My Life
“When one travels, / one might ‘hit’ / a storm”
Deer polish their antlers
on fruit trees, like a girl
polishing apples on her hair.
Don’t be a fly wringing his hands
as though worry could save the world.
What’s wrong with the world?
Human hair hung from the lowest limb
will keep out the deer.
This is the animal kingdom, where
danger is clear and the tree grows
out of itself like an antler
butting the air—
huge, inexpressible growth!
Boys, girls, say sincerely
what you would like to become:
thighs shining like braided bread
in the grass,
or crickets scraping away
when words fail you?
—Mary Ruefle, out of “The Beautiful Is Negative” (The Adamant,
Shank of the afternoon, wan weight-light,
Undercard of a short month,
February Sunday . . .
Wordlessness of the wrong world.
In the day’s dark niche, the patron saint of What-Goes-Down
Shuffles her golden deck and deals,
one for you and one for me . . .
—Charles Wright, out of “Deep Measure” (Black Zodiac,
By itself wrong
spreads nearly five pages
in the OED,
and meant in its ancestral forms
curved, bent, the rib of a ship
straight, nor true, but apt for its work.
The heart’s full cargo is so immense it’s not
hard to feel the weight of the word
shift, and we might as well admit it’s easy
to think of the spites and treacheries
and worse the poised word had to bear
lest some poor heart break unexplained, inept.
It’s wrong to sleep late and wake like a fog,
and to start each paragraph of a letter with I
. . .
—William Matthews, out of “Wrong” (A Happy Childhood,
. . . And truly it little matters what I say, this or that or any other thing. Saying is inventing. Wrong, very rightly wrong. You invent nothing, you think you are inventing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out your lesson, the remnants of a pensum one day got by heart and long forgotten, life without tears, as it is wept. To hell with it anyway. Where was I . . .
—Samuel Beckett, out of Molloy
I plough the earth
till ruts are ramparts
havoc of every host
Comic on a tragic stage
in a wood again
addressing a crowd
from the wrong rostrum.
—Susan Howe, out of “Cabbage Gardens” (Frame Structures: Early Poems, 1974-1979,
Or that the rules
as well as I
also. If they
would be as the
mind could see them,
then it all was
true and the
mind followed and
—Robert Creeley, out of “They” (Pieces,
a little rightness,
to excuse his hell
and my paradiso.
And as to why they go wrong,
thinking of rightness
And as to who will copy this palimpsest?
al poco giorno
ed al gran cerchio d’ombra
But to affirm the gold thread in the pattern
al Vicolo d’oro
To confess wrong without losing rightness:
Charity I have had sometimes . . .
—Ezra Pound, out of “Canto CXVI” (Drafts & Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII,
The Wrong Door
Gi’ me a reefer, Lawd
cause I wan’ to think different
I wan’ to think
all around this subject
I wan’ to think
I wan’ to think where I is
an’ I wan’ to think my way out
of where I is by a new door
—William Carlos Williams, out of The Collected Poems
of William Carlos Williams: 1939-1962
I was just born at the wrong time, to the wrong family, of the wrong gender. I mean who would ever want to be treated like a woman in a hospital? Certainly no rose-breasted grosbeak.
—Bernadette Mayer, out of “Fixation” (Scarlet Tanager,
. . . words hang unwasted, hold formation, scale in a bevy downvalley just above the rusty willows and the river ripe with messages in corked vials (an old one of mine for Kansas still kicking—hope it makes it through the dam), veer along that hacksaw ridge, through a floppy pack of crows, and up into the vedas, the agrapha and jive, huh
’s and sleeptalk, stupid questions, wrong directions, goodbyes at the stations, over slang slicks, past the Cellini cluster (the well-oiled flurry in a dark alley that paralyzed thieves), suitcases and silos full, hocus pocus, mumbo jumbo stirring gravel in kames, burps after passenger pigeon, sounds only Mavis Staples makes, last words, casual dismissals, calling dogs, summing ups (the hairball got ’em). . . .
—Merrill Gilfillan, out of “Mouth of the Whosis” (Selected Poems, 1965-2000
. . . We want to transfer the immediate object, the immediate emotion to the poem—and yet the immediate always has hundreds of its own words clinging to it, short-lived and tenacious as barnacles. And it is wrong to scrape them off and substitute others. A poet is a time mechanic not an embalmer. The words around the immediate shrivel and decay like flesh around the body. No mummy-sheet of tradition can be used to stop the process. Objects, words must be led across time not preserved against it.
—Jack Spicer, out of After Lorca
I remember daydreams of a doctor who (on the sly) was experimenting with a drug that would turn you into a real stud. All very “hush-hush.” (As it was illegal.) There was a slight chance that something might go wrong and that I'd end up with a really
giant cock, but I was willing to take that chance.
I remember wondering if I looked
—Joe Brainard, out of I Remember
I am living with a very good fellow indeed, a Mr. Rice. He is unfortunately labouring under a complaint which has for some years been a burthen to him. This is a pain to me. He has a greater tact in speaking to people of the village than I have, and in those matters is a great amusement as well as a good friend to me. He bought a ham the other day, for say he “Keats, I don’t think a Ham is a wrong thing to have in a house.”
—John Keats, out of a 6 July 1819 letter to Fanny Keats
(Selected Letters of John Keats,