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Is he messing with us?: Ethan Coen's poetry

May 7, 2009 |  6:40 am

Ethan-coen

Poetry is a solitary craft, a deeply personal experience that the poet shares with the world within the shelter and intimacy of the written page.

Cover With this in mind, I read Ethan Coen's "The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way" in the hopes of better understanding the eccentric director -- or, at least, ofgaining some insight into the inspirations and motivations behind his characters and films. Of course, if you really want insight into the Coens, you might be better off surfing the Net for the insights of fans or their tributes to the filmmakers.

What I discovered were poems better-suited for, well, Howard Stern fans (though not everyone will agree with this assessment): Pages filled with flinging boogers, gross-out bodily functions and a healthy obsession with private parts. In "Limericks," Cohen uses more than 16 different words for various sexual organs. "Something for Everyone" is a rather descriptive ode to bowel movements my own brother would be proud of.

"To a Young Woman, Maimed by a Reaper" tells the unfortunate tale of a woman who loses her leg and fiancee to a farm reaper and demonstrates the typical peculiarity found in most Coen brothers' films. "Agent Elegy" aptly reflects their anti-Hollywood stance:

No More will the Russian Tea Room
Find him hailing every friend,
Holding forth on points, per diem,
Fee, breakeven and back end.  

He will dine no more at Morton's
Nor press flesh while trade is chatted,
For his own flesh would slough off now,
Were hands shaken or backs patted.

Coen earned a degree in philosophy from Princeton University, which makes me believe he is toying with his readers just as he toys with movie audiences. 

In his biting poem about college, "O Yale Man," searing anger and brutal violence contained in this piece are more reminiscent of Patrick Bateman, Bret East Ellis' "American Psycho" leading man, than "No Country for Old Men's" psychotic hit man, Anton Chigurh. "Such Sweet Sorrow" is better suited for that ruthless character.

Coen does reveal a sensitive side in "I Am Born," a sweet longing for the warm, protected life as a fetus versus the cold, harsh existence outside the womb. His advice to aspiring poets is also reflected in two passages. The first, from "The Wise Man":

Commit no verse to printed page,
Unfit for outhouse walls. 

And this, from "If I May":

If you have sensitive thoughts that you want to put in a poem,
Let me tell you something:
Nobody gives a ...

Who said poetry is for sissies?

-- Liesl Bradner

Photo credit: Ethan Coen in 2008; Julie Jacobson / Associated Press

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